United States, Church Records, 1600s-the PresentEdit This Page
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Back to United States Church Records
Church records in the United States began in the early 1600s. Church christening, marriage, and burial records are excellent substitutes for civil birth, marriage, and death information.
Church records are kept at local churches, in church archives, at historical and genealogical societies, and in libraries. Many church records have been published in books and periodicals.
Your ancestor may have changed denominations for reasons of convenience or by conviction. When the family moved into a new community, they may have started attending a church located there, or they may have changed denominations by conversion.
Besides christening, marriage, and burial church records, other records may include communion, admissions and removals, financial records, Sunday School lists, an annual church census, church-related newsletters, and other church publications.
To learn more about the church records and their repositories in a state, click on a state below to see the "Church Records" for the state in the Wiki and website links.
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What You Are Looking For
The information you find in church records varies from record to record. These records may include:
- Christening information
- Marriage information
- Burial information
Search for more guidance in the United States Church Records. Also Use the search box on the right with the country + Church Records.
The following 6 steps will help you locate and use church records.
Step 1. Identify where your ancestor was living at a given time.
Identify the town where your ancestor was living at a given time, such as when he or she was born, was a child, was married, had children, or died. Your ancestor probably attended a church in a town or city where the family lived.
Step 2. Determine which denomination your ancestor attended during that time.
To determine which denomination your ancestor belonged to, consider:
- Family traditions and artifacts.
- Which country your ancestor came from.
- Family histories.
For the relationship between national origin and religious denomination, see Tip 1.
For further suggestions on how to determine which church your ancestor attended, see Tip 2.
Step 3. Find the records of your ancestor's church.
To find town records:
- Enter name.
- Then click search
If you do not find church records for the town, check for church records for the county. You may also need to check for records for the state.
If the records you need are not in the Family History Library Catalog, see Tip 3.
Step 4. Search the church records.
Determine how the church records, which you are looking at, are organized. Church records may be organized by:
- Event and then by date
- Event and then in alphabetical order by surname
Once you determine how the records are organized, search the records for your ancestor.
Step 5. Make a copy of the information you found.
Print the information about your ancestor's family. You will want to refer to these copies again as you gain new information about family members.
Add new information you find on family group record forms and pedigree charts, and include the source.
Step 6. Analyze the information obtained
from the church records.
Analyze the information by asking questions such as these:
- What new information did you find about your ancestors or their in-laws?Notice the names of witnesses and bondsmen, since they were often relatives or close friends.
- Does the information fit with what you already know about the family?Use a Timeline to compare what you already knew about your ancestor with the information you found.
- Did the records mention the church where they formerly lived or moved to?
For more help on comparing new information with what you already knew about your ancestor, see How to Recognize your United States Ancestor.
Tip 1. How can knowing the country of
origin of my ancestor help me decide what church he or she might have attended?
Persons from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and the Latin American countries were often Roman Catholic and usually attended that church. If your ancestors were from one of these countries and were Protestant, sometimes they were very loyal to their denomination. Other times they may have attended the Protestant church closest to their home.
French Huguenots were protestant.
Persons from the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) were generally Lutheran, because the Lutheran church was the state religion in Scandinavia. Immigrants from Scandinavia very likely attended the Lutheran church in the United States.
Scottish ancestors very likely attended the Presbyterian church in the United States. The Church of Scotland was the state church in Scotland. It is known in America as the Presbyterian church.
English ancestors may have attended the Church of England, which is often called the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Also, many ancestors from England belonged to one of the dissenting groups, such as the Quakers.
For additional ideas on determining your ancestor's religion, see "Locating Church Records" by Val D. Greenwood.
Tip 2. How can I determine the
denomination of my ancestor?
Consider the following and relate the information to what you know about your ancestor:
- Some communities only had one church, so most residents would have attended that church.
- Sometimes an ancestor preferred to attend a church close to his or her home and was not so concerned about what denomination he or she attended. Check for churches close to your ancestor's home.
- Sometimes an ancestor was strict about which denomination he or she belonged to and may have traveled some distance to attend church. Check where your ancestor's denomination met.
- Large cities may have had many churches of your ancestor's denomination. Use city directories together with maps, inventories, and directories of churches, to identify which churches of your ancestor's denomination were in your ancestor's neighborhood.
- It may be necessary to look at the records of all the churches near your ancestor's home to locate your ancestor's church records.
- England Non-Conformist Churches gives a list of English Churches and the various names there were know by.
United States Previous Research, Part 1 may give you further suggestions on how to identify the denomination of your ancestor.
For more suggestions on how to find church records, see also Sandra Hargreaves Luebking and Loretto Kathryn Dennis Szucs, The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy (1997 edition), pages 156-158.
Tip 3. How can I find where the church records of my ancestor's church are kept now?
Sometimes, church records were kept in the church and sometimes in the home of the minister. The records may still be at the church, with the present minister, at a local historical or genealogical society, or they may have been deposited in an archive of the denomination.
For guides to denominations, with their addresses and Internet sites, click below on your denomination of interest or check the Religious Organizations website:
The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, compiled by the Library of Congress, lists church records which have been placed at various repositories. (FHL US/CAN Book
016.091 N21 1959-1984 index v. 1 and v. 2)
Periodical Source Index (PERSI), an index to family and local history periodicals from 1847 to the present, lists periodicals which may have published church records. See Where To Find It for a web site which has PERSI.
Tip 4. What if I can't find church records for my ancestor?
Sometimes people changed their church affiliation or may have attended a different church of the same denomination. Check for other churches of the same denomination in the city, or in neighboring towns.
The minister may have been a circuit rider (itinerate preacher). Sometimes the preacher's records are preserved in the denomination's central archives, or he may have left the records with one of the parishes he serviced. Sometimes a pastor took the records to the next church. Find out where he died, and contact libraries and societies in that area.
In some situations, there aren't any church records for your ancestor because:
- The family didn't attend church.
- The records were destroyed or lost.
- The church denomination did not keep records.
Where To Find It
The following Internet sites may help you find church records:
- Ancestry.com has the Periodical Source Index (PERSI), an index to family and local history periodicals from 1847 to the present. Many of these periodicals publish church records.
- CyndisList. Check under "[STATE] - Churches."
- "Locating Church Records" by Val D. Greenwood.
Family History Centers and the Family History Library
Family History Centers
Family History Centers can borrow microfilms of church records from the Family History Library. There is a small fee to have a microfilm sent to a Family History Center. For addresses, see: Family History Centers.
Click on the Family History Library Catalog and you can find degital indexes and records. You can also order films and fiche through local family history centers, or you can visit the main library, the Family History Library, in Salt Lake City.
The Family History Library Catalog is available online, and can be searched by place name, family surname, resource title, author, subject, call number, film number or key word. Click the down arrow at the end of the Search field to select the category of information you wish to search. If you find a film you’d like to view, you can order that film using the on-line film ordering if it is available in your area. For more information, see Ordering Microfilm Online. You may obtain a paper Microfilm Request form at your local Family History Center if on-line ordering is not available in your area.
There is a small fee charged for ordering films and fiche that helps defray the cost of copying and shipping. There is no charge to view films from a center’s “Resident Film Collection.” Some Centers offer access to printers and digital scanners at a per-page cost. Check with a FHC Staff member to ask that Center’s fee schedule.
Microfilms are typically available at the center for 90 days. Films can become “extended” status films and be made available at that center indefinitely. Microfiche become part of a center's permanent collection (not returned). For more specific information about film ordering, ask a staff member at your local Family History Center.
All microfilm and microfiche must be viewed at the Family History Center where they were ordered. They cannot be transferred to another Family History Center facility, or be removed from the center to view at another location.
Addresses of churches, listed by county and then city, are in a book edited by John Gordon Melton called National Directory of Churches, Synagogues, and Other Houses of Worship. The addresses are by region, then state, then city.
Addresses of several major church records archives are listed in:
- United States Church Records.
- Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, eds. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, 1997. See pages 160-170.
- Archives USA. This site lists church records, family papers, and mainly other unpublished collections at archives, libraries, and societies. This is an expensive service which may be available at major college or university libraries. ArchivesUSA indexes the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, known as "NUCMUC." Look under the city where the church was located or under the name of the church. It also indexes the National Inventory of Documentary Sources, called "NIDS."
College and Public Libraries
Many local college and public libraries have copies of church records. For addresses and telephone numbers, see the American Library Directory, available at most public libraries.
State Archives and Libraries
State archives and state and private libraries often have collections of church records. To learn more about major church archives and libraries, see:
- CyndisList. This lists Internet sites for state archives and libraries.
- Bentley, Elizabeth Petty.FHL 552714 The Genealogist's Address Book.
See also the "Church Records" article for a particular state.
Genealogical and Historical Societies
For addresses of many historical societies, libraries, and archives that may have church records, see:
- CyndisList. This leads to web sites for genealogical and historical societies.
- Bentley, Elizabeth Petty. FHL 552714 The Genealogist's Address Book. This book is at many libraries.
- Meyer, Mary K. Meyer's FHL 524506 Directory of Genealogical Societies in the USA and Canada.
- Wheeler, Mary Bray. Directory of Historical Organizations in the United States and Canada.
Genealogical Search Services
Many genealogical search services will search the census for a fee. The following sources can help you find a genealogical search service:
- CyndisList lists many companies and individuals who do research and mentions publications about how to hire a professional genealogist.
- Advertisements in major genealogical journals may help you find a researcher.
For more information, see Hiring a Professional Researcher.