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Holy Trinity Church (Old Swedes Church). Oldest church building in America.


U.S. Church Records

The United States is a country of religious diversity. Unlike many other countries, there has been no “state church,” except for a few periods in some of the early colonies.

Church records in the United States began in the early 1600s.  Unfortunately, the United States did not require a civil registration or recording of births, marriages, and deaths until into the 20th Century. Sometimes church records are the only records containing birth, marriage and death about individuals. Therefore, they are a valuable substitute when vital records do not exist.

Your ancestor may have changed denominations for reasons of convenience or conviction.  When the family moved to a new community, they may have sarted attending a church located there, or they may have changed denominations by conversion.

For more information see the history of American Churches.

To learn more about the church records and their repositories, click on a state below.

Church Records Types

Each denomination has different records they kept in accordance with their theology.  Some types of church records that can be found are:

  • Christenings/Baptisms
  • Marriages
  • Burials
  • Confirmations
  • Communion
  • Admissions and removals
  • Financial records
  • Sunday School lists
  • Church censuses
  • Church related newsletters

Information found in Church Records

The information kept in a church record by a specific church depended largely on the denomination of the church and the record keeper. Each denomination may have recorded different information.

Church records contain additional information when they recorded church sacraments or ceremonies.  For example, christenings or baptisms often included the birth information of a child, parents of the child, and witnesses or godparents, which were often relatives.  

How to Locate Church Records

Church records are kept at local churches, in church archives, at historical and genealogical societies, and in libraries.  Many church records have been pulbished in books and periodicals.

To locate your ancestor in church records you must know: 

  • Where they lived
  • The denomination

Where they lived: It is necessary to know the town or at least the county your ancestor lived in to locate their church records. This will help you narrow down possible churches your ancestors may have attended.

Determining the Denomination: With the religious freedom in the United States, many different churches have thrived throughout the Country’s history. This may make it difficult to determine the denomination of your ancestor.

Suggestions for determining denomination:

  • Look in home sources for church certificates such as a baptism certificate or a marriage certificate. Also search for funeral notices to see where the funeral took place.
  • Obituaries may mention the church where the funeral took place.
  • Locate the marriage record or certificate for a couple. If they were married by church authority, it will state the name of the clergyman and sometimes the church.
  • Look for the cemetery they were buried in. Some churches have their own cemeteries. If they were buried in a church cemetery, they belonged to the church at one point.
  • The family Bible might reveal which church the family belonged to.
  • County histories may contain information about the local churches in the area.
  • If your ancestor lived in a large city, check the city directory to see what churches were in the neighborhood. Some denominations had congregations by ethnic type (Irish, German, English, African-American).  City directories often list the pastor or priest and you may be able to determine the ethnicity of the congregation. 
  • Contact the local genealogical society or public library for information on churches in the area.
  • 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 concerned about the denomination he or she attended.  Check churches close to your ancestor's home.
  • Your ancestor may have traveled some distance to attend a church in the next town or county, if the denomination was important.
  • If you know your ancestor's country of origin, it can give you a clue as to their religion. Some individuals immigrated to avoid religious persecution, and may have belonged to a church not popular or common in their home country. The following table gives the more prominant churches of a particular country and the first denomination you should research for you ancestor. It also gives the American name of the church, if it changed.
Country of Origin Prominent Church Church in U.S.
Denmark Lutheran Lutheran
Finland Lutheran Lutheran
France Roman Catholic Roman Catholic
Germany Roman Catholic Roman Catholic
Italy Roman Catholic Roman Catholic
Latin Countries Roman Catholic Roman Catholic
Norway Lutheran Lutheran
Poland Roman Catholic Roman Catholic
Scotland Church of Scotland Presbyterian
Sweden Lutheran Lutheran
England Church of England or Anglicans Protestant Episcopal

Obtaining Church Records:

Once you determine the denomination and where your ancestor lived, try the following to locate church records.

From the Church

If you know the church your ancestor attended, contact the current minister to find out what records are still available. Some churches keep their records and provide a way for you to research the records yourself.

If the records can only be viewed at the church, make an appointment with the minister or secretary to examine the records. Remember, the records are the property of the church. There may be instances when the minister or a representive will not allow you to view the records, but will look at a record for you.

From the Church Archives or Denomination Headquarters

When a church closes or the church records are no longer held at the church, the records of their congregation may go the denomination archives, or their church headquarters. Many larger denominations have centralized records and provide a way for the records to be accessed by genealogists. Some denominations still keep their records private and give no access to church records. It is important to contact the church organization to see what is available.

For contact information for each denomination, click here and choose a church from the list.

FamilySearch.org

Many christenings and marriages listed in the records of some churches (such as the Congregational, Dutch Reformed, and Lutheran) have been listed in the International Genealogical Index (IGI). This index is available online at:

Hugh Wallis identifies which baptisms, christenings, and marriages of all religious faiths have been indexed in the International Genealogical Index on his website: IGI Batch Numbers - British Isles and North America.

Genealogical and Historical Societies

Some churches donated their records to local genealogical and historical societies.  Locate a list of genealogical and historical societies in the United States or, list of genealogical and historical societies in the United States.

From College and Public Libraries

Many local universities and public libraries have copies of church records.  Most have websites and list their holdings online.  Locate a list of universities in the United States.  Locate a list of public libraries in the United States. Locate a list of genealogy libraries in the United States.

From Family History Centers

The Family History Library (FHL) has a substantial collection of original church records and transcripts on microfilm for churches in the United States. These include records of many denominations, particularly the Society of Friends (Quaker), Presbyterian, Congregational, Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic churches. 

The library also has an extensive collection of records for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This includes membership records, temple records, and church censuses.

Microfilms of these church records can be loaned to Family History Centers (FHC) located around the world. Locate a Family History Center.

Search the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) available online to see what records are available on microfilm to order into your local Family History Center:

  1. Go to Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) online.
  2. In the  “Place-names Search” of the FHLC, type in the town or city your ancestor lived in. If no church records are found, search the county.
  1. The FHLC will give you a list of possible places that match what you typed. Click on the correct match.
  2. Church records are located under the topic of: Church Records. Click on this topic and you will see a list of all the church records available for this particular place in the FHLC.
  3. Scan the list of church records available and determine if the church is the right denomination and covers the correct time period.
  4. Click on the link for the church record you want to search.
  5. Click in the upper right hand corner button, "View Film Notes."
  6. This screen will tell you the film number for the record you want to search.
  7. With the appropriate microfilm number, you can now order the microfilm from a Family History Center near you.

Why Can't I find the Church Record:

There are many reasons why an individual may not be found in a church record:

  • The family didn't attend a church.
  • The church records were destroyed or lost.
  • The church denomination you ancestor attended did not keep records.
  • The church your ancestor attended closed and the records were transferred to another local church of the same denomination or the denomination's central archives.
  • The minister of your ancestor may have been a circuit rider (itinerate preacher).  Sometimes the presacher'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. To locate the records, find out where the pastor died and contact libraries and societies in the area to see if they have the records.

Sources

For a history of religions in the United States see:

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1972. (FHL book 973 K2ah.)



Ohio Toledo Church Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)


 

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