United States, Church Records, 1600s-the PresentEdit This Page
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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.
For background and history of American churches, see the Church Records section in the United States Research Outline, and E. Kay Kirkham's book, A Survey of American Church Records, 1978.
To learn more about the church records and their repositories in a state, click on a state below to see the "Church Records" section in the Family History Library's research outline.
|Mont||Nebr||Nev||NH||NJ||N Mex||NY||NC||N Dak||Ohio||Okla||Oreg||PA|
|RI||SC||S Dak||Tenn||Tex||Utah||VT||VA||Wash||W VA||Wis||Wyo|
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
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.
For help in identifying the town of residence of your ancestor at a given time, see How To Locate Your Ancestor in the United States.
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.
For records available at the Family History Library, click on Family History Library Catalog In the window to the left. State records will be shown automatically.
To find town records:
- Click on the Town tab.
- Select the town of your ancestor.
If you do not find church records for the town, check for church records for the county by clicking the county tab. 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.
Make photocopies of the pages with 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.
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:
|Amish||Methodist, United Methodist|
|Augustana Evangelical Lutheran||Presbyterian|
|Baptist, Primitive Baptist, Southern Baptist||Reformed Church of America|
|Brethren in Christ||Reformed Episcopal|
|Catholic Apostolic||Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints|
|Christian and Missionary Alliance||Roman Catholic|
|Church of Christ, Scientist||Seventh Day Adventist|
|Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints||Seventh-Day Baptist|
|Church of the Brethren||Shakers|
|Congregational Church||Society of Friends (Quakers)|
|Disciples of Christ||Unitarian|
|Episcopal (Protestant Episcopal)||United Methodist|
|Freewill Baptist||United Society of Believers (Shakers)|
Methodist, United Methodist
Augustana Evangelical Lutheran
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.