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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Religious Records - Part 2 by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Religious Groups and Records in the United States - 19th and 20th Centuries
Accessing Religious Records
By learning the religious affiliation and practices of our ancestors, we gain glimpses into their daily lives. We come closer to visualizing them; we gain insight into their life desires and values. Moreover, bits and pieces of life stories surface in the records kept by the religious institutions which claimed their allegiance. Often when we identify a family’s religious connections, we acquire clues to ethnic background, migration patterns, social standing and family relationships.
Before seeking religious records, one ought to thoroughly examine family documents in search of clues as to which religious body/bodies might have records of an ancestor. In particular, one should look for baptismal and confirmation certificates, marriage records and newspaper accounts, obituaries and memorial books. Certainly, we should give attention to similar documents and clippings for siblings, parents, and children in addition to those for the “target” ancestor. We must remember also that our ancestors may have changed religious affiliation during their lifetimes.
Types of Religious Records
In our search for religious records, we can hope to find membership lists, minutes of various organizations, biographical notes on members and pastors, communicant and confirmation lists, births or christenings and baptisms, marriage records, and funeral notes. Rarely, however, will one find all these types of records within the local or regional archives of a particular religious body; there is little uniformity.
Locating Religious Records
To locate religious records is a rewarding but challenging task. Central archival holdings are primarily historical and doctrinal. Usually the local church, synagogue, temple, school, etc. is the best source for the kinds of records we seek as genealogists.
It is fortunate that so many of the groups from which we seek information have excellent web sites. Invariably they are far more current and easier to access than the books we could list in an extensive bibliography. Choose from the provided lists of web sites those which have particular bearing on your interests. Then look not only at the page cited but those linked to it. You can acquire an incredible amount of information and insight by following this procedure. Frequently, these sites provide directories to those community-based churches or other centers of worship and education which may have the records you seek.
Two web sites have been prepared by the author of this material, providing links to pages that focus on the history, headquarters, archives etc. of religious bodies in America:
Microfilmed records from many locations and for a wide variety of religious groups are listed in the online catalog on the FamilySearch website and can be ordered for a minimal rental fee at any local LDS FamilySearch Center and increasingly at a number of public libraries.
These films are held for a month for convenient viewing at that same location. Use the online catalog:
- Next, select “Place Search.” The is the quickest way to determine what records have been filmed for a location of interest.
- Once you are on the page for that particular location, scroll down to “Church Records” and study what is available for the geographical area selected.
- Proceed to Film Notes and make a printout or copy the titles, film numbers, and/or other pertinent information to take to a local FamilySearch Center to check on availability and to order the films.
Also online at FamilySearch or available at the FamilySearch Centers is the International Genealogical Index, much of its information coming from church records.
Family researchers should make use of the PERSI index, available at libraries in printed form. The PERSI resource is also available on CD Rom and as a subscription database from Ancestry.com. PERSI is the shorthand version for Periodical Search Index which was developed by the Allen County Library in Fort Wayne, Indian. PERSI is a comprehensive subject index covering genealogy and local history periodicals written in English and French (Canada) since 1800. There will be many articles referencing church records. Remember that if you can’t locate the periodical listed in the index, you can acquire a photocopy of it from the Allen County Library for a small fee.
National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections
The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) is available at many libraries. That’s where you can get a lead to the personal records kept by ministers or other church officials. Remember that ministers and evangelists kept members’ vital records in personal journals and diaries, and those records usually went with the minister.
Don’t overlook private and state and county historical societies as a potential source of the records you need. Likewise, check with university libraries, state and regional archives, and genealogical libraries. Denominational colleges are a rich source of religious records for affiliated groups. At any of these locations you might find collections of manuscripts or journals, clipping files, microfilmed records as well as books and other printed materials. Even the local city library is likely to have a section of reference material of local interest. Look for county histories, anniversary/centennial publications, church histories, published family histories, etc. Compare what you can find in your own family records with what you learn about the presence of religious institutions in the community. View newspaper microfilm in the locale as another means of identifying the religious affiliation of an ancestor.
Variations in Records
Recognize that not all religious groups maintain the same set of records. A prerequisite to knowing what kind of records might be available is to know something of the history, beliefs, and practices of a particular religious body. Usually, their records are for purposes other than genealogical, but pieces of desired information may be included. Second, one needs to learn the local setting to be able to compare ancestral data with a religious group’s presence in a specific geographical area during the same time period. Third, pay attention to clues to the ethnic origins of your ancestors, recognizing that religious heritage and culture usually accompanied immigrants.
During the 19th century and into the early 20th century, large groups of immigrants arrived on American shores. These immigrants brought their religions and ethnic traditions with them and usually settled among those with similar backgrounds. There were times, however, when our ancestors simply joined or attended whatever church was nearest to them.
County history books, family memorabilia, Bible records, biographical manuscripts, newspaper accounts, obituaries, cemetery and funeral home records, legal documents, diaries, letters, family histories and charts—these are but a few of the sources that may point the way to the appropriate religious body where records might be obtained.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses US: Religious Records - Part 2 offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.