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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 Canadian: Religious Records by Brenda Dougall Merriman, CG, CGL. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Most churches maintained some sort of membership listing, if for no other reason than to keep track of the size of the congregation. This list also determined who was eligible to vote at congregational meetings, or who might participate in certain sacraments. Membership records take different forms: a straightforward list, a contributors list, a communion register.
The communion register is particularly useful, because it states exactly who was present at a eucharistic event on a specific date in the church. If your ancestor is listed, you can be sure he was in the area on that date. If one of the questions you have been asking concerns when your family arrived in the town, the communion register can assist you in narrowing the gap. In the era before the formal organization of a Lutheran church in Berlin, Ontario, occasional eucharistic services were held by a traveling missionary in a local barn. The town clerk kept track of the attendance, and the resulting communion lists are the earliest church records in the area, invaluable for dating the arrival of the first Lutherans in the county.
The other side of that coin lies in trying to determine when a family left an area, and here again membership records can help. It could be that the family prepared for their departure by notifying the church authorities and asking for a document which would attest to their membership in good standing, which they would present to the clergy in their next place of residence. They might also make their move, establish themselves in a church community and then write for the letter transferring their membership. This would ensure that they would be accepted into the new church and allowed the privileges of communion and other sacraments, a matter of some considerable concern at a time when, for example, some clergy would not marry a couple in church unless they had assurances of their good character.
Virtually all denominations had some version of this document, which recorded the arrival and departure of someone in the congregation. The Quakers called them certificates of removal; the Episcopalians in the US, letters of transfer; the Baptists, letters of admission; the Congregationalists, dismission; the Mormons, certificates of memberships. If your ancestor left that particular church under a cloud, there might even be a record of excommunication; while this is not pleasant to find, it will provide a little colour for the family history. As with so many church records, the details for all of these removal documents are often incomplete, but you should still look at them for possible information on your family. One very significant use of these membership lists, which most genealogists ignore, is that they can be clues to where people went. Sometimes they are the only clue. Arrivals may say where their previous membership was held. In the section of the document which lists people who have departed, the name or place of the church may be given. If you have lost someone, looking at their church’s membership lists may provide you with the place of disappearance!
This example from Grand View Presbyterian Church in Manitoba provides a great deal of information. Mary Blakley (in the middle of the page, stroked out) has the following notations by her name: ‘left’, number 29, not got certif., C, for certificate, at communion on 3/04, gone to Roblin, got certificate. From this we can learn that Mary was number 29 on the membership roll of the church and was admitted by certificate from her previous church. She was present at communion in March of 1904, but later moved to Roblin. She obtained a certificate for transferring her membership to a church there.
There are two other Blakleys on the list, right above Mary. Robert Blakley, a caretaker, came to membership by profession, meaning he had been a member of a church elsewhere, or could not prove it anyway. There is no more information about him; he was not at communion in March or October 1904 or June 1905, when others on that page are noted. Rachel Blakley also came to Grand View church by certificate, and was present at communion in March and October of 1904. This may indicate that while Mary left for Roblin during that year, Rachel stayed behind. She was not at communion in June of 1905, however. There is no notation about her departure save the single word ‘left’.
The hard facts which we have learned from this is that the family were present in 1904 in Grand View, all three of them for at least part of the time, and Mary moved to Roblin. Since she obtained a certificate, it would be worthwhile searching church records in Roblin to find her.
The listing under the Blakleys is for Mr. and Mrs. Albert Kydd. Mr. Kydd is a student who made his first communion on 6 March 1904 after a profession of faith. Mrs. Kydd is listed as ‘to Winnipeg, not got certificate’ as is the person next after her, Mrs. William Rawson. The handwriting and writing instrument (a pencil) are the same, which may be evidence that Mrs. Kydd and Mrs. Rawson are linked in some way. Since they did not obtain a certificate for transferring to a new church, it may be difficult to find them, and of course Winnipeg is a large city with many churches.
These seemingly bare and uninformative pages in fact contain a great deal of information if they are studied and interpreted properly.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Religious Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at email@example.com
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.