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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 ($).
Finding Helpful Background Information
In researching family history using church records, one of the most underused aspects is information gained from published books. We tend to think of church records research largely in terms of manuscript records, their microforms and indexes, but not of what can be gained from books.
The advantage of using these church histories is that if they are in published book form, they will be accessible to you no matter where you are, through the magic of interlibrary loan.
Religious historical materials offer several things. First, we can use them to determine the development of a particular denomination or church in our area of geographical interest, and thus learn which congregational or pastoral records will be of use to us. Secondly, we may locate facts about our relatives in these books, if they played an active part in the history of the church, and these facts may find a place in our family history. Thirdly, religious histories may provide us with background information which will help us understand our ancestors’ situation at any particular time. For example, a history of the Baptist schism of the 1920s in the Convention of Ontario and Québec may help explain why our family members chose to belong to one or the other Baptist church in their town, and also their social attitudes to dancing, makeup or jewelry. Understanding the background to these attitudes will help us understand the people involved.
When reading these materials, we should always keep these three possibilities in mind.
It is safe to say that all of the important nineteenth century denominations in Canada have now been documented in the form of an overall history, save perhaps the Roman Catholics, where an overall history would be impossible and inadequate. Some of these, such as Neil Semple’s history of Methodism in Canada, The Lord’s Dominion (1996), is very large and thorough, perhaps providing more information on the subject than a genealogist might want at first glance. They should not be neglected however.
Use the table of contents and index in these books to find the parts which may give you information you require. Think of this as ‘reading in the book’ rather than ‘reading the book.’ A few pages here and a few paragraphs there may tell you what you need to know.
If you find the story sufficiently interesting, read it all. The bibliographical references (either in the form of a bibliography or of footnotes and endnotes) may lead you on to other resources.
In particular, you will find accounts of the earliest missionaries who established the denomination in an area. There may be maps, or clear descriptions, of the geographical parts covered in their travels. If your ancestors’ home was located in those parts, then you can ask where that missionary’s records have been kept, and if there may be something there to help you.
Most denominations sent missionaries into the newly settled parts of Canada at one time or another, and the zeal of those early evangelists affected how many congregations of that denomination were founded there, and hence how many people adhered to that denomination later. The universality of the United Church of Canada, especially its congregations which were originally Methodist, grew from a conscious effort on the part of English Methodists in the 1820s and 1830s to evangelize in Canada in an effort to found churches there ahead of the Anglican. They were very successful in their aim.
Usually, a denomination starts by having a central office in one place. As the group grows, more divisions are made, with other offices. At each stage, you may wonder where the records are which will refer to the pioneers in a particular township, and you may find that there may be records in three or four different archives, depending on the year concerned.
Let us take an example. For some townships in eastern Ontario, there were Anglicans who first owed allegiance to the Bishop of Québec. Later, they were part of the diocese of Montréal, and then the diocese of Ontario (based in Kingston) and then the diocese of Ottawa, who is still responsible for them. It is possible that there will be references to these townships in the archives of all four dioceses, and researchers may be obliged to look in all four.
Denominational Yearbooks or Annual Reports
Denomination organisations under various names, such as association, synod or diocese, had to hold large meetings from time to time to conduct business and exchange information. This is no different than similar organisations today. Quite often they would publish yearbooks or annual reports of these meetings, which might include discussions of issues and statistics about their activities.
The theological or business issues which were raised may seem very dry and faraway now, unless we have an ancestor who was taking a prominent part in the discussion. The statistics and directories are another matter.
Most yearbooks included a directory of the various congregations in the association, with information about the clergyman, size and finances. In the case of circuits or missions, there will be a list of all the various preaching posts or locations of activity on the circuit. These are very useful for genealogists looking to find which missionary was responsible for the area where their relations lived, and where there was no permanent church as yet.
Once you have found that a certain circuit rider or missionary visited your area, you can then begin to enquire if he left records, and where they are. Knowing the name of the missionary can be a great help as often the records are catalogued including his name.
These printed annuals are easy to use and may be more readily available than manuscript records. Many have been microfilmed by CIHM (Canadian Institute for Historical Microreprography, based in Ottawa) or some other organisation, and the films may be available on interlibrary loan.
The statistical listings may seem less worthy, but you can learn something about your ancestors’ church and its growth from them, and some listings include those valuable accounts of individuals and how much they gave the church in the previous year. It may seem odd that a larger organization would have this information but it is so.
We have referred before to the importance of determining who were the missionaries or circuit riders in an area as a prelude to finding their records. (It is always easier to find these travelers’ records if we know their names first.) This example, from The Baptist Year Book of the Maritime Provinces of Canada 1883 gives an alphabetical list of mission areas, the names of the missionaries and various statistics about the congregations, including a one-phrase summary of the situation there.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.