Finding Canada Church Histories (National Institute)
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.
Diocesan, Synod or Convention Histories
Use these histories in the same way as denominational histories. Even more than the denominational histories, the stories of their more local divisions will be helpful in determining the growth of a sect in an area, and the extent of missionary activity there. If the history is very well-written there may be vignettes which will help you understand your relations’ affection for their particular denomination and also provide an anecdote which may be useful in the family history itself. Sometimes a more general story, which may not include a family member, will still illustrate a point about the family’s religious life and so be useful.
Here is an example from Burton K. Janes’ History of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland (1996). The events at Humber Canal Village in 1926 do include the name of one woman, Sarah Ball, but also more general observations about the nature of the services there and peoples’ feelings about them. The vivid and true nature of the writing would help anyone understand a Pentecostal cousin.
The use of these will be obvious. They contain information about the early days of a congregation, and may name the missionaries active in the area before the official founding of the church. The records of those missionaries can then be sought.
After the founding, there will be information about the growth of the church, whether it was managed from a neighbouring parish for a time (look for records there) or linked with other congregations by sharing a clergyman (if he lived in the other place, look for records there).
There will be references to individuals, and these may include your relations.
Most church histories are short and it is a simple matter to skim through them to see if they contain facts, references or stories which will be useful to your family history.
Some church histories also contain excerpts or transcriptions from the registers. If the history is an old one, this may not be recorded on the title page or in the library catalogue record for the book, so check them carefully.
Many churches issued a booklet for a special occasion, such as the dedication of a new building or an anniversary celebration, which contains a great deal of historical background. These booklets tend to be ephemeral and may be rare, but if a more substantial history is not available, they can be used in its place.
Regional Church Histories
These are not common, but they do exist. If the local town or county history neglected church history for some reason, there may be a supplementary volume published later to rectify the situation, as there is for Grey County, Ontario.
Someone may simply have felt moved to attempt short histories of a number of churches. Early History of Saskatchewan Churches (Grass Roots) compiled and edited by Meredith B. Banting (1975) is a good example of this. Banting collected brief histories from clerks or United Church Women officials from around the province, and published the results.
To find these group church histories, look in a library catalogue under the place name for the area with the subdivision ‘Church history’. For example, the book above should appear under ‘Saskatchewan - Church history’.
An interesting example of this kind of work is John Jennings’ Tending the Flock: Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis and Roman Catholics in early 19th century New Brunswick (1998). Plessis was the Bishop of Québec, but he had responsibilities to both Upper Canada and the Maritime colonies which, as Jennings remarks, were regarded as missions. Populations were small and served by traveling priests.
Plessis himself visited these areas on extensive formal trips, which left many records used by Jennings for his book. Here is a glimpse of one settlement, Tracadie, and one family as recorded in Tending the flock:
- ...the tiny rectory was one of the examples of the hardships faced by the missionaries as they sought to serve their extensive territory. The building measured only 10 feet by 12 feet and even with that, a large portion of the interior was taken up by a huge chimney. It was barely capable of housing Plessis and one of his companions. The rest were lodged with a certain Prosper Lozier. The inadequacy of the little house was further illustrated by the account of the bishop’s stay there. He pointed out that on the first day, the floor sagged, on the second day, it broke. Plessis observed that had they spent another day there, they would have been sleeping in the cellar....
- The kindness and concern of the local people was further exemplified by the generosity of Prosper Lozier. Not only did he provide lodging for part of the episcopal party, but also, it appears his home was the place where the whole group was fed.
If your family lived at Tracadie, the quality of their housing was probably similar to (or not as good as) the rectory with the sagging floor. If you have a connection with the Lozier family, this provides an anecdote for your family history, and perhaps a moment’s reflection about what Mme Lozier went through cooking for the bishop and his friends.
This map is also from the Jennings book. The series of maps in the book showing exactly where Plessis went are helpful for those unfamiliar with New Brunswick geography and also tell us which places had significance at that time, when our ancestors may have lived there. Maps and other illustrations such as these can be very useful in understanding the situation and in planning family histories also.
Most local histories include information about churches in the area. More recent histories often have greater detail, while older histories may have little more than a date of founding and names of clergy. The huge local histories usual in the prairie provinces are good sources for information about local churches, because of their attention to detail.
Published Missionary Memoirs or Letters
If you are very lucky, the missionary who served in your area will have written an account of his activities there, or written letters which have since been published.
In the nineteenth century, it was common for missionaries to write memoirs, as so many faithful at home had supported them and were interested in knowing what they did. The authors often concealed individual identities, either by omitting names or using pseudonyms, but look at the books anyway. They will provide interesting background, and sometimes even the pseudonymous characters can be identified.
Books of letters or biographies of missionaries may be of more recent date, and continue to be published. Letters are invaluable because they have the fresh air of daily life about them, and more commonly include frank assessments of the people whom the missionary meets. Be prepared for the occasional unflattering portrait; the good thing about these is that they can go straight into the family history for added colour.
During the afternoon I rode down to call on Mrs. Travers. Her sister had just come out to stay with her, a pretty Irish girl with an old country complexion. What a chance for the bachelors of the town. They all look upon Stocken as having rather a mean advantage from being on the spot. [A Preacher’s Frontier: the Castor, Alberta Letters of Rev. Martin W. Holdom, 1909-1912, 1996]
The young woman in the preceding excerpt could easily be identified by tracing Mrs. Travers, and it is possible that her descendants still live in Castor today. As for anyone related to Stocken, they may not have known about his early romances; perhaps he even married the Irish girl!
- Jennings, John, Tending the Flock: Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis and Roman Catholics in early 19th century New Brunswick (1998) p. 85.
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