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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: Occupational Records  by Beverly Rice, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Church Records

The church records will be for the church members as well as the minister or other church employee.

The first process the researcher must complete when working with church records is to determine to what church the individual was affiliated. Second the researcher will need to determine where the records for that locality and church are currently kept. And then for easy of research whether the records have been microfilmed or indexed, as the example below shows

The Records of the Church of Christ in Buxton, ME, During the Pastorate of Rev. Paul Coffin, D.D., transcribed for Cyrus Woodman: Camdon Maine, Picton Press , 1989.


With the separation of church and state that is adhered to in the United States of America the determination of a person’s religious practices becomes more difficult. The records that genealogist regularly use (government) do not ask questions of religious preference. However, if you look closely the answer will reveal itself in these records.

Marriage license


The person who performed the ceremony is from the Pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church of San Jose, California. Now this could be either the wife’s or husband’s church or just the only available minister in the location of the ceremony. It can be a starting point and research will determine the rest.

Other sources that might have a religious sect stated are: 

  • Obituaries
  • Funeral Notices
  • Death Certificates
  • Hospital Records
  • Marriage Records
  • County History
  • Family Tradition

A problem can occur when families moved into a new area where there was often only one church available for them to attend. This could cause an individual’s religious affiliation to change. Also, in these small frontier communities the records were not kept with the church but with the minister. The records could then move to the minister’s next church or kept among the minister’s family records. A careful search must be made to determine if records exist.

It will also be necessary to know what churches were active in a community. The Social Statistics schedule will list the churches in a specific community for the years 1850-1870. Other sources would be the local newspaper or county/city histories.

A family did not adhere to only one religion their entire life. The introduction of a new religious sect could cause an abrupt change in a religion and possible a migration to a new location.

Examples of religious movements: Ÿ

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) and the followers of Joseph Smith Ÿ
  • Seventh-day Adventist beginning with the preaching of William Miller Ÿ
  • John Wesley and the Methodist Movement

Often the same record that has a listing of members will also have a listing of the Pastor. This document lists the Preacher, Trustees, Class Leaders, Stewards and dates the service was performed.

The records from the M.E. Church, South, Hot Springs, Arkansas, 1874-1889; do not indicate whether the pastor was a paid or not paid position.

ME Church22Z.jpg

Another good source for church records and particularly the listing of pastors are the Church Histories or books that include the words “Annals of …… Church.” The following Baptist Annals of Oregon 1844 to 1900, by Rev. C. H. Mattoon, lists both the Deacons and Ministers. They include detailed sketches of occupation of the Pastor and prominent members of the Baptist Church in Oregon.

Annals of Oregon 1844 to 1900 by Rev. C.H. Mattoon, lists both the Deacons and Ministers.

Utopian Society

This could also include one of the many “Utopian” settlements or societies, such as the Shaker or Harmony Society. Many of these groups were founded on strict religious beliefs and the order often lived in a commune-style environment for the benefit of the group not the individual. Many of these societies kept detailed records of the output of the different industries within the society, often listing the occupation of the different individuals.

A Documentary History of the Indiana Decade of the Harmony Society 1814-1824, Volume II 1820-1824, compiled and edited by Karl J. R. Arndt: Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana Historical Society, 1978: 160-61.


The day to day records for the “Utopian” societies often give a limited view of the “working members”. They are representative of the administrative working of the communal group, which will include many names of their members. A map of the commune might also have survived that shows the names of the individual homes, stores, and other places of work.

If you suspect that the individual you are researching is in one of these utopian societies, then a detailed search of the records could help build an occupation profile of an individual.

As stated previously, the use of church records for the members might not reveal much about a person’s wage earning occupation, however, it can show the volunteer aspect of a person’s “life work”.

In the examples below, Samuel Foss Barker is referred to as a Deacon of the First Congregational Church of Calais, Maine. Now it is not clear by this title that Samuel F. Barker received exactly what he did as a Deacon. Was it really work? The “Maine Cemetery Sexton’s Records[1] , (example: 37) a journal of daily activities between 1843-46, list this man over a dozen times activities ranging from receiving of money for “lamp lighting” or the use of “Mr. Barkers horse in the hearse for Mr. Brockway’s daughter”.

These journal entries also state that Samuel Barker had both a horse, an ox, and that he was selling hay. Information directly related to his occupation in the 1840s as a farmer.

This is a good example where the church records and sexton records directly lead the researcher to information related to Mr. Barker’s occupation as a farmer.

The function of a pastor or minister of a church was also often not a paid position. Although some people thought of themselves as a pastor first and a farmer or blacksmith second, the money to pay the bills and raise a family did not come from the congregation of the church.

Maine Cemetery Sexton’s Journal


The first repository to search is the Family History Library Catalog (FHLC). The search must be very broad, looking at all levels, the “keyword search” or “title search” searches beyond locality.

A “keyword search” for “Methodist Church California” returned 50 items ranging from cemetery records to church records of over 15 California cities. This will direct you to records on file at the FamilySearch Center. This search will need to be completed for other repositories and in specific a manuscript collection search


  1. "Maine Cemetery Sexton's Records" two part, Downeast Ancestry, (June 1979/August 1979): 4-8 (page numbers both issues).


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Occupational 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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.