Digging into Our Ancestors’ Lives: Finding Social History Records – Part 1, Religion

For the last few months, I have been more and more drawn to investigating the day-to-day lives of my ancestors. Don’t get me wrong – it’s been decades since I was a newbie “collect the names” kind of person. I’ve always wondered about what ancient lives were like.

A turning point this year, I think, was reading Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer. The folkways of four British immigrant groups to colonial America (Puritans, Virginia cavaliers, Quakers and Scots-Irish) were explored and compared to the lives of both those settlers down through our lives. If you are interested in American history and family history, this book is a must read. However, I’m off on a little tangent. Back to the point of this post!

As we look to fill in the details of our ancestors’ lives with vital records, time lines, land transactions and so on, it is very easy to look sight of how they lived their daily lives. And that’s for the people who remained in plain view. As hard as their lives were, they did have leisure time with friends, church activities, education, military lives and some traveled back to Europe.

What about ancestors who dropped out of view, perhaps first thought dead, but who later reappeared out of thin air? Where were they and what were they doing?

Were they restless souls always on the move or were they part of the proverbial black sheep of a family whose disappearance had a more serious tone?

This series is going to highlight underused resources often available with a bit of extra digging needed to locate them. Sometimes, a researcher will be lucky enough to find digitized files online, but, more often, it might be necessary (gasp!) to contact an organization or entity to obtain access to particular records.

This multi-part series will guide you to viewing records through different eyes. Instead of looking for dates, names and places, it is just as important to look at the whole picture – what was happening in the community when your ancestor lived there?

Before we start down this path, it’s important that you realize that examples will be given covering the colonial era up through the 20th century, but not every topic discussed will have links to all decades and/or centuries. I’d have to write a book instead of a blog post!

Today, we’ll look at the first topic – religion – which has been chosen for a specific reason. From the earliest colonial settlers onward, religion was a dominant factor in our ancestors’ lives.

Church records are extant for many, but not all religions. While vital records might be found in them, and those are certainly very important, there are multiple types of records that churches kept that shed light on the culture of the time.

Meeting notes, membership lists, incoming and outgoing members, excommunicated members and women’s groups all contain valuable information. Occasionally, you might find a biography or obituary of  local members.

If you have early Massachusetts family, the Puritans’ version of Protestantism became the Congregational Church. Separation of church and state was nowhere in the Puritans’ goals and the church handled everything from clothing violations to family squabbles.

You’ll want to visit the Congregational Library’s – New England’s Hidden Histories – Colonial-Era Church Records.

Reading the records is a bit of a job because they are images of the original papers, not transcriptions, but here are some of the items to be found:

Admissions and dismissions will tell you exactly when your family arrived in the neighborhood or were dismissed (not excommunicated, just moving away) to a new neighborhood and church.

David Mears isn’t my ancestor, but I wish I could claim him and explain the circumstances that the caused him to be disciplined for – lying!

Lastly, by the mid-1700s, religion in New England was a bit more relaxed and tolerant to the extent that the years 1763 and 1764 brought a religious revival!

Let’s look at Virginia now:

The History of Truro Parish (Church of England in Virginia) by Rev. Philip Slaughter provides insight into church leadership in the mid-1700s. Vestrymen were in charge of various church-related duties. In 1744, it was determined that none of the vestrymen could read or write. They were dismissed and replaced by more able men. This entry tells you that if your ancestor is on this list of twelve men, he was literate, able and esteemed by the community. If you are unsure of a birth year, this also confirms that he was at least of legal age and probably a decade or two older than his 20s.

Moravian Church records in North Carolina are my favorites!

Choir-Houses for Unmarried Adults

Unmarried adults did not remain in their parents’ homes. They lived in choir-houses, separated into male and female groups, and the church kept an eye on all the goings-on!

How did Moravians spend Sundays? Well, it was a long day!

Records of the Moravian Church in North Carolina, multiple volumes, are found on Internet Archive.

Examples of other church denomination records available:

Friendship Baptist Church Records, 1849-1922 (Tennessee) on FamilySearch (viewable in a Family History Center)

Baptist Church Collection at Baylor University, which includes items like Baptist newspapers from the late 1800s in Kentucky, Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists and Southern Baptist Annuals Collection.

Presbyterian Historical Society – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Yes, it is true that many church records refer mainly to men. However, mentions of women, aside from vital records, are certainly not rare. There are examples of women in Puritan New England being admitted as church members BEFORE their husbands! Quaker women had their own meeting groups and kept minutes. Catholic Churches had Mothers’ Clubs, Ladies’ Altar Societies and Ladies’ Guilds. The LDS Church has the Relief Society. Most churches have women’s groups devoted to charitable works. By the late 1800s, churches began publishing anniversary books – with photographs. There are lots of opportunities to find your female family member in church records.

There are many church records, both in digitized book form and as original copy, for many denominations. The FamilySearch catalog is an excellent starting point. As of December 2017, an account is required, but it’s free and easy to sign up if you don’t already have one.

Google is your friend – search for “(your church of interest)” plus “archives online.” Often, records are housed at a university of the same faith, but not always.

If your local church of interest is still active, contact the office directly to ask about church records, meeting minutes, directories and historical books that have been published.

In my personal research, I have found a Tennessee family leaving the area in the 1820s – and they lived in a burned county where there are no land deeds for that time period. I have also found Quaker ancestors chastised, counseled and excommunicated for marrying outside the faith. An obituary detailing an ancestor’s life from birth until death was recorded by the Moravians and Greek Catholic records gave the name of the ancestral town in Europe from where the family emigrated. Virginia vestry records are the only known surviving records for the latest known year an ancestor was still living. Colonial Congregational Church records described an attempt to reconcile a feuding family in Massachusetts. It took some digging to locate (and sometimes read) these records, but it was worth the time and energy. Finding ancestors who held church-related jobs, from minister on down, is a sure indication that they had the respect of their fellow church members.

The bottom line is – start digging into church records available in your ancestors’ neighborhoods.








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.