Church Records Are An Under-Used Resource!
Yes, you read that correctly. I believe church records are a very under-used resource in genealogy research.
I will say right upfront that some church records are difficult, if not almost impossible to access. It is rare to find, say, Roman Catholic church records accessible online, with the exception of burial records in an affiliated cemetery.
Some churches lost their membership, closed the doors and records they kept were probably tossed in the trash over time.
And, yes, like wooden county courthouses, early churches also caught fire. If their records were housed in the church building, they went up in flames, too.
For the many church records that can be easily accessed, there is often no accompanying index, which puts off some researchers.
However, that doesn’t mean that all church records are inaccessible or long gone. Reading page-by-page often provides an in-depth point of view about our ancestors’ religious lives.
In fact, in addition to vital record events such as baptisms, marriages and burials, there are a variety of church records that can provide a researcher with daily life details not available elsewhere.
Here are ten types of information that can be found in various church records:
1. Membership List – A list creates an instant FAN club for a family! Who were their family members, associates and neighbors?
2. Wedding Attendees – Quaker meeting minutes often list the names of all the members who witnessed a marriage
3. Home Address – Even small villages where some of my ancestors lived have house numbers (they are one-road villages) that begin with #1 at the bottom of the hill, continue up the hill to the church location and then continue again down the hill back to the starting point.
4. Mother’s maiden name – By the early 1800s, many baptismal records include the maiden name of the mother.
5. Exact date of birth – Many Catholic baptismal records note both the date of birth and the date of baptism
6. Arrival and departure from a town – Dated membership lists may note the addition of a new family to the congregation or the removal of a family to a new location. Sometimes, the previous and new residences are even included!
7. Family/Neighbor Disagreements – Members such as elders might have had responsibility for mediating disagreements between two or more church members. In fact, the early Puritan church in Massachusetts kept tight control over the lives of its members.
8. Immigrant’s Town of Origin – Many churches, particularly Catholic ones in my experience, often record the European village of origin of immigrant parents when a child is baptized or married. Lutheran churches also recorded previous residences of German and Scandinavian members in their records.
9. Minister’s or Priest’s Observations (Notes) – European churches often noted births out of wedlock and mentioned person/families that left the parish. In the later 1800s, most of the people left for the United States.
10. Job Titles and Social Status – Church records often note details about the lives of its ministers, deacons, elders, etc. and occasionally, in vital records, note citizenship status of those marrying and dying. Slovak church records in the 1800s note citizens, renters and those living in the village on a temporary basis. Other categories include servants, the church cantor and the village miller.
BONUS – History of the Church Itself – Last, but not least, the history of an individual church building can provide social and religious context to your family and the development of a community.
A word of advice from someone who has spent many hours poring through microfilmed and digitized church records. You will be amazed by the amount of information that can be gleaned. Making the extra effort to obtain records directly from churches or reading a hundred pages of un-indexed church history will bring many benefits. I guarantee your time will be well spent.