U.S. Church Records Class Handout

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Guide to church records as a genealogical source for researching ancestors.

Courtesy of Jill Shoemaker, Riverton FamilySearch Library

The Value of United States Church Records[edit | edit source]

Since vital records in most of the United States did not begin until shortly after 1900, the exception being some New England states, church records can be especially useful as a substitute for birth, marriage, and death information, and they add to the historical information about your ancestor.

In many countries, state churches were responsible to keep track of the population and each church reported their vital events to a central church authority. Although there were two or three state churches in America very early for a brief period of time, in 1787 the constitution separated the powers of church and state and each church kept their own variety of records.

Types of Church Records[edit | edit source]

  • A baptism or christening could be either for a child or an adult, depending on the church and would include the name, date, and place of this event. An actual birth date may be included in some cases.
  • A church marriage record gives the name of the bride and groom, the date of marriage, the ages of the couple, and the residence of the couple
  • Burial records include the name of the deceased, the date of burial, place of burial, the age of the deceased and may include the date and place of death, the name of the spouse, or the name of the parents.
  • Church membership records give the name of the person and the date and the place the list was made. They may also give the spouse’s name, the date of admission, and letters of admission or dismissions.

Additional Church Records[edit | edit source]


Membership lists

Letters of transfer

Bar or Bat Mitzvah
Financial records

Sunday School lists

Church censuses
Church related newsletters

Immigration and Churches in the United States[edit | edit source]

Because immigrants from many different countries brought their own churches with them, the United States is a country of religious diversity. See chart beginning on page 4 for different churches brought to the United States from different countries.

Determining the Church your Ancestor Attended[edit | edit source]

  • Learn what family traditions about the church your ancestor’s may have attended. Are there any pictures of your ancestors with a church in the background? Does anyone in the family have a baptism or marriage certificate? Look at your ancestor’s marriage record to see if they were married by a Minister of the Gospel. Does a family Bible exist, giving the church affiliation of your ancestor?
  • Learn the national origin of your ancestor—immigrants usually attended the same church in the new country that they had in the old country.
  • Learn what churches were available in the towns where your ancestor settled. They may have attended the local church because of its proximity, even though they were members of another church. On the other hand, your ancestor may have traveled some distance to attend their preferred church in the next town or county. There is also the possibility that an ancestor may have started out with one church and converted to another church. Look at county histories and city directories for this information.
  • To find county histories and city directories at FamilySearch.org, look at Digitized Books and the FamilySearch Catalog.
    • For county histories at Ancestry.com, click on search, click on the state you are searching, and click on the county you are searching.
    • To find a city directory at Ancestry.com, click on Search, and then click on City & Area Directories under Schools, Directories & Church.
  • Look at cemetery records. If your ancestor was buried in a church cemetery, they would have belonged to that church at some time. Also look for sexton records of the cemetery and funeral home records, if it is possible. Cemetery websites are:
  • Check family histories to see if the church your ancestor attended has already been determined.
    • Search Digital Books and the FamilySearch Catalog at FamilySearch.org.
    • At Ancestry.com click on Card Catalog and type the family name into the keyword box.
    • Also, do a Google search for your family.

Of course, be careful with any information you find to make sure it is accurate and reliable.

Where to Find Church Records[edit | edit source]

  • The Specific Church. Contact the current minister to find out what records are still available. If possible, make an appointment to look at the records. Or ask the minister of the church to make a copy of the record for you. A small donation for their time and effort to help you would probably not be unwelcome. If the church has a website, you may be able to e-mail a message.
  • Church Archives or Central Headquarters: The church records you are seeking may have been sent to the headquarters of the church. Contact that church to see if they allow public access to their records and to see what kinds of records are available. For contact information for each church, go to WIKI > United States Church Records and click on a church from the list.
  • Genealogical and Historical Societies: Local churches may have donated their records or allowed genealogical or historical societies to make a copy of their records. To find a genealogical or historical society in the United States, look at the Wiki page at FamilySearch.org for the state you are searching or look at the FamilySearch Catalog. Also see Cyndi's List - Societies & Groups, and do a Google search for [County, State] Genealogical [or Historical] Society.
  • PERSI: PERSI is the Periodical Source Index and is available at Findmypast and HeritageQuest.com. PERSI is an index to family and local history periodicals from 1847 to the present. Many of these periodicals publish church records.
  • College and Public Libraries: Many local universities and public libraries have copies of church records. Look at the state wiki page at FamilySearch.org. Do a Google search to find their websites and look at their catalogs online.
  • From the International Genealogical Index (IGI): Many church christenings and marriages (such as the Congregational, Dutch Reformed, and Lutheran) have been listed in the International Genealogical Index (IGI). The IGI is available online at www.familysearch.org.
  • FamilySearch Catalog: The Family History Library has a substantial collection of original and published United States church records. Go to FamilySearch.org and click on “Search” then click on “Catalog.” In the “Place-names Search” of the catalog, type in the town where your ancestor lived. If no church records are found, search the county. Click on “Church Records” to see a list of the available church records. Note: For Jewish church records look under Jewish records rather than church records. If the church record you want is in book form, check to see if it has been digitized.

Why Church Records May Not Be Found For an Ancestor[edit | edit source]

If you can’t find your ancestors in a church record it may be because the church records were destroyed or lost, or the church you ancestor attended did not keep records. Another reason may be because the minister of your ancestor may have been a circuit rider, keeping his own personal records, which may never have been turned over to the church. Sometimes a pastor took the records from one church where he served to the next church where he served. To locate these particular records, find out where the pastor died and contact libraries and societies in the area to see if they have the records. And lastly, there may be no church records for your ancestor because they may not have attended a church.

Summary[edit | edit source]

Due to immigrants from many different countries, there is a diversity of churches in the United States, each keeping different kinds of records. There are several types of sources you can search to determine the church your ancestor attended. Church records may be found locally, from genealogical or historical society collections, microfilmed at the Family History Library, or online. The information you find in church records can help you know more about your ancestor and may help extend your family lines.

Additional Resources for Searching United States Church Records[edit | edit source]

A General Historical Chart of Churches Brought to the United States by Immigrants from Other Countries[edit | edit source]

Country of Origin Church in Original Country First Arrived in U.S. Name of Church in U.S.

and Website

Location in U.S. Kinds of Records Kept
Southern Europe: France, Southern Germany, Italy, Spain, Southern Switzerland Catholic Church

Based on the designation of the Apostle Peter by Jesus Christ

1565 (Spain)

1649 (Eng) 1700s (Spain)

Catholic Church Website and

this Website

Florida, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Maryland, Louisiana. Births and christenings, marriages, burials, and deaths.
England Congregational Church (Separatists, Puritans)

Influenced by theology of Robert Browne

1620 The Disciples of Christ, Christian Church, or United Church of Christ Website Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut

(State Church in New England until 1833.)

Baptisms (infants to adults), communicants, dismissions (members moving in and out), notes, marriages, and burials.
England, Scotland, Wales, & Ireland Church of England, Wales, & Ireland & Episcopal Church of Scotland (Anglican)

Separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 under King Henry VIII

1600s-1700s Protestant Episcopal or Episcopal Church Website For a list of congregations, see The Historical Directory of the Reformed Church in America, 1628-2000, edited by Russell L. Gasero, FHL 970 K2ce 1992. Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island Registers of baptisms, confirmations, communicants, marriages, deaths, and funerals, vestry minutes, records of the poor, orphans, and illegitimate children; financial records; and sometimes biographical material.
Netherlands Dutch Reformed Church

Based on teachings of John Calvin

1628 and mid 1800s Reformed Church in America Website New York, New Jersey Baptisms, marriages, lists of members, consistory minutes, financial records, congregational minutes, and others
United States Baptist Church

Established in Rhode Island by Roger Williams. More than 70% of all Baptists are estimated to reside in the United States.

1639 Baptist Church Website and this Website Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma Baptisms (adults), marriages, burials, minutes which are comprised of financial accounts, lists of converts, notations of letters of admission, annual membership lists, and accounts of church business meetings.
England The Society of Friends also called Quakers

Based on the teachings of George Fox

Late 1600s Religious Society of Friends Website

Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College and Magill Historical Library

Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Canada Births, marriages, deaths, certificates of removal, First Day Meetings, Monthly Meetings, Quarterly Meetings, Yearly Meetings.

Abbreviations Acronyms available at the Riverton FamilySearch Library or do a Google search for Quaker Records Abbreviations.

Scotland & Northern Ireland Presbyterian (Church of Scotland & Ireland)

Brought to Scotland by John Knox who studied with John Calvin

1600s & 1700s Presbyterian Church Website Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and Georgia Christenings (infants), marriages, deaths, and burials. Website has a Congregation Vertical Files Index, Biographical Vertical Files Index, & Hall's Index of American Presbyterian Congregations—brief history of each Congregation and a link to their search engine.
Germany, Switzerland Anabaptists: Mennonites, & Amish Churches

Teachings of Menno Simons

1683 (Mennonites)1730s (Amish) Amish and Mennonite Church USA Website Pennsylvania, but later to Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, and Illinois Baptisms (adult), marriages, burials, and the Mennonite Obituary Index.
France Protestant Reformed Church (Huguenots)

Based on the teachings of John Calvin

1685 Huguenot Church Website New York City), northern New Jersey, western Connecticut, Chesterfield and Powhatan County, Virginia; Charleston South Carolina; Manakintown, Virginia, and Bath, North Carolina Baptisms, marriages, and deaths.
Northern Germany, Northern Switzerland Evangelical, German Reformed, and Lutheran Church

Founded by Martin Luther

1700s Lutheran Church Website For historical records, click on “Who We Are” >“History”>“ELCA Archives”> “Genealogy and Microfilm.”" Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Maryland Registers of families, lists of communicants, confirmations, marriages, baptisms, and the dead who were buried publicly.
Bohemia, Moravia, and part of Silesia (Czech Republic) Moravian Church

Based on teachings of Jan Hus

1734 Moravian Church in America Website and this Website Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina Baptisms of infants and adults, marriages, funerals, and membership lists.
Ireland Methodist Church Founded on the teachings of John Wesley 1760 United Methodist Church Website Also go to this Website to learn how to search for Methodist Church Records. Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, North and South Dakota, northern Illinois, and eastern Nebraska Infant baptisms, confirmations, marriages, burials, deaths, and membership records.
Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, & Ukraine Eastern Orthodox Church

Based on the churches the Apostles founded in the Balkans and the Middle East during the first century A.D.

1794 Orthodox Church in America Website Alaska, San Francisco, California, New York City, New York Christenings, marriages, deaths, and confession lists.
Poland, Italy, and Southern Germany Catholic Church

Based on the designation of the Apostle Peter by Jesus Christ

1800s Catholic Church Website and this Website Major cities in the United States Births and christenings, marriages, burials, and deaths.
Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, & Iceland Lutheran Church

Founded by Martin Luther

1800s Lutheran Church Website Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, North and South Dakota, northern Illinois, and eastern Nebraska Registers of families, lists of communicants, confirmations, marriages, baptisms, and the dead who were buried publicly.
Greece Greek Orthodox Church

Based on belief that it is the continuation of the original Church founded by Christ and His apostles

1820s and 1960-1990s Greek Orthodox Church Website New Orleans, New York City metropolitan area, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa, Boston, Baltimore, Houston, Dallas, and Cleveland Births, marriages, and deaths.
United States The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Founded by Joseph Smith in 1830

1830 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Website New York, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, & California Membership Records give births, blessings of children, baptisms, confirmations, marriages, move-ins and move-outs, and deaths.
Ireland Catholic Church

Based on the designation of the Apostle Peter by Jesus Christ

Mid 1800s Catholic Church Website and this Website Boston, New York City, Albany, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Butte, Montana, and San Francisco Births and christenings, marriages, and burials and deaths.
Russia, Austria, Poland, Central & Eastern Europe Judaism

Judaism traces its heritage to the covenant God made with Abraham

Late 1800s to early 1900s Judaism is a religion—not a church—in the FamilySearch Catalog, look under Jewish Records rather than Church Records.

Websites: AJHS and Avotaynu

America’s largest cities Births, marriages, and burials, minute books, account books containing lists of members, congregational histories, and bar and bat mitzvah (coming of age ceremony for boys and girls).
Mexico Catholic Church

Based on the designation of the Apostle Peter by Jesus Christ

Early 1900s Catholic Church Website and this Website Throughout all 50 states, but heaviest concentration in the states bordering Mexico. Births and christenings, marriages, burials, and deaths.
Latin America Catholic Church

Based on the designation of the Apostle Peter by Jesus Christ

1965 Catholic Church Website and

this Website

California, New York, Florida Births and christenings, marriages, burials, and deaths.