Church of the Brethren in the United States

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History in the United States[edit | edit source]

The first Brethren church built in America,
in Germantown near Philadelphia
  • The Church of the Brethren is a Christian denomination with origins in the Schwarzenau Brethren (German: Schwarzenauer Neutäufer "Schwarzenau New Baptists") that was organized in 1708 by Alexander Mack in Schwarzenau, Germany, as a melding of the Radical Pietist and Anabaptist movements.
  • The first Brethren congregation was established on Christmas Day 1723 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, then a village outside Philadelphia.
  • These church bodies became commonly known as "Dunkards" or "Dunkers", and more formally as German Baptist Brethren.
  • The Church of the Brethren represents the largest denomination descended from the Schwarzenau Brethren, and adopted this name in 1908. The denomination had 122,810 members as of June 2012 and 1,047 congregations in the United States and Puerto Rico as of August 2010.
  • Other than Pennsylvania, the states with the highest membership rates are Virginia, Indiana, Maryland, and West Virginia. Source: Wikipedia

Finding Records[edit | edit source]

Look for online records.[edit | edit source]

Some records have been digitized and posted online, where they are easily searched. More are being added all the time. Partner websites such as, FindMyPast, MyHeritage, and American Ancestors can be searched free-of-charge at any Family History Center.

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Online databases are incomplete. This can lead to two common errors:

  1. Near matches: Researchers might mistakenly accept an entry very similar to their ancestor, thinking it is the only one available "so it must be mine". Only use information that matches your ancestor in date, place, other relationships, and details.
  2. Stopping research: Researchers might assume the database proves church records do not exist. Actually the record is still out there, just not in this incomplete collection of records. Keep searching!

Look for digital copies of church records listed in the FamilySearch Catalog.[edit | edit source]

Family History Library
Salt Lake City, Utah
  • There are some entries of Church of the Brethren church records listed in the FamilySearch Catalog:
  • Online church records can be listed in the FamilySearch Catalog state-wide, county-wide, or for a town.
  • If you find a record that has not yet been digitized, see How do I request that a microfilm be digitized?
  • Some records might have viewing restrictions, and can only be viewed at a Family History Center near you, and/or by members of supporting organizations.

  • To find records statewide records:
a. Enter your state name in the "Place" search field of FamilySearch Catalog. You will see a list of topics and, at the top, the phrase "Places within United States, [STATE]".
b. Click on "Church records" in the topic list. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.
  • To find county-wide records:
c. From the original page, click on Places within United States, [STATE] and a list of counties will appear.
d. Click on your county.
e. Click on the "Church records" topic. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.
  • To find town records:
f. From the list of counties, click on Places within United States, [STATE], [COUNTY] and a list of towns will appear.
g. Click on your town if it appears, or the location which you believe was the parish which served your town or village.
h. Click on the "Church records" topic. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.
i. Some combination of these icons will appear at the far right of the listing for the record. FHL icons.png. The magnifying glass indicates that the record is indexed. Clicking on the magnifying glass will take you to the index. Clicking on the camera will take you to an online digital copy of the records.

Correspond with or visit the actual churches.[edit | edit source]

Some records are still held in the local churches. Contact the current minister to find out what records are still available.

  • Make an appointment to look at the records. Or ask the minister of the church to make a copy of the record for you.
  • To find church staff available, you might have to visit on Sunday.
  • Ask for small searches at a time, such as one birth record or a specific marriage. Never ask for "everything on a family or surname".
  • A donation ($25-$40) for their time and effort to help you would be appropriate.
  • If the church has a website, you may be able to e-mail a message.
  • See the Letter Writing Guide for Genealogy for help with composing letters.


Check the church records collections in archives and libraries.[edit | edit source]

Brethren Historical Library and Archives
1451 Dundee Avenue
Elgin, IL 60120
Phone: 847-742-5100 Ext. 294
Fax: 847-742-6103 (Be sure to include Brethren Historical Library and Archives on the fax)

Brethren Heritage Center
Brookside Plaza
428 Wolf Creek Street, Suite H
Brookville, Ohio 45309-1297

E-mail: Telephone: 937-833-5222

  • Website Emphasis on Schwarzenau Brethren, Old Order churches, and Ohiuo state.

"The Brethren Heritage Center (BHC) has an extensive research library as well as an in-house and online bookstore. Visitors are welcome to use our large conference table and comfortable chairs to do their historical and genealogical research. Assistance in finding materials is always available."

Correspond with genealogical or historical societies.[edit | edit source]

Some church records have been given to historical societies. Also, historical societies may be able to tell you where the records are being held.

Information in the Records[edit | edit source]

Baptismal Records[edit | edit source]

The Brethren practice adult baptism, therefore there are no records of baptisms of infants. After an adult was baptized, his or her name was added to the church membership list.

Church Membership Lists[edit | edit source]

Although many early church membership lists have been lost, most of those which have survived have been printed in Brethren church history books. Some of these lists are available online at the History and Genealogy: Church Records. More recent membership lists are in the local churches. Use The Brethren Encyclopedia to find the names of churches. See a list of currently Active Congregations with web pages at the History and Genealogy site. Write to the Brethren Historical Library and Archives at Elgin, Illinois, to ask the location of historical records. Check the card catalogs of Brethren College libraries and of area city and county libraries for history books about the congregation which may have printed membership lists.

Church Minutes, District Minutes, and Annual Meeting Minutes[edit | edit source]

Business meetings of a church and of the quarterly and district meetings were recorded in minutes. These unpublished and unindexed records are in manuscript form and usually at the local church. If the church has ceased to exist, the minutes may be at the Brethren Historical Library and Archives at Elgin, Illinois, or at a nearby Brethren college library. Annual Meeting Minutes are published each year and are available at local churches, Brethren college libraries, at the Brethren Historical Library and Archives, and are available for sale. Brethren Press reprints historical annual minutes for the earliest years.

Brethren Cemetery Records[edit | edit source]

The earliest Brethren congregations used public cemeteries. On the frontier, Brethren families had small graveyards on their farms. More recently, cemeteries were located next to meetinghouses, some of which still exist as cemeteries although the church is no longer active. Letters to the various agencies which may have current responsibility for the care of old cemeteries will be necessary. Write to local churches, county cemetery boards, historical societies, local libraries, the Brethren Historical Library and Archives at Elgin, Illinois, and Brethren college libraries in the area. A current project of the Fellowship of Brethren Genealogists is to gather and index records of Brethren Cemeteries.

Brethren Church Histories[edit | edit source]

Since 1900, the publication of district and congregational histories has been encouraged. Look for a history of your family's church in the online card catalogs of Brethren College libraries, in the chapter "Bibliography of the Brethren" in volume three of The Brethren Encyclopedia, and in the online COB-Net Brethren Bibliography under "Local History." After finding a title, write to the Brethren Historical Library.

Carefully compare any record you find to known facts about the ancestor[edit | edit source]

You will possibly find many different people with the same name as your ancestor, especially when a family stayed in a locality for several generations, and several children were named after the grandparents or aunts and uncles. Be prepared to find the correct church records by gathering in advance as many of these exact details about the ancestor as possible:

  • name, including middle name and maiden name
  • names of all spouses, including middle and maiden name
  • exact or closely estimated dates of birth, marriage, and death
  • names and approximate birthdates of children
  • all known places of residence
  • occupations
  • military service details

Dark thin font green pin Version 4.pngCarefully evaluate the church records you find to make sure you have really found records for your ancestor and not just a "near match". If one or more of the details do not line up, be careful about accepting the entry as your ancestor. There are guiding principles for deciding how to resolve discrepancies between records that are seemingly close. For more instruction in evaluating evidence, read the Wiki article, Evaluate the Evidence.