Exploring Church Records

This year started off with me finally finding my spiritual home – a new church and a new religion. (Don’t worry, this post isn’t about my religious beliefs, promise).

But this got me wondering about what role church played in my ancestors’ life. Church records can contain a wealth of knowledge. Church records, especially in colonial America, are vital to tracking your ancestors. Church records provide information about births, baptisms and christenings, marriages, deaths and funerals – but they also can provide information about new membership or about someone leaving the church because they are migrating. These can document a person from birth all the way to the person’s funeral.

In some areas and time periods, churches were the center of communities. Churches provided spiritual homes and guidance, social activities like picnics and dances, and sometimes even provided services like loans to immigrants just arriving in the U.S or helped pay for food and housing.

For example, my Doerflinger line from Germany are Catholics. It is rumored (although unproven) that my great-great grandfather, Adolph Doerflinger, settled in St. Louis and found a boarding home to stay in after meeting the boarding house owner at church. It also rumored that he was able to find steady work because people from church would give him jobs. He eventually began running a boarding house – and it all (supposedly) started because of the connections he earned at church.

The first step to finding church records is to identify 1.) what religion and/or denomination your ancestor was 2.) where those records are now.

Based on where your ancestors lived and what time period they lived there, you can generally make a guess as to which denomination your ancestor was. For example, during the American colonial period in New England, the Congregational Church dominated. You can generally find this information by reading county histories or from some good Google searches.

Finding where the records are now can be a lot more tricky. Churches that were once around may not still be around – and if they are still around, the site may have changed. Records may be lost or destroyed or were just simply not cared for. In some parts of New England, the baptisms and marriage records were the property of the minister or reverend who conducted the event – therefore, if the minister or reverend left the church to migrate away, the records could be anywhere.

But if it is so complicated, then where should you begin your search?

  1. Your home and the home of your family members. After my mom passed away, my aunt and cousin came to California to visit.  Since my mom and I have stuff stored up there from when we moved back to California (we had every intention of getting the stuff eventually – but we never actually did).  My aunt and cousin brought a few things from storage to me – one of which was a green metal box that was duct taped shut.  I couldn’t help but think ‘What in the world could be in this box that is important enough to keep but not important enough to see for 10 years?”.  Once I opened it, I realized I was opening a treasure chest.  I found my grandparents’ baptism records and marriage records, and papers from when my mom settled my grandparents’ estate.   It was a wonderful look into the lives of my ancestors.  And I couldn’t believe my mom had NEVER mentioned these papers to me before.
  2. LDS Microfilm. There is no doubt that the LDS church has collected massive amounts of genealogical information and documents from around the world.  You can search for the available microfilm at FamilySearch and you can order them to your local Family History Center.  Keep in mind that not everything is on microfilm.
  3. Ask local genealogy and historical societies where the records might be. Local genealogy and historical societies will generally be able to point you in the right direction of where to find the records.
What kinds of church records have you found in your genealogy?  Have you discovered anything interesting in those records?
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3 responses to “Exploring Church Records

  1. Hi Elyse,

    When a catholic church closes, that parish is usually instructed to send some of its registers to another nearby parish and the earlier registers to the archives of the diocese or archdiocese. For Catholics, it is rather easy to know where the registers can be found simply by inquiring. At times that information is posted on the diocesan web site.

    I thought this information might interest you.


  2. I am now a firm believer (pun intended) in the information found in church records. A large group of my German relatives from Russia settled in Manitoba, Canada, and all attended the same Lutheran church. I contacted the church up there, and for a modest fee was given copies of over 50 church records relating to my family – confirmations, burials, marriages, and some I don’t even know what they are yet (they’re all handwritten and in German). But one thing I have found from them – my great-grandmother (who had moved to Anaconda, Montana) came back to Canada participate in weddings and other family church events. Also, there are far more church records for the women than the men, which I find interesting. Those church records have added a new depth to my perception of this whole family line.
    Brandt´s last blog post ..Family coincidences

  3. I’ve been recently using the local Milwaukee church records at the local FHL, and it’s opened up a lot more avenues of research and also helped me solidify some information. Churches usually kept such detailed records.

    I ordered some microfilm of church records from my family’s original location in Poland (hopefully.) Here’s to finding some more detailed records.

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