In the United States, it’s most common to search for ancestors in civil and public records such as censuses, vital records, deeds, naturalization records, newspapers, and city directories. But sometimes these sources fall short. They may not have been kept for the time period or place you need. Perhaps they didn’t include your relatives or the details about them you need to know. A courthouse disaster may have destroyed records kept there (perhaps several record types kept there).
United States Church Records: A Brick Wall Resource
If you’re hitting a brick wall with your United States ancestors, consider looking for them in church or synagogue records. Many people affiliated with a religious institution, even if they didn’t attend regularly. Churches often recorded the names of members and those who were married or eulogized by the clergy or who participated in church rites. You may find details of a person’s birth and death, names and relationships of relatives, and other important genealogical clues, as in this infant baptismal record.
Church records can also reveal migration details, such as parents’ birthplaces or an immigrant’s overseas hometown. A church’s records would have survived many local courthouse disasters, since these records weren’t kept at courthouses. Churches often documented women, children, ethnic minorities, and poor people, who may appear less frequently in other kinds of records. Sometimes the records reveal unique and meaningful clues about people’s lives and culture. So although church records may not exist for every ancestor, they’re worth looking for, especially if you’ve hit a brick wall or just want to learn everything you can about a fascinating forebear.
Identifying Your Ancestors’ Church
During the colonial era of the United States and even during early nationhood, residents of some places had to worship in specific established churches, such as the Anglican Church in Virginia or the Congregational Church in Massachusetts. In French and Spanish territories, the Catholic Church dominated. Knowing the established churches of your ancestors’ homelands can make it easier to identify the churches they may have attended.
However, since colonial times, the United States has also been relatively tolerant of religious diversity. Your ancestors may have chosen where to attend church based on family traditions, personal beliefs, social pressures, or even practical considerations, such as which church was closest or which minister spoke their language.
You may be able to learn the religious affiliations of recent generations by asking relatives where their parents or grandparents worshipped. Look in genealogical documents you already have for additional clues. A marriage record may identify the officiant as a minister. Obituaries may mention the deceased’s church. Tombstones may have symbols on them that represent a particular faith tradition.
If you’re still not sure, turn to local histories and maps to learn what churches existed near your ancestor’s residence. Local histories may hint as to where certain groups of people generally congregated. Consider whether your ancestors were part of a migratory or ethnic group that has historical loyalties to a particular faith, such as the Presbyterian Church for Scottish ancestors or the Dutch Reformed Church for relatives from the Netherlands.
Locating and Accessing United States Church Records
If you find an ancestral church that still exists, contact it and ask whether old membership records exist and how to request copies, if the church provide that service. Some denominations maintain central or regional archives that house records of individual churches. Church records may also have been sent to university, private, or public archives. (Thousands are listed in the ArchiveGrid catalog.) An increasing number of United States church records are searchable on genealogy websites.
FamilySearch is home to thousands of United States church record collections. Search for these records in the FamilySearch Catalog under Search > Catalog. Search by place with the name of a locale or a county. If a church records category appears in the search results, open the category and review available entries.
Individual items may be available online. For example, the Society of Friends (Quaker) records shown above have been digitized and can be viewed from this catalog entry.
Even if you can’t locate membership records for an ancestor’s church, you may find published histories, photographs, auxiliary records, or all kinds of other documents related to that church. These records may reveal what your family may have experienced as members of a congregation or faith.
It may take time to find and access church records, so be patient. You may want to consult more advanced resources, such as How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records by Sunny Jane Morton and Harold Henderson or items that are specific to individual faiths and places, such as “New England Catholic Church Records” by Jeanne Scaduto Belmonte.
Try it now! Search the FamilySearch Catalog for church records (or other interesting records) from an ancestor’s locale.
Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She’s a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; “Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites,” and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.
Latest posts by Sunny Morton (see all)