Clues to solve the first problem might come from many sources. Perhaps
the family's present affiliation can help you, or the national origin
of the family, or family tradition. You might find your answer in a
will or a deed or on a tombstone. It may be in an obituary. Or there
may be a clue in the locality where your ancestor resided it
may have been the settlement of a particular religious denomination
but you must know the locality's history to determine this. (A
person may have belonged to several churches during his lifetime. This
was quite common on the frontier, because if a town had only one church,
that was usually where the town's residents [especially the Protestants]
went to worship, regardless of former affiliation.) In later years obituaries,
death certificates, hospital records, etc., contain statements of religious
The second problem may be the more difficult of the two. There
are some helps and reference tools to assist in locating church
records, but even these are quite incomplete and may be misleading
if we are not aware of their limitations. There is, in fact, no
complete guide to American church records. This is an area which
lies wide open to further study. The personnel at the LDS Family
History Library have done some studies on the location of church
records, but they have a long way to go before the true objective
is, in fact, no complete guide to American church
Some useful studies were made in the 1930s and early 1940s as part
of the Historical Records Survey under the auspices of the Works Projects
Administration (WPA) of the "New Deal." The "Inventories
of Church Archives" which resulted from these studies were excellent
for the geographic areas and the churches they covered at the time they
were made, but much of the information in them is now outdated. Many
of the records have since been moved and many which were in private
hands are now completely untraceable.(4)
We must not assume that church records do not exist just because we
have been unable to find them; on the other hand, it would be foolish
to say that no church records have ever been lost or destroyed, because
many of these records are no longer in existence. The vestry minutes
of the Immanuel Church in Hanover County, Virginia, of which I gave
an example earlier, show this quite clearly. The biographical sketch
(obituary) of George Washington Bassett tells some of the history of
the Immanuel Church:
In the year 1843, soon after his removal, to his estate in
Hanover, Mr. Bassett became much concerned at the prostrate condition
of the Church in his neighborhood, and the adjoining counties of King
William and New Kent. The parishes had died out and been without
rectors or church services for more than half a century. [Emphasis
Was this common? What of records during this "more than half a century"?
What about records of the earlier period before the church "died
out"? All of these questions should be considered in a study of American
church records. The same thing may have happened in hundreds of other
churches. What does happen to the records when a church becomes defunct?
It has been suggested by some that many records of the English Church
met their doom during the Revolutionary War as part of an action of reprisal
against the British, but I am unaware of any specific situations of this
If you can find early American church records they are peerless as a source
of genealogical evidence, so let's consider some steps you might take:
- First consider that the records are still in the custody of the
church where they were kept, if that church still exists.
- An advertisement in a local newspaper will often lead to the whereabouts
of available records, especially those in private hands.
- Don't be afraid to ask questions of ministers, chambers of
commerce, old-timers; anyone who might know.
- The records of many churches have been published, especially in
genealogical and historical periodicals, and are thus available. These
are generally not too accessible either from the standpoint of finding
the proper magazine or of knowing that an article of value is within
it. One of the best approaches is to use the various periodical indexes
listed in Chapter 6 [of The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy].
A few church records are also published in book form (both alone and
in conjunction with other records) and you should be aware of this
possibility. Look under the locality of interest in your library catalog.
I mentioned Hinshaw's work on the Quakers earlier in this chapter.(5)
These seven volumes (in eight) contain abstracts of Monthly Meeting
records, are indexed, and are quite useful as far as they go; but
they certainly do not cover all Quaker records. They are, however,
a representative example of published American church records.
In using published church records, as with all published sources,
remember that they present secondary evidence and frequently contain
- Many church records are now being microfilmed by the churches themselves
and by other agencies. Historical societies often preserve microfilm
copies as well as originals, and copies are frequently available for
sale or for reading. The LDS Family History Library has microfilmed
the records of many churches throughout the U.S. and you may find
it worthwhile to check its holdings before making a lot of other searches.
- Libraries and historical societies have collected many church records
(especially in their local areas) and these are readily available
for searching. One of the big problems is to determine just who has
the records. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections
can be useful in that effort.(6)
With no indication of specific congregations or of the actual extent of
the records, I offer the following as a partial list of church record
depositories in states east of the Mississippi. Further information on
the exact nature of the various collections and the addresses of these
depositories must be determined from other sources.
- Samford University, Birmingham Baptist (Georgia and Alabama).
- Department of Archives and History, Montgomery Methodist,
Baptist, P.E., Presbyterian, Roman Catholic.
- Hendrix College, Conway Methodist.
- Bristol Public Library, Bristol Congregational (local).
- Farmington Museum, Farmington Congregational (local).
- Archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, Hartford
- Connecticut State Library, Hartford various (more than 700
- The Missionary Society of Connecticut, Hartford Congregational.
- Peck Memorial Library, Kensington Congregational (local).
- Wesleyan University Library, Middletown Methodist.
- Delaware Public Archives Commission, Dover various.
- University of Delaware Library, Newark Presbyterian, Baptist.
- Historical Society of Delaware, Wilmington various.
- American Catholic Historical Association, Catholic University of
America Roman Catholic.
- Emory University Library, Atlanta Methodist.
- McCormick Theological Seminary Library, Chicago Presbyterian
(including records formerly at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati,
- Garrett Biblical Institute Library, Evanston Methodist.
- Knox College Library, Galesburg Presbyterian, Congregational.
- Church of the Brethren Historical Library, Elgin Brethren
- Bethany Theological Seminary, Oak Brook Brethren (Dunkers).
- Lutheran Church in America, Chicago Lutheran.
- Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago Congregational.
- Franklin College Library, Franklin Baptist.
- Archives of the Mennonite Church, Goshen Mennonite and Amish
- Archives of DePauw University and Indiana Methodism, Greencastle
- Henry County Historical Society Museum, New Castle Quaker
- New Harmony Workingmen's Institute Library, New Harmony Methodist
- Earlham College Library, Richmond Quaker.
- Old Catholic Library, Vincennes Roman Catholic.
- College of the Bible Library, Lexington Disciples of Christ.
- Margaret I. King Library, U. of Kentucky, Lexington mainly Baptist
and Presbyterian, but also Disciples of Christ and Shaker.
- Filson Club, Louisville Shaker (Mercer County).
- Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Library, Louisville
- Parson Memorial Library, Alfred Baptist, Congregational, Methodist
- Androscoggin Historical Society, Auburn Baptist (Lewiston).
- Bangor Public Library, Bangor various (limited).
- Hubbard Free Library, Hallowell Congregational, Unitarian.
- Louis T. Graves Memorial Library, Kennebunkport ? (local).
- University of Maine Library, Orono Baptist (in Polermo).
- Maine Historical Society, Portland various (scattered).
- Colby College Library, Waterville local country churches.
- Hall of Records, Annapolis various (more than 400 volumes).
- Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Baltimore Roman Catholic.
- Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends (Hicksite), Baltimore Quaker.
- Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends (Orthodox), Baltimore Quaker
- Maryland Diocesan Library, Baltimore P.E. (extensive).
- Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore P.E. (local).
- Methodist Historical Society, Baltimore Methodist.
- Amesbury Public Library, Amesbury Congregational (local).
- Amherst College Library, Amherst ? (local).
- Barre Town Library, Barre ? (local).
- Beverly Historical Society, Beverly Congregational (local).
- Congregational Library, Boston Congregational (extensive).
- Massachusetts Diocesan Library, Boston P.E.
- New England Methodist Historical Library, Boston Methodist (very
- Dedham Historical Society, Dedham Congregational, P.E. (local).
- Haverhill Public Library, Haverhill various (nearly 200 volumes).
- Ipswich Town Hall, Ipswich ? (local).
- Marlborough Public Library, Marlborough ? (local).
- Universalist Historical Library, Crane Theological School, Tufts
University, Medford Universalist.
- Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket Quaker (local).
- Friends Meeting House, New Bedford Quaker.
- Andover Newton Theological School Library, Newton Center Baptist.
(Has collections formerly in New England Baptist Library.)
- Forbes Library, Northampton Congregational.
- Northborough Historical Society, Northborough ? (local).
- Peabody Historical Society, Peabody Congregational, Unitarian,
Baptist (all local).
- Petersham Historical Society, Petersham Church of Christ (local).
- Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield Shaker and (mainly) Quaker.
- Essex Institute, Salem various.
- Shrewsbury Historical Society, Shrewsbury ? (local).
- Goodnow Public Library, South Sudbury ? (local).
- Historical Room, Stockbridge Library, Stockbridge Congregational
- Old Colony Historical Society, Taunton Congregational, Baptist.
- Narragansett Historical Society of Templeton, Templeton ? (local).
- Westborough Historical Society, Westborough ? (local).
- J. V. Fletcher Library, Westford ? (local).
- Winthrop Public Library, Winthrop Methodist (local).
- Worcester Historical Society, Worcester Congregational, Baptist,
- Woburn Public Library, Woburn Congregational (Woburn and Burlington).
- Michigan Historical Collections, U. of Michigan, Ann Arbor Presbyterian,
Baptist, Congregational, Methodist et al.
- Archdiocese of Detroit Chancery, Detroit Roman Catholic.
- Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, Detroit
Roman Catholic and various Protestant (extensive).
- Flushing Township Public Library, Flushing ? (local).
- Thompson Home Library, Ithaca Congregational (local).
- Jackson City Library, Jackson ? (Jackson County).
- Kalamazoo College Library, Kalamazoo Baptist et al.
- Port Huron Public Library, Port Huron ? (local).
- Hope College, Van Zoeren Library, Holland Dutch Reformed.
- Pope County Historical Society, Glenwood ? (local).
- Blue Earth County Historical Society, Mankato ? (local).
- Hennepin County Historical Society, Minneapolis various.
- Historical Society of the Minnesota Conference of the Methodist
Church, Minnesota Methodist Headquarters, Minneapolis Methodist
- Evangelical Lutheran Church Archives. Luther Theological Seminary,
St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran.
- Historical Committee of the Baptist General Conference, Bethel Theological
Seminary, St. Paul Baptist (extensive).
- Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul P.E. (extensive for state).
- Weyerhauser Library, Macalester College, St. Paul Presbyterian.
- Gustavus Adolphus College Library, St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran.
- Mississippi Conference Methodist Historical Society, Millsaps College
Library, Jackson Methodist.
- Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson Southern
- New Hampshire State Library, Concord various.
- Dover Public Library, Dover Baptist (local).
- University of New Hampshire Library, Durham ? (local).
- Dartmouth College Library, Hanover Congregational.
- New Hampshire Antiquarian Society, Hopkinton various.
- Blair Academy Museum, Blairstown Presbyterian, Methodist.
- Cape May County Historical Association, Cape May Quaker.
- Monmouth County Historical Association, Freehold various.
- Drew University Library, Madison Methodist (including papers
formerly held by the Methodist Historical Society of New Jersey).
- Morris County Historical Society, Morristown various (local).
- New Brunswick Theological Seminary Library, New Brunswick Reformed
- Rutgers University Library, New Brunswick various (on film).
- Sussex County Historical Society, Newton various.
- Passaic County Historical Society, Paterson various.
- Seventh Day Baptist Historical Society, Plainfield Seventh Day
- Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton Presbyterian (N.J.
- Salem County Historical Society, Salem Quaker.
- Atlantic County Historical Society, Somers Point Quaker et
- Somerset County Historical Society, Somerville various (local).
- State Library, Archives and History Bureau, Trenton various.
- New York State Library, Albany various (extensive).
- Cayuga County Historical Society, Auburn Congregational.
- Buffalo Historical Society, Buffalo Baptist, Presbyterian.
- Ontario County Historical Society, Canandaigua various (local).
- Cobleskill Public Library, Cobleskill various (local).
- New York State Historical Association and Farmers' Museum, Cooperstown
various (Otsego County).
- Cortland County Historical Society, Cortland various (local).
- Green County Historical Society, Coxsackie various (transcripts).
- Department of History and Archives, Fonda Dutch Reformed et
- Pember Library and Museum, Granville Presbyterian (local).
- Colgate University Archives, Hamilton Baptist.
- Hempstead Public Library, Hempstead various (local).
- Huntington Historical Society, Huntington Presbyterian, P.E.
- Dewitt Historical Society of Tomkins County, Ithaca Methodist,
Presbyterian et al.
- Columbia County Historical Society, Kinderhook various.
- Senate House Museum, Kingston Dutch Reformed et al.
- Daughters of the American Revolution Library, LeRoy various.
- Wayne County Division of Archives and History, Lyons various
- Huguenot Historical Society, New Paltz Huguenot.
- Jean Hasbrouck Memorial House, New Paltz Dutch Reformed, Methodist.
- Holland Society of New York Library, New York City Dutch Reformed,
Lutheran, French Reformed, German Reformed.
- New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, New York City
- New York Historical Society, New York City P.E. and various.
- Queens Borough Public Library, New York City various.
- Society of Friends Records Committee, New York City Quaker.
- Union Theological Seminary Library, New York City Presbyterian
(defunct parishes in Manhattan).
- Yivo Institute of Jewish Research, New York City Jewish.
- Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Highland, Newburgh
- Shaker Museum Foundation, Inc., Old Chatham Shaker.
- Oswego County Historical Society, Oswego Presbyterian (local).
- Portville Free Public Library, Portville Presbyterian (local).
- Suffolk County Historical Society, Riverhead various (local).
- American Baptist Historical Society, Rochester Baptist (extensive,
including Samuel Colgate Baptist Historical Collection formerly at
- Colgate Rochester Divinity School Library, Rochester Baptist
plus some Dutch Reformed and German Evangelical.
- Saratoga County Historian's Office, Saratoga Springs various
- Schenectady County Historical Society, Schenectady Presbyterian,
- Schoharie County Historical Society, Schoharie Dutch Reformed,
Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian.
- Staten Island Historical Society, Staten Island Dutch Reformed,
- Onondago Historical Association, Syracuse various (local).
- Syracuse Public Library, Syracuse various (transcripts).
- Syracuse University Library, Syracuse Methodist (central and
western New York).
- Hancock House, Ticonderoga Quaker, Presbyterian, Methodist Episcopal
- Troy Conference Historical Society, Ticonderoga Methodist.
- Utica Public Library, Utica United Presbyterian, Congregational
et al (of Paris, NY).
- Waterloo Library and Historical Society, Waterloo various (local).
- Westchester County Historical Society, White Plains Baptist,
Congregational, Methodist, Presbyterian.
- New York Yearly Meeting Archives, New York City Quaker.
- American Baptist Historical Society, Rochester Baptist.
- Duke University, Durham Methodist Episcopal (extensive).
- Guilford College Library, Greensboro Quaker (extensive).
- High Point College Library, High Point Methodist.
- Historical Foundation of the Presbyterian and Reformed Churches,
Montreat Presbyterian, Reformed (very extensive).
- Catawba College Library, Salisbury German Reformed.
- Moravian Archives, Winston-Salem Moravian.
- Smith Reynolds Library, Winston-Salem Baptist.
- Great Cleveland Methodist Historical Society, Berea Methodist
(especially German Methodist).
- Mennonite Historical Library, Bluffton College, Bluffton Mennonite,
- American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Jewish.
- Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio, Cincinnati various.
- Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland Shakers et al.
- Ohio Historical Society, Columbus Quaker, Freewill Baptist, Methodist,
- Historical Society of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, Memorial
Library, United Theological Seminary, Dayton Evangelical United
Brethren and predecessors, Methodist.
- Ohio Wesleyan University Library, Delaware Methodist, Methodist
- Rutherford B. Hayes Library, Fremont P.E. (local).
- Oberlin College Library, Oberlin Congregational (formerly belonged
to Ohio Church History Society).
- Toledo Public Library, Toledo Presbyterian (local).
- Otterbein College Library, Westerville Evangelical United Brethren.
- Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, Youngstown
- Ashland Theological Seminary, Ashland Brethren (Dunkers).
- Lehigh County Historical Society, Allentown ? (local).
- Old Economy, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Ambridge
- Tioga Point Museum and Historical Society, Athens ? (local).
- Archives of the Moravian Church, Bethlehem Moravian.
- Bethlehem Public Library, Bethlehem various (typescript).
- Delaware County Historical Society, Chester various.
- Presbyterian Historical Society of Coatesville Presbyterian (local).
- Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown various (extensive).
- Easton Public Library, Easton various.
- Lutheran Historical Society, Gettysburg Lutheran.
- Lutheran Theological Seminary Library, Gettysburg Lutheran.
- Historical Society of the Evangelical and Reformed Church Lancaster
- Lancaster County Historical Society, Lancaster various.
- Vail Memorial Library, Lincoln University various.
- Fulton County Historical Society, McConnellsburg Presbyterian,
- Susquehanna County Historical Society, Montrose various.
- Moravian Historical Society, Bethlehem Moravian.
- Historical Society of Montgomery County, Norristown various.
- Schwenkfelder Library, Pennsburg Schwenkfelder.
- American Swedish Historical Museum, Philadelphia various (mostly
- Christ Church Library, Philadelphia P.E.
- Department of Records, Society of Friends of Philadelphia Quaker.
- Genealogical Society of Philadelphia various.
- Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Universalist
- Historical Society of Philadelphia Annual Conference of Methodist
Episcopal Church, Philadelphia Methodist, Methodist Episcopal (extensive).
- Lutheran Theological Seminary Library, Philadelphia Lutheran
- Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia Presbyterian (extensive,
including church records from Lyman C. Draper Collection in State
Historical Society of Wisconsin).
- Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Presbyterian,
- Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Library, Pittsburgh Presbyterian,
- Historical Society of Berks County, Reading various (local).
- Lackawanna Historical Society, Scranton various.
- Scranton Public Library, Scranton Baptist.
- Monroe County Historical Society, Stroudsburg various (local).
- Northumberland County Historical Society, Sunbury various (local).
- Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore Quaker.
- Uniontown Public Library, Uniontown various.
- Wyoming and Jefferson College Historical Collections, Washington
- Greene County Historical Society, Waynesburg various.
- Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, Westtown various.
- Friends Historical Association, Haverford College Library, Haverford
- Landis Library, Lancaster Mennonite Conference Historical Society,
- Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata Seventh-day Baptists.
- Philip Schaff Library, Lancaster Reformed Seminary, Lancaster
- American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, Philadelphia
- Newport Historical Society, Newport Quaker, Congregational, Baptist.
- Moses Brown School, Providence Quaker.
- Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence Baptist, Unitarian,
- South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston Congregational,
- South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia P.E.
- South Caroliniana Library, U. of South Carolina, Columbia various.
- Wofford College Library, Spartanburg Methodist.
- McClung Historical Collection, Lawson McGhee Library, Knoxville
Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian.
- Burrow Library, Memphis Presbyterian.
- Joint University Libraries, Nashville various.
- Methodist Publishing House Library, Nashville Methodist.
- Tennessee Historical Society, Nashville various.
- Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville various.
- Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Nashville Disciples of
- Vermont Historical Society, Montpelier Congregational et al.
- Randolph-Macon College Library, Ashland Methodist.
- University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville Baptist, Lutheran,
- Hampden-Sydney College Library, Hampden-Sydney various (local).
- Union Theological Seminary Library, Richmond Presbyterian (extensive).
- Valentine Museum, Richmond Quaker (typescript).
- Virginia Baptist Historical Society, University of Richmond, Richmond
- Virginia Diocesan Library, Richmond P.E.
- Virginia Historical Society, Richmond various.
- Virginia State Library, Richmond various, including Baptist,
Methodist, Quaker, Lutheran, German Reformed, Presbyterian (extensive)(7).
- West Virginia Department of Archives and History, Charleston
- West Virginia Collection, West Virginia University Library, Morgantown
- State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison various.
- Joyce Kilmer Memorial Library, Campion Jesuit High School, Prairie
Du Chien Roman Catholic (local).
- Racine County Historical Room, Racine various (local).
- Waukesha County Historical Society, Waukesha various (local).
These depositories are few but significant, and you should do all
you can to locate the church records you need. After all, if they can
be found, church records provide the best genealogical information available
before the start of civil vital records. The examples in this chapter
provide ample evidence of that fact. The effort expended in search of
church records is well used.
The researcher should become familiar with Peter G. Mode, Source
Book and Bibliographical Guide for American Church History, 1921
(Boston: J. S. Canner & Co., 1964 reprint). This scholarly work is a
peerless reference for the genealogist and historian who seek a better
understanding of church history and religious development in America.
Another important reference work is E. Kay Kirkham, A Survey of American
Church Records, 4th ed. (Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, 1978).
3. See Jimmy B. Parker and Wayne T. Morris, "A
Definitive Study of Major U.S. Genealogical Records: Ecclesiastical and
Secular" (Area I, no. 36), World Conference on Records and Genealogical
Seminar (Salt Lake City: The Genealogical Society of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1969).
4. See chapter 10 [of The Researcher's
Guide to American Genealogy] for a list of the guides to the WPA
inventories of church records in the several states.
5. William Wade Hinshaw, Encyclopedia of
American Quaker Genealogy, 7 vols. (in 8), 1936-----. (Vols. 1-6
have been reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore. Vol.
7 is available from the Indiana Historical Society.)
6. See bibliographic references under "bibliographies"
in chapter 6 [of The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy]
and footnote number 5 in chapter 9, and the textual discussion relating
7. A very useful aid for the researcher who
will use these records is Jewell T. Clark and Elizabeth Terry Long (comps.),
A Guide to Church Records in the Archives Branch of the Virginia
State Library (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1981).