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Church Records in the U.S.

by Lyman D. Platt, Ph.D.
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More Than You Might Expect
Church records can help you in ways beyond the usual birth, baptism, marriage, and death records you might expect. Expert Lyman Platt shows you the many ways they can help in your search.

Early Church Records

The Solana family of St. Augustine, Florida is apparently the oldest documented family in the United States insofar as church records are concerned. Vicente Solana and Maria Viscente were married at the Cathedral of St. Augustine on July 4, 1594, being the first ancestral couple of the Solana family to live in that ancient city. The cathedral records also begin in the same year. In an article entitled "St. Augustine, Nation's Oldest City, Turns 400" there is a picture of the oldest surviving church register in the country, for the Mission of Nombre de Dios (forerunner of the Cathedral), consisting of baptisms, marriages, and burials.(1) This family continues to have descendants living in St. Augustine over 400 years later.

The United States has never had a state religion as have many countries of the world. Therefore, the circumstances of church records in the U.S. is unusual, except in the former Spanish and French territories and provinces of what is now the continental United States. Because both Spain and France had a state religion — Catholicism — they were very concerned about keeping records of church ordinances as they developed their empires in the New World. The records from these missions in what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida have extensive family history preserved. It is for this reason that many Spanish, French, Native American and African American pedigrees can be traced back as far as any other pedigrees in the United States. Most of these records have been microfilmed and are available in the more than 1,000 family history centers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) scattered throughout the United States.

The earliest records for some of these colonies, however, were destroyed in Native American uprisings. In fact, in Utah, where over 14,000 Native Americans had been baptized by 1617, 34,000 by 1626, and 86,000 by 1630, in forty-three small mountain missions — the locations for the majority of which are now unknown — the knowledge has practically been lost to history because the destruction was so complete as the Utes rose up, killed many of the priests, razed the missions, and filled in all the mines in which they were forced to work. A few mission bells, foundations, and an occasional Jesuit archive have been located as proof of what has been stated. Also, Dr. Donald Moorman (deceased), former professor at Weber State College at Ogden, Utah, claims that some of these early records were taken back into Mexico and that he saw them during his lifetime. However, he does not leave in his files any notice of where they are located.(2)

Where colonies of European immigrants arrived in the United States, often as religious groups, it is also possible to find some early records. Pilgrims, Quakers, Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, Methodist, Mennonite, and other close-knit groups have many records that can be used back into the 1700s in many cases, with a few being available into the 1600s. To find these types of records, check with the Family History Library as well as libraries and genealogical societies in the areas you are researching. By contrast, when individuals arrived in the U.S. as single or nuclear families, not attached to any religion, very often nothing exists about them in the way of church records in the first and second generations, thereby creating many roadblocks to tracing their ancestry back into Europe.

After the Civil War with the vast migrations north of many African Americans, northern congregations were formed or expanded dramatically. A forthcoming book edited by Eleanor Dooks Bardes and Mary H. Remler, and published by the Hamilton County Chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society, entitled Hamilton County Ohio, Burial Records, Volume 9, Union Baptist African American Cemetery shows the extent to which some church record collections can reach. This particular church has over 30,000 burial listings recorded between it foundation in 1831 and 1970.

There are numerous other books in print containing the church records of local congregations. Again, check the Family History Library and libraries and genealogical societies in the areas you are researching. For example Alfred Andrews in 1867 compiled Genealogy and Ecclesiastical History of New Britain, Connecticut. Farmington, Connecticut, founded in 1645 had by 1707 grown to the point where the Great Swamp area was granted permission to become its own ecclesiastical society and found a new church. Every communicant member of the church from 1758 to 1867 is included in this study. Thousands of such records exist and have been preserved throughout the nation.

Types of Church Records

Church records include many varieties. There are the standard baptism, marriage and burial records that most of us think of. In addition, you can often find the following:
  • Church census records, membership lists of arriving or new members, departing members, members who have been cut off, excommunicated, or censured.
  • Minutes of various organizations within a church
  • Records of church socials
  • Biographical notes on members
  • Transcriptions of talks or testimonies given in a particular meeting
  • Notes on funeral ceremonies with references to the names of family members who attended.

Naugatuck, Connecticut Congregational Church Records, 1781-1901, published in 1987 by Helen S. Ullman is one example of a collection that contains a variety of record types. It includes records of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, admissions, transfers of membership, disciplinary actions and other matters of this congregation.

Also of note is the fact that some churches published their own newspapers or magazines. For example, Barbara Manning has studied and compiled the records of the German Reformed Church in twenty-two states and several countries in Europe and Asia. Her two-volume work, Genealogical Abstracts from Newspapers of the German Reformed Church, was published in 1992 and 1995 covers 1830-1839 and 1840-1843. This collection of information from church newspapers gives details on marriages, deaths, parsons taking up new posts, appointments complete with lists of references, reports of accidents, murders, arrests, convictions, hangings, founding of scholarships, acts of human kindness, rosters of people who gave to collections, lists of those who attended schools or were elected to sit on church boards.

Finally, one little known fact that many genealogists overlook in their search for their ancestry, is that foreign congregations, parishes, and ecclesiastical communities of all types often refer in their records to the migration or status of former members, or members who have immigrated but still maintain their membership in local fraternities or societies. One record from Spain seen by the author gave the location of a member of the local parish then living in Mexico, stating who he had married, and the names of several of his children. The records for this family in Mexico do not exist because they have been destroyed, but continue to exist in Spain. Limiting one's search to Mexican sources would never have uncovered this information.

Despite the fact that there is no standard type of records and no state religion in the United States, a wealth of information available from U.S. church records. It is often in obscure locations such as the homes of retired pastors, or their descendants, in local libraries or archives. Nonetheless, every effort should be made to identify extant records for the areas in which your ancestors lived or from whence they came in foreign countries.

Footnotes

1. Conly, Robert. "St. Augustine, Nation's Oldest City, Turns 400," National Geographic 129 (1966):201, 212.

2. Thompson, George A. Lost Treasures on the Old Spanish Trail (Salt Lake City, Utah: Western Epics, 1988), pages 34-35.


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