RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees No.

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RootsWeb's Guide to Tracing Family Trees
Guide No. 17:  Religious Institutions Records

One way to determine the religious affiliations of your ancestors is search through obituaries and cemetery records. Pay attention to family traditions, children's names, marriage returns, the style, translation and language of old family Bibles, and check local histories, and county history biographies (often called "mug books"). American local histories frequently mention early churches or the predominant denominations in their localities. Don't overlook local newspapers and deed book entries. Many of our forebears' names appeared in the local newspapers, and many donated land to churches.

Religious institutions/church records may include:

Additionally, old church records may reveal the extent to which your families participated in its affairs. Transfers of membership and separation, sometimes involuntarily, are often recorded, and these are helpful in tracing a family's migration. Family relationships sometimes can be sorted out by examining church records.

If your ancestor was a minister, priest or rabbi, there is an excellent chance you will find mention of him in a biographical sketch, or in an obituary, or necrology in a published work, or in the church or synagogue archives. One of the best clues to help identify your ancestors' religious preference is to discover the name of the minister, priest or rabbi who conducted their wedding ceremony, christening, confirmation, baptism, or who presided at a funeral of a family member.

You often will find information about the religious official in church histories, which in turn will tell you about his "flock" and a history of that congregation. Also, do not overlook family members' diaries, journals or letters, which may contain references to their religious affiliation.

Many religious groups kept extensive records; others did not. Some transferred their records to central denominational archives, while in other instances the minister kept them. Many are in private hands, and unfortunately many have been lost. In the U.S., a number of state and county historical societies, as well as state archives, have copies of various church records. Always check these repositories. There also are church-supported colleges that act as repositories for the records of their denomination.

Often the records are still in the possession of the local church — this is especially true of Roman Catholic records. If the church is still in existence and the names has not changed, the telephone directory may solve your problem. If the church has merged with another one of the same denomination, the yearbook of that denomination should have the name, address, and current pastor of the merged church. For North American researchers, if the denomination has merged or split, consult Frank Mead's Handbook of American Denominations or the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. Most larger libraries have these references.

Many church and parish records from around the world have been microfilmed and may be accessed through the Family History Library and its FamilyHistory Centers. Check the Family History Library Catalog for listings.

If you have traced your American ancestors to colonial times, you probably will find them in the records of Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Quaker or Roman Catholic churches. If your families arrived in the 19th century, in addition to the religious groups previously mentioned, you may find they belonged to Episcopal, Methodist, German Reformed, Unitarian or Universalist. Millions can trace their ancestry to forebears who were Quakers. Most surviving Quaker records have been microfilmed, and the principal repository for these is the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

Portals to the Past

Once you determine your ancestors' religious affiliation you open the door to discovering more genealogical and historical data about them. For it is in church records where you will find recorded the births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials of your ancestors.

Except in the case of the Puritans, who believed that marriage was strictly a civil matter, it was usually the church that sanctioned marriage, conducted the wedding ceremony and kept the official records. In the United States vital records only fairly recently have become the responsibility of county and state officials. Christenings, confirmations and baptisms have always been conducted and recorded exclusively by the churches.

Finding the church records pertaining to our ancestors can be one of the more difficult aspects of genealogical research, for there are two problems.

Tracing one's ancestry to the Colonial period of America narrows the possibilities of religious affiliations because of the small number of established churches. Also, some colonies were peopled almost exclusively by those of one particular faith. Each of the colonies tended to follow the pattern of its mother country and established an official religion for the colony. For example, in New England, the Congregational Church was dominant, while in the South it was Church of England, also called Protestant Episcopal. In Maryland you may find your families were Roman Catholics. The early Dutch settlers in New York and New Jersey belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. In Pennsylvania the Society of Friends (Quakers), as well as various German denominations such as Lutherans, were strong.

During the 19th century large numbers of immigrants began to arrive. They brought their religions and ethnic traditions and usually settled among those with similar backgrounds. The Spanish, French, Irish and Acadians usually were Roman Catholics; while most Jews held fast to their Judaic heritage. The Scandinavians who settled mostly in the upper Midwest usually joined Lutheran churches. The Germans who settled in Pennsylvania and along the Mississippi River most likely were members of Lutheran or Mennonite congregations.

While knowing the old country origins of your families can be a clue to their religious preference, it has been learned that our ancestors frequently changed from one denomination to another — sometimes several times. They often joined or attended the church nearest to them.

You often will find information about the religious official in church histories, which in turn will tell you about his "flock" and a history of that congregation. A gravestone in a church cemetery is another good indication of church membership. Don't overlook diaries, journals or letters which may contain references to the religious affiliation of your family members.

Many denominations kept extensive records; others did not. Some transferred their records to a central denominational archive, while in other instances the minister kept them. Many are in private hands and unfortunately many were destroyed.

A number of state and county historical societies as well as state archives have obtained copies of church records. There also are church-supported colleges that act as repositories for the records of their own denomination. By reading the county histories of those areas in which your families resided at different times you will learn the names of the churches (at least the early ones) that were established, and often there will be membership lists or biographical information about the early religious leaders.

You can obtain data from land records that will aid in locating your ancestors' place of residence and then study old maps to learn what churches were in that area, since usually people attended a nearby church.

In those denominations that practiced infant baptism (christening) you will usually find the full name of the person baptized, age or date of birth, the place of birth or christening, names of parents, places of residence and names and relationships (sometimes) of witnesses or sponsors. Some church records do not include birth or baptism entries, but there may be other information such as admissions, removals, certificates of membership, communicant lists, lists of ministers and disciplinary proceedings. Church records often include information pertaining to death, burials, funerals and memorials.

Special marriage registers were kept by many churches, but others merely listed marriage information among other entries in church books, and in other instances marriage information will be found in the minister's diary or private papers. Even if the church records do not include marriage information, careful reading of church minutes may enable you to pinpoint an approximate date if you note when Amanda Jones ceases to be mentioned and John Henderson and his wife, Amanda, appear.


Many of our English ancestors were hard-headed and stubborn about their religious beliefs. So much so that some left the country. However, others stayed and became part of religious groups that are known as nonconformists. If your ancestors do not appear in the Church of England parish registers in the localities in which they are said to have lived, explore the records of nonconformists.

Nonconformists included Baptists, Society of Friends (Quakers), Methodists, Presbyterians Congregationalists (Independents) and Unitarians. Also Huguenots, Moravians, Roman Catholics, and Swedenborgians fall into this broad category.

The earliest nonconformists' dissenting books, as they are called, date from about 1642. No doubt some baptisms and marriages took place outside the established Church of England before this time, but the risk of discovery for those then-illegal practices made record-keeping risky.

Major religious groups to which your ancestor may have belonged are:

The best known source for early nonconformists records is the collection of books and manuscripts bequeathed by Dr. Daniel Williams, an eminent Presbyterian. This collection was housed in London at the Dissenters Library as early as 1729. Now known as Dr. Williams Library, it is located at 14 Gordon Square in London. It also contains additional records pertaining to various individual nonconformist congregations.

Being a nonconformist was not just a religious matter. It also involved a lack of legal status for one's children, since they were not baptized in the established church. In 1743, a group representing Baptists, Independents and Presbyterians, set up a register for the births of their children at the Dissenters Library. This register was open to any parent who was willing to pay a fee to register their children's births. For the family historian the information given is unusually detailed. It includes name of parents, the exact place and date of birth and the name of the maternal grandfather.

Probably due to the fees, the register was not a success though. In 1769 it contained only 309 entries. However, gradually the nonconformists ministers began to deposit their register books with this library, and private registrations increased. By 1837 nearly 50,000 births had been registered. These records are now housed in the Public Record Office and the names also appear in the Family History Library's International Genealogical Index (IGI).

All nonconformist records were supposed to have been forwarded to the registrar general's office in 1837. However, the Catholics sent only 79 registers, and the Quakers refused to send theirs until 1857. Other denominations were more compliant, but even so there are missing registers for every group. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has a microfilm copy of every nonconformist register available at the Public Record Office.

Exploring church records of Colonial America

America has, almost from its beginning, been a country of religious diversity. Many of our immigrant ancestors came here for, or because of, religious reasons. The obvious value of certain church records to genealogists is they frequently contain dates and places of birth, christening, marriage, death and burial records of ancestors.

Church records often predate civil vital records, and can fill gaps in those instances where civil records are missing. Additionally, church records may consist of minutes, financial records, annual reports, publications, correspondence, clippings, photographs, programs, genealogical charts, even blueprints of church buildings. Moreover, they may include scattered records of various church organizations including missionary and women's societies. Records of one 17th-century New Jersey church including a list of the building materials, their costs, along with names of those who constructed its first building.

Colonial Jewish settlements were in New York (at the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in 1654, most of them being refugees from the Dutch colony of Recife, Brazil), Savannah, Georgia, Philadelphia, Charleston, South Carolina, Newport, Rhode Island and Richmond, Virginia.

In New York and New Jersey, the Dutch Reformed groups were well established by the late 1600s.

Society of Friends (Quakers) began arriving from England, Wales, and Germany in the late 1600s. Many of them settled near Philadelphia, and by 1700 the society had gained considerable influence in most of the New England and Middle Atlantic colonies. Quakers eventually had significant settlements in Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Ohio, and Georgia.

Several groups of the Evangelical, German Reformed and German Lutheran faiths settled in Pennsylvania in the 1700s; along with the various German Pietists, such as the Mennonites, Dunkards, Brethren, and Amish.

If your ancestors arrived from Scotland and Northern Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries, they likely were Presbyterians. By mid-18th century this denomination had nearly as many members as the Anglican and Congregationalist churches. From Maryland, the Presbyterian Church spread throughout the colonies and formed churches in all 13 of them.

Other early religious groups in America include Baptists, Methodists, and Roman Catholics.

The Baptists, led by Roger Williams who organized a church at Providence, Rhode Island in 1639, and John Clarke, who established one at Newport about the same time, grew to become the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. by the early 1800s.

The Methodists, found mostly in the South prior to 1775, numbered fewer than 7,000 at that time, but prospered during the Revolutionary War and doubled their membership.

In 1654 Roman Catholics from England founded Maryland. However, later they were restricted by law in that colony and others. These restrictions were not lifted until after the Revolution.


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