Overview of Church Records

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Church Records

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Church Records
Types of Church Records
Finding Church Records
List of Selected Denominations
List of Useful Church References

This article originally appeared in "Church Records" by Elizabeth Crabtree Wells, MA, MLS in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy


Church records are a rich resource for the genealogical and historical researcher. In many parts of the country, church records predate civil records. They therefore document vital events, giving birth, marriage, and death information that might otherwise be lost. Besides providing names and dates, church records may reveal relationships between people and depict a family's status in the community. In addition, entries of a personal nature are not uncommon, and these can offer a glimpse into an ancestor's character or habits.

If church records are so valuable a tool, why do researchers often neglect these records? Perhaps the answer lies in the historical complexity of religious organization, evidenced by a large number of denominations. The Columbia Encyclopedia identifies more than two hundred religious denominations under the main heading 'Protestantism.'<ref>Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., s.v. 'Protestantism.' New York: Columbia University Press, 2001'05.</ref> Furthermore, the majority of these denominations have undergone many changes'splits or mergers resulting in the formation of various branches or sects'or philosophical differences that, when unresolved, have ended with the demise of a denomination or sect. To further complicate matters, the records created about the members of a denomination may be housed locally, regionally, or nationally. These conditions can make the identifying of an individual church and the locating of its records quite difficult.

Another factor that contributes to the under use of church records is terminology. Churches use a unique vocabulary to describe who they are and what they do. Sometimes the same concept is described with different terms by different denominations. An example may be taken from denominational hierarchy. Baptist churches join together in associations, Lutherans and Presbyterians form synods, Methodists unite in conferences, and Episcopalian and Roman Catholic churches are linked to the diocese. Knowing these differences in terms helps to identify the records to explore.

Even within records, terms can differ. In some congregations, the arrival and removal of members were regularly recorded. While these records can be especially helpful in providing information about a member's old and new communities, and making it possible to track members from one location to another, they are often called by different names and are thus frequently overlooked. The Society of Friends typically called them certificates of removal, Baptists called them letters of admission, some called them letters of transfer, and some called them dismissions. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints they are certificates of membership.

Confusion over terminology also applies when one tries to interpret entries within a particular record. For example, marriage dispensations in the Roman Catholic Church authorize a priest to perform the marriage ceremony despite the presence of conditions that normally forbade this. The religious law that was being circumvented will be identified in the dispensation papers. Two laws are 'Disparity of Cult or Worship' and 'Affinity.' Knowing that 'Disparity' forbids marriage of a Catholic to a nonbaptized person and that 'Affinity' forbids marrying the third cousin or any near-blood relative of one's deceased husband or wife helps the researcher understand more about the people who were to be wed. It is worth noting that the most frequently requested dispensation was from publication of the banns. Banns were the formal church announcement of an intended marriage, made on a specific number of Sundays prior to the marriage.

Finally, the practice of many ethnic groups to maintain congregational records in their native language can present an obstacle for a researcher who does not read or understand that language. Particularly in the decades following the establishment of a church by an immigrant group, it is possible to find church records in Dutch, German, Polish, Spanish, and so on. Many old Catholic parish registers were written in Latin. With logic and a dual-language dictionary, the record can usually be deciphered. In some cases, the services of a translator may be needed.

Despite these many obstacles and challenges, a search of church records is becoming less formidable with each passing year. Today's technology has merged with years of records preservation by archivists, curators, and researchers to make records more readily available. Improved access and knowing how religion developed in America enables a seeker to more fully utilize this important source.

Church records vary a great deal in content and emphasis according to the basic theology and the social role of each denomination. Studying the background of the 'Old Country' churches helps us to better understand the organization of the 'New World' churches. One useful distinction is between 'state' churches and so-called 'free' churches.

State Churches and Free Churches

The 'state' churches were those European churches in which every Christian in the state or kingdom was considered a member. Because of doctrinal differences and the concept of the church's place in the political arena, the state church records took on a different degree of importance and significance to the local congregation and to the civil community. The keeping of parish registers in countries with state churches was obligatory. This task usually fell to the pastor or the parish priest.

In contrast to the 'state' church, the 'free' or 'gathered' churches emphatically rejected inclusive and obligatory membership in the church from birth. Rather, only those who had been 'born again' in Christ and baptized as an adult could be considered true members of the church. While the records of the state church required noting the birth of a child and his or her baptism, the records of the free church may have only mentioned a birth, perhaps as an occasion for celebration by the congregation; the free church focused instead on the importance of the person's rebirth in Christ and his or her conduct. These details were carefully recorded, while other events of the congregation were noted solely at the discretion of the church clerk.

Theology was not the only factor that determined the types of records to be kept. Sometimes it was the local church clerk or official who would decide what events would be worth recording. In Scandinavia and many German states, the Lutheran church was the established church. The Lutheran pastor was a quasi-public official who was the authorized recorder of births, deaths, and marriages. Similarly, in England, a 1538 Act of Parliament required all ministers of the Church of England to record baptisms, marriages, and burials in their parishes. In 1597, another parliamentary act reinforced the original law, requiring that duplicates of parish records be sent annually to the bishop of the pertinent diocese (thereby creating the valuable bishops' transcripts). Pastors were also official record keepers in Scotland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and certain German states where Calvinism became the established faith.

In areas of Europe where Roman Catholicism was the established faith, parish priests were the official recorders of baptisms, marriages, and burials. These priests were accountable to more than local parliaments, however. In 1563, the church's Council of Trent issued a decree requiring proof of baptism before marriage. Subsequent decrees reinforced this edict, notably that of Pope Paul V in 1614, which made parish registers obligatory.

Churches in America

This distinction between 'state' or 'free' church in the Old Country came with the immigrants who ventured to the New World. The churches established by these newcomers reflected the clergy, the doctrine, and the record-keeping practices of the congregations back home.

In most of the American colonies, state churches were established. In New England, the Congregational church generally held sway. To the South (Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina), the Church of England (Protestant Episcopal) became the established church. There were, however, important exceptions. Maryland, though originally founded as a haven for Roman Catholics, was for a time Anglican. And in New Netherland (now New York), as long as the Dutch were in control, the Dutch Reformed Church (the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church until 1867 and now the Reformed Church in America) was the established church. It was the only Christian denomination that could hold public worship. The Dutch minister married nearly every couple and baptized nearly every child in the city prior to the English takeover in 1664.

Some of these established churches functioned on a colonial or state level until well after the American Revolution. But the variety of immigrant groups, each with their own religious preferences, ultimately defeated most attempts to impose religious uniformity.

Following the American Revolution, traditional record-keeping practices changed to accommodate a more mobile society, intent on westward movement. As families left the established Eastern seaboard, they sometimes left the traditional church as well, adopting a pioneer spirit that included a different religious fervor. Churches along the migration routes still featured the established denominations, but they were decidedly less dominant. Instead, the more open, less restrictive, and less formal evangelical movements prevailed. Baptist, Church of God, Methodist, and Presbyterian took hold and flourished.

Despite their religious preferences, these pioneers did not always have the luxury of their particular clergy. For example, a Methodist in Louisiana could have married in a Congregationalist Church. A Kentucky Episcopalian may have been buried by a circuit-riding Baptist or Presbyterian preacher. If these events were not documented by a civil authority, they may have been noted in the records of the closest local congregation or painstakingly scripted into the diary of an itinerant minister. Your ancestor's records may have been kept but perhaps not in the county, parish, or congregation where you expect to find them.

While there are numerous and widely variant religious groups in the United States, there are at least five types of records that are kept by almost all churches. These are records of (1) baptism and christening, (2) marriage, (3) death and burial, (4) confirmation, and (5) membership. Although the format and emphasis may vary among the denominations, there are some universal characteristics of these record types.