Types of church records
Catholic parishes (the term for a local congregation) didn’t generally keep membership lists, but they did register
- Baptism, often performed within a day or two of birth, with the date, godparents, child’s parents and the parents’ birthplace. Later sacraments in that child’s life also might be noted here, too, even if they occurred in another church.
- Confirmation, often received as a young teen, recorded as a simple list of those who received it and the date. Use this record to confirm a family’s residence at that time and participation in church life. More recent records may mention the place and date of baptism.
Catholic Baptismal Register
Citation for this record: St. Joseph’s Church (Fremont, OH). “Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, Catholic Parish Records, 1796-2004.” Digital images, Ancestry.com: accessed 19 April 2016. Original images from FamilySearch.org.
Marriage and possible banns (formal announcements), if they were read prior to the marriage. Look for the couple’s name, parents’ names, witnesses and officiant’s name. More recent records may indicate baptismal place and date.
Identifying the right church
To determine what church might have records of your ancestors, make an informed guess based on these factors:
Methodist Sunday School Register
Citation for this record: Calvary United Methodist Church (Keyport, NJ). “New Jersey, Calvary United Methodist Church Records, 1832-2003.” Digital images, FamilySearch: accessed 19 April 2016.
Accessing church records
Once you’ve identified a possible ancestral church, it’s time to start looking for its membership or sacramental records. These may exist in original manuscript, microfilmed, published and/or even digitized format.
Browse search results for websites of churches. Also watch for any mention of records in online manuscript finding aids, genealogy website databases, on microfilm or in published format at a library (more about these below).
The Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City has many church records on microfilm. On the FamilySearch website, click Search, then Catalog. Search by place: Start typing the town, city, county or state, then choose from the dropdown menu that appears. In your search results, click Church Records. You’ll see a list of the FHL’s church records holdings for that place; click each one for details on the type of record and time period covered.
Clues in church records
Church histories may have lists of members, substantial donors, churchyard burials or clergy. See whether mention is made of original church records still extant at that time. Scan the text to learn more about the religious community to which your family belonged. Other local or county histories may include historical sketches of the church, too.
- Records begin: generally with establishment of an individual congregation
- Jurisdiction where kept: individual churches’ administrative offices; denominational archives; government, university and private libraries and archives
- Key details: dates and places of birth, baptism, marriage, death and burial; sometimes names of family members, migration places and dates
- Search terms: name of denomination, church and/or congregation; plus the place and records, baptisms or marriages
- How to find in the FamilySearch catalog: Under Search, select Catalog. Enter the place in the Places search box, then look under the Church Records category.
- Associated/substitute records: records of birth, marriage, death and burial
American Baptist Historical Society
Association of Religion Data Archives Denominational Trees
Catholic Diocese and Bishop Addresses
Catholic Parishes Online
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Church History Library
Episcopal Church Archives
Evangelical Lutheran Church Archives
Huguenot Society of America
Methodist General Commission on Archives & History
Presbyterian Historical Society
Quaker: Friends Historical Library
Southern Baptist Historical Library & Archives
German Church Books: Beyond the Basics by Kenneth L Smith (Picton Press)
How to Find Your Family History in US Church Records by Sunny Jane Morton (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
Our Quaker Ancestors by Ellen Thomas Berry and David Allen Berry (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
A Religious History of the American People by Sydney E Ahlstrom (Yale University Press)
Researching American Religious Records by Kyle Betit & Beverly Whitaker CG (Heritage Productions)
A Survey of American Church Records, 4th Rev Ed. by E Kay Kirkham (Everton Brothers)
Tracing Your Huguenot Ancestors by Kathy Chater (Pen and Sword)
Understanding and Using Baptismal Records by John T. Humphrey (Humphrey Publications)
US Catholic Sources: A Diocesan Research Guide by Virginia Humling (Ancestry)
a. unidentified parents
b. missing maiden names
c. finding overseas birthplaces
d. all of the above
2. What valuable information should a letter of transfer contain?
a. parents’ names
c. prior residence
d. marriage date
3. Which of the following national origins and religions do not typically match?
a. English and Anglican
b. Scots-Irish and Lutheran
c. French and Catholic
d. German and Lutheran
Exercise A: Using your preferred web browser, conduct a search with the terms Evangelical Lutheran Church Records. Click on the Ancestry.com database <search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=60722> that comes up in the search results.
- Using the browse feature, find what three congregations’ records are available for Dodge City, Kan.
- Using an Ancestry.com subscription or visiting a library offering Ancestry Library Edition, click on Hope Church records, then image No. 3. According to the contents list, for what years are baptismal records available?
- Page forward to the baptisms (image No. 17). In a separate window, open Google Translate. Enter the first two column headers, “Name der täuflings” and “Name der eltern” in the box on the left, one at a time. Choose German for the left box and English for the right. How do these phrases translate into English?
4. Write a citation for this record.
Guide to German Church Records On-Demand Webinar
Interpreting Latin Records Video Course
Researching Methodist Ancestors