“Many early churches have had their records published in one form or another, but by no means all,” says Michael Leclerc, expert genealogist and director of special projects at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. “It can be a challenge to locate church records. Many of them have never been microfilmed; they exist only in the original.”
Where should you start? First thing’s first: If the church you’ve identified as your ancestor’s probable place of worship still exists, call the parish office. Ask whether the church has records from your ancestor’s lifetime, and how you can access them. If the church no longer exists, look for a denominational office. Many US churches have national or regional historical offices: the Presbyterian Historical Society, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives and the American Jewish Historical Society. You’ll find many of these offices in our online Church Records Toolkit.
All this work may not seem worth it at first, especially if you already have vital statistics for the relatives in question. But church records often reveal information you didn’t expect to find. A great-aunt’s short life discovered through her too-close baptism and burial dates (she didn’t live to see a census). A maternal uncle listed as a godparent, providing a maiden name. A burial spot you thought you’d never locate among thousands of unindexed cemetery plots. So take another look at your pedigree charts. If you have holes where there could be souls, it may be time to revisit religious records.
Church Records Toolkit
Eastern European Church Records
Jewish Genealogy Guide Digital Download
Family Tree Essentials CD