Soul Searching

Soul Searching

Does your family tree have holes where there could be souls? Follow our guidance and you’ll soon be singing the praises of church records.

When I began researching my husband’s great-grandparents online, I didn’t think they’d be difficult to find. I already knew they were Slovaks who lived in Olyphant, Pa. They had an unusual surname: O’Hotnicky. And just like all well-behaved ancestors should, they popped right up in the census.
But I couldn’t get much further. I wasn’t ready to commit to a trip to Pennsylvania or shell out $9-plus for each birth and death certificate for a family of 10. So I called some O’Hotnickys in Olyphant to see what I could find out.
A distant relative remembered meeting my husband’s grandmother as a child, but my detailed questions didn’t prompt any specific memories. I asked one last question—did she know where the family attended church?
“The O’Hotnickys have always gone to Holy Ghost,” she said, as if that factoid should be obvious. Um, was that Catholic? “Of course it’s Catholic!”
What a lead! Holy Ghost parish still exists, a beautiful church just two doors down from the O’Hotnicky’s address. The parish website tells of 21 dedicated Slovak families who sweated and sacrificed to build the original little frame church on that site, where the first High Mass was celebrated on Christmas Day in 1888.
The parish secretary e-mailed me O’Hotnicky records dating to 1889. Suddenly I had birth, marriage and death data for dozens of relatives. Surnames linked to theirs through marriages and godparents hinted at relationships with other local Slovak families. I haven’t verified whether O’Hotnickys actually helped build the church, but heaven-sent church records gave my stalled research new vigor. You, too, can mine church records not only for vital statistics, but also for your clan’s story of faith and family history. Each little answer, strung like beads on a rosary, will lead you ever closer to the facts and faith of your ancestors.

Genealogical salvation

Religious records have been a godsend for many a family historian with Judeo-Christian roots. Church registers and logbooks, denominational histories (including yizkor books, recording the history of towns destroyed in the Holocaust, for Jews), churchyard cemetery records, business minutes, and minister and missionary biographies all illuminate the lives of our forebears.
For distant ancestors, church records may be the only place to find that trinity of vital statistics: birth, marriage and death data. Many states didn’t start keeping civil birth and death records until the mid- to late 1800s. Civil marriage records, when kept, were usually sparse. But churches dutifully recorded births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials from their earliest days. Even where government records exist, church records may be richer with genealogical information. Baptismal records provide names of godparents (often relatives); marriage records often name parents of the bride and groom; funeral records may mention the deceased’s birthplace, place of burial and next of kin. 
Religious records may be useful even if your ancestors didn’t darken the church door for weekly services. Even more than in modern times, someone raised in a faith often returned to it for major life (and death) events like weddings, baptisms or circumcisions, funerals and burials.
So chances are pretty good that details about your family show up in old holy books. Finding them, however, can require acts of faith and devotion. Your search will sometimes produce instant miracles—an entire generation found. Or it may require years of patient soul searching (for their souls, not your own) before your piety is rewarded with answers. Our focus in this guide is on religious records in America; however, much of this advice translates to research in the churches of Europe.

Religious ties

Some people grow up “knowing” their family has been Catholic as far back as it matters. But sometimes you don’t know as much as you think you do. Most families reflect a diversity of religious traditions over the generations. Forced conversions, marriage to an “outsider,” spiritual disillusionment or personal discovery—there are plenty of reasons for leaving or joining a faith.
In my own family, for example, my maternal line is rich with diversity: We’ve had Christian Scientists, Methodists, undeclared Protestants, Catholics, Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and Unitarians just in the last four generations. My father-in-law’s assumed perfect Catholic pedigree goes back a single generation: his own father converted in order to marry his mother.
Ask around at your next family gathering. You might learn that Uncle Ben was bar mitzvahed and not baptized. A new tale may emerge about your grandparents’ elopement over parents’ religious differences or your aunt’s defection to the Hare Krishnas.
Family memory only takes you so far. Study your research files for clues: baptismal and marriage records, obituaries, funeral cards, family Bibles, burial records and tombstone rubbings. Is the name of a church written in flowery script across a marriage certificate? Does an officiant’s title (be it reverend or rabbi) point to a particular denomination? Where were funeral services held? Even if your ancestor wasn’t a practicing member (or a member at all) of this faith, the church’s records may tell you about them or their families.
If you can’t divine a denomination from home sources, take a guess based on geography and ethnicity. For pre-New World ancestors, consider national norms for your ancestor’s time and place: for Christians, think Church of England, Dutch Reformed or Russian Orthodox. For Jews, geography helps determine whether a family has Sephardic (Iberian peninsula) or Ashkenazi (Central and Western Europe) origins, and to which Jewish community they may have belonged.
The US melting pot is a different story, but you can still guess based on regional generalizations. Among whites, early New Englanders were often Congregationalists while Southerners were often Episcopalians (the New World version of Church of England). In between, there were communities of Dutch Reformed (New York); Quakers and Mennonites (Pennsylvania); Catholics (Maryland); Scots-Irish Presbyterians (Virginia); and Jews (South Carolina). Many later arrivals moved inland, like Latter-day Saints (Illinois, then Utah) and Lutherans (the Midwest). Near the end of the 1800s, a new wave of Jewish immigrants began to flock to New York City and other urban areas.
Among African immigrants, slaves were denied the right to practice non-Christian religious beliefs brought from Africa. Most were forcibly introduced to Christianity and many eventually embraced it. But in pre-Civil War days, full church participation was denied to most African-Americans even in the North. All-black congregations formed within many established churches. Most successful was the African Methodist Episcopalian church, which took root in the North before the Civil War, and spread to the South after it.
African-Americans weren’t the only ones who changed religions when they came to the United States. Within a generation of entry to America, members of many European-origin families shed old faiths. This happened through necessity (no synagogue in town), assimilation or conversion to new sects. The Great Awakening (mid-1700s) and the Second Great Awakening (1790 to 1840) converted thousands to the Baptist and Methodist faiths.

Parish pointers

This may not seem a point of religion, but in the days before the Model A, people couldn’t travel far to church. If you can draw a 5-mile radius around your ancestor’s home, then locate the churches that existed within the circle, you might find where they worshipped—even if it wasn’t the religion they were born into.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m assuming you know what city your ancestor lived in. Now, can you get more specific? What was his address? Check old family address books, letters and envelopes, draft registrations or other government applications, newspaper clippings (obituaries and marriage announcements), census listings and city directories.
Two of these sources are worth detailing: the federal census and city directories. Beginning in 1880, addresses appear in modified form on the census. The street name appears vertically along the left edge of the page; check previous and subsequent pages if you don’t see it. Enumerators recorded the house number in populated areas. (You’ll also see a dwelling number. This just tallied the number of distinct residences the census taker visited, so if you see the same dwelling number listed several times, you’re looking at a multifamily dwelling with a single entrance.)
Where you can’t pull street addresses, enumeration districts (noted by the census taker at the top of the page) are a nice surrogate for an ancestor’s neighborhood. Find a geographic description of the enumeration district in National Archives microfilm publication T1224, available through the Family History Library’s local Family History Centers. You also can use the online enumeration district  finding tools linked at <>.
City directories are another great place to find ancestors’ addresses. Most American cities produced annual or biannual directories by the late 1800s. In them, you may find an alphabetical list of households, like today’s White Pages, and/or a street index (also known as a criss-cross directory), which lists streets followed by house numbers and residents’ names. Subscription site Footnote offers text-searchable access to millions of city directory pages. also has searchable city directories. You may find originals at state and regional archives, historical and genealogical societies, and libraries. See <> for online sources.
Once you’ve located an address or neighborhood, pinpoint it on a historical street map. Find these maps through local historical and genealogical libraries, published local histories, city directories, even county archives. Also try entering the name of the town or state and the term historic map into your browser. If an old map isn’t available, use a modern one (find detailed street views at Google Maps), if the street still exists.
Strategies and challenges for finding exactly where your forebears worshipped may differ in urban and rural areas, but there’ll be plenty of crossover in your approach. Hit the books: County and local histories are most useful for rural areas or early settlements. In more populated areas, try city directories. Churches may be listed, though more difficult to find among old-style alphabetical listings instead of Yellow Pages categories. The street index in some directories will make it easier to find churches near your forebears’ home.
In a one-church town, your search may be easy. Even your non-adherent ancestors may have attended or at least rubbed shoulders with members. A local Lutheran minister could have performed marriages for Catholics who lacked a resident priest. Latter-day Saints, who dominated early settlement of the intermountain west, often mention non-Mormon residents in congregational minutes.
Your ancestors also may be hiding in the logbooks of ministers who served the area remotely. Pastors belonging to established congregations occasionally traveled into the countryside to minister to isolated members. Records would’ve stayed with the pastor and/or his church. Check with regional, state and denominational history resources for ministers’ names and records.
If no local churches were your ancestors’ exact make and model, look for those that taught comparable doctrines: Methodists and Baptists; Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Congregationalists; various sects within the Catholic or Jewish faiths. Each group shared similar church cultures and beliefs. Just realize that for every Methodist who “settled,” another would abstain from Sunday worship rather than hallelujah with the Baptists down the street.
Suppose your ancestor had several congregations of his stripe to choose from. The one nearest his home is a logical answer. But ethnic congregations exerted a powerful crosstown pull because everyone spoke like you, dressed like you and brought the same dishes to church suppers. Poles’ loyalty to a predominantly Polish parish may have lasted generations past immigrants’ arrival.
What else could influence a family’s decision about where to worship? Individual pastors could fill (or empty) pews with the quality, passion or politics of their sermons. In denominational or local histories, watch for clues about major upheavals in member loyalty.
Stymied? Hold a short phone interview with a county archivist or a knowledgeable member of a local historical or genealogical society. If you know of an existing local congregation of the right type, call the administrative office. Ask what churches existed locally during the time in question and for advice on where or with whom to search further.

Holy books

Locating the old records of a specific congregation can be as easy as calling a parish office, or as difficult as a statewide or denomination-wide search.

“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.”

In early US history, Leclerc says church records were kept on a local level because there was no central office. “Since that time, they may have been turned over to state or regional archives. Many [individual] churches don’t have the facilities to properly care for them, unless it’s a church like Boston’s Old South Church with a lot of historical significance.”
Congregations splitting off and moving over time also could throw a wrench in your search. The records could’ve stayed with the church or gone with the departing parishioners.

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.

Church archives’ holdings usually lean toward general or regional administrative papers, rather than the local ones in which you’d find your family. But these central offices may have records for defunct congregations and traveling ministers’ records.
Still no luck? Start looking at archives and historical societies in the area, Leclerc advises. “Check with your local genealogical societies because they might have copies of records, or someone might have transcribed them.”
But don’t just think locally. Leclerc also suggests running a place search of the Family History Library catalog on the county name and looking for a church records heading to see if records are on microfilm. Search WorldCat for the church name to see if its records have been published.
What about logbooks belonging to those roving ministers? And those denominations for which the records were the minister’s property, not the church’s? “Those are the most difficult to find,” Leclerc says. “They could travel around the country—then what did the family do with their father’s papers? Check to see if they were donated to an archive.”
Finally, sites from USGenWeb to Census­Links have posted transcriptions, scanned image or indexes to church records. A basic internet search, using the church’s name and location, could lead you right to your faithful ancestors. For example, in the first six results of a Google search for St. Marcus United Church of Christ, St. Louis Missouri are mentions of indexes to marriage, death and burial records for this congregation.

Answered prayers
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.

Tip: Prominent church members may be mentioned in denominational histories and compiled biographies such as The Mennonite Encyclopedia, American Jewish Year Book and the Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy. Look for these at genealogical and university libraries, as well as archives related to that faith.
Tip: Find local churches and their records at the same time in major genealogical library catalogs. For example, do a place search in the Family History Library catalog, which references thousands of microfilmed church registers for christenings, marriages and burials. Watch for entries subcategorized as Church Records, and see if any match your ancestor’s religion or were located near his home.
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From the August 2010 Family Tree Magazine

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