How to Begin
Records of churches and synagogues often provide the genealogist with valuable information about ancestors. The types of extant records vary according to the denomination's customs and the recordkeeping styles of individual pastors. Some churches maintain parish registers, in which vital events such as baptisms, marriages, and burials are recorded, sometimes predating public vital records. Other congregations kept only minute books, where one may find an ancestor's name in the notes of the congregation's business sessions. Both types of records have genealogical and historical value and are worth the effort it often takes to find them.
This Pathfinder offers guidance in navigating the Genealogy Department's holdings of American congregational records and related guidebooks, directories, and bibliographies. The first step is to determine the ancestor's denomination, and if possible, his or her precise church. Newspaper obituaries, funeral cards, baptismal and marriage certificates, family Bibles, cemeteries, county histories, and the ethnic background of the ancestor can all provide important clues. Record the names of any churches that appear, and see if the records exist in the Genealogy Department's catalogs.
If no specific church is evident, but one finds clues about the denomination, use secondary sources to determine what congregations of that denomination existed in the locality and time period of the ancestor. County histories are useful for rural locations, but urban areas pose particular challenges to the researcher, since several churches of the same denomination may have existed in close proximity. City directories may help. Look for congregations affiliated with the ancestor's ethnic group. If, after taking the above steps, one is still uncertain about an ancestor's denomination, a search of all available congregational records for a particular locality may be necessary.
If one knows the ancestor's denomination and church, it might also be productive to search beyond the congregation. The collection includes denominational histories and biographical compilations of both clergy and laity for many churches, such as The Brethren Encyclopedia /Gc 929.102 C473br/, The Mennonite Encyclopedia /Gc 929.102 M52men & Gc 929.102 M52mena/, the Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists /Gc 929.102 B33e/, the American Jewish Year Book /Gc 929.102 J55a/, and the Annals of the American Pulpit /Gc 929.11 Sp7a/. All of these may yield clues, which in turn may help identify ancestors, their acquaintances, or their pastors. They will also help place the ancestor into historical context.
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Uusing the Department Catalogs
The Genealogy Department collects records of congregations from many denominations from North America. They can include photocopies and microfilms of original record volumes, but in most cases they consist of published compilations taken from original records. Availability varies by locality; many church records have not been published. In addition, the Department collects congregational and denominational histories and directories, guidebooks on doing research in specific church records, church-related bibliographies, special guides and catalogs to church records and archives, and denominational periodicals with a historical focus.
Church records can be found in the online catalog at www.ACPL.Lib.in.us under the specific name of the congregation, for example, St. John's Lutheran Church. Some books are also listed under the religious group, for example: Quakers or Methodists. One can also search for church records using a specific locality such as Allen County, Indiana or Cincinnati, Ohio.
Be sure to search both the online catalog for church records in book form and the microtext card catalog for microfilmed church records. The PERiodical Source Index (PERSI) provides a subject index to hundreds of thousands of articles in genealogical and historical periodicals, and includes many references to church records. In addition, one should also use the Family History Library Catalog, available online at www.FamilySearch.org, to search for microfilmed church records worldwide. Many of these can be ordered from the Family History Library for a nominal fee.
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Major Congregations Record Collections
Allen County, Ind. Church Records.
A large collection of photocopied and microfilmed parish registers and minute books of various denominations for Fort Wayne and Allen County. Check the catalog under the name of the specific church.
American Home Missionary Society Papers, 1816-1894. /385 rolls, microfilm/ Collected letters from missionaries of various denominations, chiefly Presbyterian and Congregational, to the Society home office, describing local conditions and often naming church members.
American Missionary Association Manuscripts, 1839-1882. /261 rolls, microfilm/ Similar to the above collection, but for a different missionary society.
Chamberlayne, C. G. Compiler of a series of Anglican records for colonial Virginia. Check the online catalog for a list of titles.
Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend Collection. /microfilm/ A collection of microfilmed Indiana parish registers for older Roman Catholic churches in the diocese.
Evangelical and Reformed Church Records - Pennsylvania. /24 rolls, microfilm/ A collection of Lutheran and Reformed records, arranged by county.
Georgia Baptist Church Records. /43 rolls, microfilm/ Selected Baptist church minute books arranged by county.
Hebert, Donald J. Compiler of an extensive collection of Catholic and Acadian church records in Louisiana. Check the online catalog for a list of titles.
Heiss, Willard, comp. Abstracts of the Records of the Society of Friends in Indiana. 6 vols. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Soc., 1962. /Gc 977.2 Ab89/ Follows the format of Hinshaw (below), with abstracts of many Indiana meetings.
Hinshaw, William Wade. Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy. 6 vols. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969-73. /Gc 929.102 F91h/ An extensive collection of Quaker records, containing abstracts of meeting records for North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Virginia. A comprehensive full-name index serves as a useful supplement /Gc 929.102 F91hah/
Kelly, Arthur C. M. Compiler of an extensive collection of church records from several denominations in the Hudson and Mohawk River Valleys of New York, where few vital records are otherwise available. Check the online catalog for a list of titles.
North Carolina Baptist Church Records. /53 rolls, microfilm/ Collected Baptist minute books from the 18th and 19th centuries, arranged by county.
Ruff, Paul Miller. Compiler of a collection of Lutheran and Reformed church records from central and western Pennsylvania. Check the online catalog for a list of titles.
Vosburgh, Royden Woodward. Vosburgh Collection. /microfilm/ A collection chiefly of Reformed Dutch, Lutheran, and Presbyterian Church records from New York State, many dating from the 18th century.
Waters, Margaret R. and Mabel W. Milliken, Western Christian Advocate Obituaries and Marriages. 2 vols. Fort Wayne: Public Library, 1966. /Gc 929.102 M56d and M56dd/ A transcription of obituaries appearing in this religious newspaper from 1834 to 1848, mainly covering Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.
Weiser, Frederick S. Compiler of a series of Lutheran and Reformed church records in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Check the online catalog for a list of titles.
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Guidebooks such as those listed below assist researchers in a variety of tasks. They can aid in locating and interpreting church records, offer help in writing congregational history, and provide important historical background on denominations that is essential to both of these tasks.
Carroll, Bret E. The Routledge Historical Atlas of Religion in America. New York: Routledge, 2000. /Gc 973 C236ro/ A geographical examination of American religious groups, showing migration routes.
Dougherty, Richard W. "Research in Church Records," in Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, eds. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. 2nd ed. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997. /Gc 929 So8 1996/ A useful overview of church records by denomination with an exceptional bibliography.
_________. “Published Church Records,” in Kory L. Meyerink, ed. Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records. Salt Lake City, UT: Ancestry, Inc., 1998. /Gc 973 P937/
Guide to Family History Research in the Archival Repositories of the United Church of Canada. Toronto, Ontario: Ontario Genealogical Society, 1996. /Gc 971 G9419/
Guide to the Holdings of the Archives of the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada. Toronto, Ontario: Anglican Church of Canada General Synod Archives, 1995. /Gc 971 G942/
Hill, Thomas C. Monthly Meetings in North America: A Quaker Index. 4th ed. Cincinnati, OH: T. C. Hill, 1998. /Gc 929.102 F91hia/ Comprehensive directory of known meetings with notes on extant records.
Humling, Virginia. U.S. Catholic Sources: A Diocesan Research Guide. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1995. /973 H88u/ Provides addresses of every diocese and includes references to diocesan histories, newspapers, and some manuscript collections.
Humphrey, John T. Understanding and Using Baptismal Registers. Washington DC: Humphrey Publications, 1996. /Gc 929 H885u/ A good overview of baptismal registers with a strong 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania emphasis.
Kirkham, E. Kay. A Survey of American Church Records. 4th ed. Logan, UT: Everton, 1978. /Gc 929 K63s/ Lists some major church record sources by state and county, including some published records, but is incomplete in many areas.
Mead, Frank, and Samuel S. Hill. Handbook of Denominations in the United States. 5th ed. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1970. /Gc 929.102 M46h/ Useful and succinct historical overview of denominations. The more recent editions are in the library’s Readers’ Services Department.
Pettee, Julia. List of Churches: Official Forms of the Names for Denominational Bodies with Brief Descriptive and Historical Notes. Chicago, American Library Association, 1948. /Gc 973 P451L/ Arranged by denomination and includes a list of all sects and subdivisions within each.
Smith, Kenneth. German Church Books: Beyond the Basics. Camden, ME: Picton Press, 1989. /Gc 929 Sm52g/ Useful for interpreting church records written in German script and thus has applications for research in German-American congregational records.
Suelflow, August R. A Preliminary Guide to Church Record Repositories. Chicago: Church Archives Committee, Society of American Archivists, 1969. /Gc 973 Su24p/ Lists dioceses, synods, and archives of major denominations with brief holdings information.
Wind, James P. Places of Worship: Exploring Their History. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1990. /Gc 973.07 W72p/ An excellent guide for researching and writing the history of a congregation.
_________. and James W. Welborn, eds. American Congregations. 2 vols. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994. /Gc 929.102 W72a/ Offers important perspectives on writing congregational history.
World Council on Records and Genealogical Seminar, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA 5-8 August 1969. Salt Lake City: Family History Library, 1969. /Gc 929 W89 vol. 10, part 1/ Contains useful essays on records of the Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Jewish, Baptist, Quaker, and Episcopal denominations.
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Bibliographies and Record Inventories
Albaugh, Gaylord P. History and Annotated Bibliography of American Religious Periodicals and Newspapers Established from 1730 through 1830. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1991. /Gc 929.11 AL13h/ Useful guide to finding newspapers with possible references to churches and church-goers.
Allison, William H. Inventory of Unpublished Material for American Religious History in Protestant Church Archives and Other Repositories. New York: Kraus Reprint Corp., 1965. 1910 reprint. /Gc 973 G942c/
Historical Records Survey (U.S.). Inventory of the Church Archives of ... /various call numbers/ A series of church record surveys compiled by the W.P.A. in the 1930s with varying regional and denominational scopes. They are extant for the following states: Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Check the catalogs under "Inventory of the Church Archives" and check Loretta Hefner's W.P.A. Historical Records Survey: A Guide to the Unpublished Inventories, Indexes, and Transcripts (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1980). /Gc 016.973 H36w/
National Union Catalogue of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1959-. multi-volume. /Gc 016.091 N21/ Lists major manuscript collections in U.S. archives, including many church-related references. Print editions ceased with 1993. NUCMC are available online and cover from 1986 to the present.
Rudolph, L. C. and Judith E. Endelman. Religion in Indiana: A Guide to Historical Resources. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986. /Gc 977.2 R83r/ A descriptive guide to religious archives and holdings in the state.
Sowinski, Carolyn, William K. Cawley and Charlotte Ames. Parish History Collection: A Directory of Works at the University of Notre Dame. 2nd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University Archives, 1988). /Gc 977.202 So8unj/ A nationwide list of Catholic parish histories in the collection of Notre Dame's archives.
Thomas, Evangeline, ed. Women Religious History Sources: A Guide to Repositories in the United States. New York: R. R. Bowker Co., 1983. /Gc 016.271 W842/ A descriptive guide to the holdings of religious orders by state.
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Indiana Historical Records Survey, A Directory of Churches and Religious Organizations in Indiana. 3 vols. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Records Survey, 1941. /Gc 977.2 H62d/
Melton, J. Gordon. National Directory of Churches, Synagogues, and Other Houses of Worship. 4 vols. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1994. /200.2573 N21 1994. Readers Services/ An extensive but not exhaustive listing of congregations and their addresses, arranged by state and town. Volume 1 covers northeastern states, volume 2 the Midwest, volume 3 the South, and volume 4 the West.
Official Catholic Directory. New York: P.J. Kennedy, 1981- /282 Of2d Readers Services/ Published annually, this work lists the addresses of every Catholic parish in the U.S. by diocese and town, and includes founding date.
Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1973- /277 Y32 Readers Services/ An annual directory of major church organizations, colleges, and affiliated bodies, arranged by denomination.
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