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Guide 2 Genealogy   >   Sources   >   Church Records

 

Using Church Records in Genealogy


The Church is one of the oldest organized institutions in Western civilization. Prior to the Reformation in Europe, the clergy, who studied religious works, were the only large group of people who could read and write. Consequently, the duty to maintain state records fell upon them, as kings were eager to have accurate records so that no one could escape paying taxes!

Some records kept by religious organizations date back for almost a thousand years. However, there are many gaps in such records because of natural disasters and warfare vast quantities of records were lost in Europe during World War II for example. Additionally, in many cases the accuracy of such records may be questionable because in Europe, where the church and the state acted as one body, corruption undoubtedly tainted records at times.

In America on the other hand, there has always been a great degree of separation between the church and state. Furthermore, meticulous record-keeping has generally not been seen as a duty of the clergy, so although church records exist, they may not always be complete.

Despite the gaps and inaccuracies, despite the losses of history, church records are an extremely value source for the genealogist. Some contain information that can not be found elsewhere, and some contain facts that corroborate information in other records. These church records can help the genealogist locate birth, marriage, and death information. For some denominations, the information may be more complete than others. Quaker, Dutch reformed, Anglican, Catholic, and other European churches traditionally maintained logs of births, marriages, and deaths, whereas Baptist, United Brethren, and other America-born religions generally recorded little more than membership rosters.

To use church records effectively, you also need to remember two trends in American religious history:-
  • When Europeans initially arrived in North America and formed colonies, they distrusted the church entering their affairs so much that religious wedding ceremonies were outlawed. Weddings were considered civil affairs, and as a result, civil magistrates performed them. Therefore, if you find mention of a wedding in a church record that dates back to the colonies, take a closer look: The record is probably not of a wedding but of a marriage ban, or an intention to marry, and there is no guarantee that such a marriage ever took place. If you simply assume that such a ban was fulfilled, you could easily start researching the wrong family by mistake if the couple never actually married.

  • Religious groups in America have often actively campaigned for new members. Consequently, people often converted from one faith to another. And, when a person converted, their name was often dropped from their prior church's records.
So you how do you get started? The first step is to find out what faith your family members were. This is not always easy, but a good start is to know their European homeland. If they were German or Dutch, chances are they were Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, or Catholic. If they were from Italy or certain parts of Ireland, they were Catholic. And if they were from Scotland or other parts of Ireland, they were probably Presbyterian.


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