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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:-
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