Southern California Genealogical Society

Were They Quaker? Shaker? Jewish? Mennonite? Baptist?
By Barbara McKinlay

Some of the best genealogical records can be found in church records. But deciding what church records you are looking for and locating the records may prove really difficult. In Europe, many of the churches were state churches, or large established churches that most of the population belonged to, so, even through the early settlers were searching for new freedoms, they still tended to mimic the places from which they had come. In New England, the established church came to be called Congregational; in Virginia and the south, the Church of England; in New York, the Dutch Reformed Church; and so on.

But when the founders framed the Constitution, they made it plain that they did not seek religious uniformity, and sought the separation of church and state. When that was done, a religious awakening became widespread, and hundreds of churches were founded that were completely independent of one another.

In 2001, the researcher has to try to decide the church their ancestor belong to, and then locate the records. And they are worth locating–births, christenings, baptisms, marriages, divorces, memberships, deaths, and, in the case of Quakers comings and goings–make up the body of records. With the advent of computers, many church records have been published, and the Web has brought a bounty of their records online from libraries, genealogical societies, churches and individuals.

When the religion is unknown, probably the best source of information is a local historical society. Those people know about the men and women who lived there, and also know about the churches that were the most predominant in the area. County histories are also helpful. Often a good encyclopedia will point to the predominant religion in a given area. And, who knows, you may be one of the lucky ones who has a family history indicating the church of choice.

Don’t always look at things in terms of today. Quakers do not make up a large religious group today, but by the late 1700s, there were many Friends in America, and they had started moving westward. They were located in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York City, Long Island, Ohio and Virginia, and would later organize meetings in Indiana. Willard Wade Hinshaw did pioneering research and published a large group of columns of Quaker records, and Willard Heiss has done the same for Indiana. These are available in most genealogical libraries, along with a new index that leads to specific volumes.

Most church records have been well kept. The biggest problem is in locating them. Unlike the Catholic Church, where the records stay in the church, many small Protestant churches closed, and the records stayed with the minister and his family, or with some lay person who had held a responsible position. As time passed, many of these records have been lost.

But take heart–many have survived, and there are indexes and references to them that help. And don’t forget–until and into the 20th century, most of the colleges in the United States were affiliated with some religious group. Though many have dropped that affiliation, often the church records have stayed with the institution.

As part of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, a survey was done of many areas of the United States, known as the Historical Records Survey. It often lists church records that were available for a given area. It has been published as a Check List of Historical Records Survey Publications,1943, and 1969. The problem in using it may be that the location of the records many now be incorrect. Usually the county clerk, county library or historical society can help you locate what you are looking for.

The LDS Family History Library in Salt Lake City has thousands of church records on microfilm that can be borrowed through a local Family History Center. Many of the church records have also been entered into the International Genealogical Index (IGI), which can be used at a local FHC on the Internet.

PERSI, the Periodical Source Index published by the Allen County Library in Indiana is an excellent reference for church records, because it covers so many genealogical publications, and often the records of little-known churches find their way into the publication of a small genealogical society.

Another major source of information, which is often overlooked, is the National Union Catalogue of Manuscript Collections. This many-volume source lists manuscripts found in libraries across the country that might never be uncovered any other way.

The Source, A Guidebook of American Genealogy, Edited by Loretto Dennis Szucs & Sandra Hargreaves Luebking (Ancestry, 1996), also has a good breakdown of denomination archives and repositories with helpful hints about record-keeping practices.

So, you don’t even have to say a prayer–just head for the reference books and church archives that are out there waiting for you.

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