Search billions of records on


From the Green Valley News, Friday 27 July 2008, page B7

Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG

American Church Records, Part I

Church records are among the most underused sources by American genealogical researchers, probably because they are so difficult to locate. Last month we discussed the Quakers and no other set of church records is as well preserved and so easily located.

When settlement of "the New World" began in New England the established church was Congregational. Generally a state church means better and more complete records. All of the New England states except Rhode Island adhered to Congregationalism. Rhode Island was founded on religious tolerance in 1636 and hosted a variety of religions since its inception.

Early church records pertaining to individuals are seldom indexed and are often buried within the church minutes or proceedings. The rewards of searching through pages and pages of minutes may be information found in no other place.

From the New Fairfield (Connecticut) Congregational Church minutes, I learned my ancestor Gaius Smith was on the school committee in 1770. Several times he was relieved of paying the "ministerial rate" for support of the pastor, likely an indication that he was not a member of the church. The minutes also report he had a son born 28 April 1772 who died in September 1773, facts not documented in any other place. I have determined approximately when the family moved to Vermont by their disappearance from the church minutes after 1774.

Other state churches in this country include the English or Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia, and for some years in Georgia, Maryland and South Carolina. The Protestant Episcopal Church kept very good records but unfortunately few survive today and there is no central repository. When the Dutch occupied New Amsterdam, now New York, the Dutch Reformed Church was the state church. Many of its records are found in New York and New Jersey.

After 1689 British King William III passed the Toleration Act the colonies gradually abolished state sanctioned religion. Often churches changed their names and even their denominations more than once during the succeeding years. Records of the Congregational Church, for instance, might be found among records of the Unitarian Universalist Church or the United Church of Christ. A major collection of New England Congregational records is at the Congregational Library in Boston, Massachusetts.

In the absence of civil vital record registrations, church records can be the solution to some of your more difficult genealogical problems. Most churches recorded baptisms, marriages and burials, and in some denominations confirmations. Baptisms commonly include the parentsí names, sometimes even the motherís maiden name and usually note whether the individual was an adult rather than an infant. Marriage records may also name parents, especially if a couple is under age. Burial or death records will sometimes include the deceasedís birth place.

Admissions to membership and dismissals are useful in determining relocation of members.

Many compilations of published vital records, particularly those of Massachusetts and Rhode Island and the Barbour Index in Connecticut, incorporated church records in with the vital records recorded by the town clerk. My next column will focus on Catholic Church records, finding church records and on identifying your ancestorsí religious persuasion.

Home Page
737 visitors since
4 August 2008
Page revised
04 August 2008
Valid XHTML 1.0