Using and Finding U.S. Church Records

Types of church records and how to find them

Church records can be a valuable source of information in U.S. genealogy research because they can prove dates and information when vital records kept by the government were not recorded yet or when other types of records are not available.

Types of church records

  • Baptisms or christenings: These records typically have the name, date and place of the event, and sometimes a birth date or names of parents.
  • Marriages: These records typically give the names of the bride and groom and the name of the couple. Sometimes names of parents, names or witnesses and/or ages of the couple may be mentioned.
  • Deaths and burials: These records typically have the name of the deceased and the date and place of death. Sometimes place of burial, age of the deceased, name of spouse, and/or names of parents may be listed.
  • Confirmations: Some churches have confirmation records that occurred after a baptism that confirms membership in the denomination. The age can vary, but it will usually list the name of the person and date of the event.
  • Membership lists or rolls: These records typically list names of members on a certain date or range of dates. Sometimes residences, dates of admittance of removal, age, and family relationships may be mentioned.
  • Other church records: These may include church censuses, Sunday school lists, proclamations, communion, letters of transfer, financial records and more.

Locating Which Church Your Ancestor Attended

Because church records are usually organized by denomination, you'll need to determine where you ancestor attended. Here are some places to look to determine which church your ancestor may have attended.

  • Obituary: An obituary may identify someone as a member of a particular church. An obituary of a family members may also list a church name.
  • Cemetery location: Sometimes the cemetery where a person is buried is next to a church. If someone is buried in a church cemetery, there's a good chance he or she belonged to that church.
  • Family tradition: Often a family would be part of a particular denomination over a period of years
  • National origin: Immigrants often attended the same church from their country of origin. If you know your ancestor's national origin, you may be able to link the country of origin with the prominent church in the area. For example, the Lutheran Church was prominent in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Germany; the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland were prominent in Ireland; the Catholic Church was prominent in Latin American countries; the Church of England (Episcopal Church in the U.S.) was the prominent church in England; the Catholic Church was prominent in Italy; etc.
  • Marriage record: A marriage record recorded by the government might identify the officiator of the marriage and name of the church.
  • Marriage notice in newspaper: A local newspaper may have mentioned a marriage and in which church it occurred.
  • Local history of the area: Finding out more about the town may give you a clue about what the predominant religion was in the area.
  • City directory: Some cities listed the various organizations, including churches, so you can see where they were located and discover if your ancestor lived close by.

Limitations of Church Records

  • Missing or destroyed records: sometimes you can't find the names because records might be missing or destroyed.
  • Moving/migration: Families moved between parishes and towns.
  • Non-attendance: For whatever reason, your ancestor simply did not attend local church.
  • No records: During the times of a "circuit rider" minister, the records may not have been given to the church.

Where to Find Church Records

  • Some church records are digitized and searchable online. You can locate online church records by starting with the church records section of our records directory.
  • Contact the local church where you know your ancestor was. Sometimes the church itself will have copies of the records, or if not, they may know where the records are currently located.
  • Contact a local genealogical society, historical society, or public library. Often these organizations will have copies of church records or will know where the records are located.

Need help finding more records? Try our genealogical records directory which has more than 1.3 million sources to help you more easily locate the available records.

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