Forgotten Trails: Church records make good resources

Published 11:22 pm Wednesday, July 9, 2008

By Staff
Over the years I have given you lots of places to look for genealogical information. One place I have never mentioned is church records.
One good source of information is a collection of records kept by the Latter Day Saints. These number in the thousands and are kept in a controlled environment under a mountain in Salt Lake City.
I figured the Catholic church probably had good records, but as I have no Catholic ancestors I have never tried to check.
I am a Baptist, but grew up in the Methodist church. I have always assumed there were no written records for either denomination. I was wrong.
Elizabeth Wells, Coordinator for the Special Collections Unit at Samford University in Birmingham, spoke about church records in a meeting of the Escambia County Historical Society several years ago. It was most informative.
The library at Samford University is the repository for many records including church records. Samford University is a Baptist College, but by no means is it limited to Baptist records.
Wells said that church records include christening, baptism, marriage, death, confirmation and memberships. Other types of church records are church conference/business meeting minutes, church publications and religious press.
One of the first things to consider when doing research is to determine the denomination. This can be done by family tradition, civil marriages and death records, marriage announcements and obituaries and memorials.
Where can these records be found? They may be in local churches, private collections or at libraries and archives.
There are approximately 134 separate kinds of Baptists. One has to determine the kind their ancestor was and narrow the search to state, county and local areas. Some records are kept by the church and if the church closes, associations or states can assist. Collections usually include many kinds of Baptists.
Catholic records are kept at the parish level. Records of baptism, marriage, confirmation and burial may be found at the church where events took place. Older records or those from closed churches have usually been sent to diocesan archives or to historical societies or university archives.
Congregational churches have had lots of mergers and has resulted in three denominations containing Congregational Churches, which are Congregational Christian Churches, Unitarian Universalist Association and United Church of Christ.
The majority of American Lutherans belong to Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which was formed in 1988 from a merger.
Today's Methodist Church is the descendant of several predecessors. A good website for a timeline and details is
This includes the Methodist Episcopal Church (1784-1939), Methodist Episcopal Church South (1845-1939), Methodist Protestant Church (1828-1939), Methodist Church (1939-1968), United Brethren in Christ (1800-1946), Evangelical Association (to 1922), Evangelical Church (1922-1946) and Evangelical United Brethren (1946-1968).
Protestant Episcopal-Episcopal Church, USA local churches maintains the records or if defunct, to the dioscean archives. One should determine if the church is still active and contact the denominational archives. This would include the Colonial Church of England.
Wells said many records are in the possession of individuals and are in danger of becoming totally lost. The college is perfectly willing to copy the documents and return the originals. The main thing is to get them into libraries that will make them available to the public when doing research.
One member said she remembered her mother had some church records and sure enough, when she looked for them, there they were.
My story with church records concern some books in the possession of the current pastor of Asbury Methodist Church in Dale County. When he put them in front of me I got so excited about one of them that I didn't even check the others out. It was a membership list and the first name listed was the brother of my ancestor and dated 1862. I thought for a long while that my cousin was going to copy it and send to me. Finally I was able to do it myself one Sunday when I went up to visit my brother. The pastor of the church turned me loose in his office and I copied the whole thing. It was amazing.
So, when you think about research, don't forget to include the records of the church. The few that I have seen have been very interesting.
Until next week, happy hunting!

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