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Church Records in Family History Research
Column published: 23 June 2006
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

Church records rank among the very best genealogical records available and were generally kept in a much earlier time period than were civil vital records. We find, however, that church records tend to be one of the least used of the many avenues of research available to the genealogist. This is probably because most folks don't realize what a treasure trove of information is hidden in these records. Perhaps the greatest value of church records is that they do occur far earlier than the civil recordings of birth, marriage, and death. Because civil records are not always available, church records can be vital in reconstructing your family.

Baptism, marriage, and burial registers are the records most frequently consulted by genealogists, as they document the vital events of individual congregational members. Other useful records include board and committee minutes, communion rolls and all forms of membership lists; i.e., circuit registers, and historic rolls.

You can't expect church records to take the place of vital records and wills and deeds. But never underestimate their potential in solving difficult problems and in providing local color for your history.

Church records are also very good supplements to civil vital records. They are excellent sources to fill gaps where official records are missing or were never kept. They often contain important facts that are not recorded in any other source. They help us to tell our ancestor's story. Church records have great possibilities for genealogical research, but they are best used as a way to solve some of the puzzles in our family histories.

Christ Church Cathedral ē Ottawa, Canada Here are some of the types of records that I will encourage you to look for:
  • Baptism, marriage and burial records
  • Church census records
  • Membership lists of arriving or new members, departing members.
  • Members who have been excommunicated, read out of meetings or censured.
  • Minutes of various organizations within a church
  • Records of church socials
  • Biographical notes on members
  • Transcriptions of talks or testimonies given in a particular meeting
  • Notes on funeral ceremonies with references to the names of family members who attended
Suggested resources:
  • Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches is published yearly by the National Council of Churches in the USA and is the most up-to-date compilation of contacts, facts and figures on US and Canadian churches and church agencies, published by the National Council of Churches in the USA.
  • Kirkham, E. Kay. A Survey of American Church Records: Major and Minor Denominations Before 1880-1890.
  • Kirkham, E. Kay. A Survey of American Church Records: For the period before the Civil War, East of the Mississippi River

Until next time :)

Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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