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Church Records and the Days Before Official Records


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I must say that I’ve had a hard time getting started writing about church records. I’d like to tell you that there’s a book that’s compiled most of these into one resource, or there’s one place to write to find the information. Unfortunately, there’s not. However difficult they may be to come by, church records are quite important to the genealogist, because they fill in important information.

In the days before official records were officially kept, records kept by individual churches can fill in a lot of important detail. In some cases, birth dates may not be available, but with some church records we can fill in a baptism date, which gives us a close approximation of the age of an individual. Also, for churches that maintained a cemetery, there will many times be records concerning burial dates, and perhaps relatives names too.

Of course, these bits of information merely fill in the gaps that official records sometimes leave. Church records can give us more than that, they can start to paint a picture of our ancestors, giving them a more human attribute than official records usually do. Membership rolls, attendance notes, and in some cases notes on certain church meetings or events can give our family histories a whole new dimension.

So, the question is how do I find these records for my ancestor? It’s not easy. For one thing, many churches either did not keep some records or have lost them over the course of time. In spite of this, the first place to check is the church that your ancestor attended. Don’t be afraid to ask if they would have any records dating from the time period that he or she attended there. Another place to check with would be the state conference for the denomination that your ancestor belonged to. Many times, church records have been retired to the conference library. Again, the best way to go about finding these resources is to start asking at the local level. Ask questions like these; “where would historical records for North Carolina Methodist churches be kept?”, “Does your church keep or have any historical records for the 1800s?”

Another point to remember is that there are many records that have been compiled by the Church of Latter Day Saints. They have been collecting information on microfilm for many years now, making copies of both official, church, and private records around the world. This can be a great help, there is most likely an LDS stake (branch) library located somewhere in your area, wherever you are reading this from. When you search the LDS microfilms, make sure you are searching the microfilms of the original records rather than the index of ancestors. If you search the ancestor index you are essentially looking at an index of ancestors that other people have researched. It is sometimes helpful in providing clues, but is not a primary sources, and may sometimes contain mistakes.

I hope this has been helpful in giving you an idea of how and where to start looking for church records regarding your ancestors. They may not be the easiest records to come by, but the depth of information they can give makes the search worth it.

Next time: Searching the State Archives

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