Canadian Baptismal Records Peculiarities (National Institute)

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What Difficulties do Baptismal Records Present to Researchers?[edit | edit source]

Since genealogists use baptismal records first as birth records (or near-birth records), the obvious difficulties arise if the baby has not been baptized soon after birth. There is no way for researchers to know this unless some other document gives information which indicates that the baptism cannot be used in this way.

The obvious possibility for 19th century records is the census. Ages in the census can be notoriously inaccurate, but it is always useful to check to see if the age in the census matches the information we infer from the baptism.

Use baptismal information from siblings of the baby also. Do the babies arrive at regular intervals? Not all families fit a pattern, but this can be helpful. Also, if you check the siblings’ ages in the census against their baptismal records, you may see whether a pattern, either regular or irregular, emerges. If you have any doubt about information in church records, always use material on siblings as a check.

The watchful researcher will also notice if there are children of the same parents baptized at intervals too short to be biologically possible. If so, it is an indication that something is amiss.

Example Involving Children[edit | edit source]

Roger Matthews and Elizabeth Bettison were married on 7 November 1719. They had six children, Anna baptized 6 October 1720, Elizabeth and Bettison, baptized 16 November 1721, Mary baptized 28 February 1722, Richard baptized 21 June 1725, William baptized 25 February 1731.

The three months between the twins and Mary would indicate that the twins were not newborns at the time of their baptism. In fact, they died only days later. If we move their probable births back enough to allow time for Mary to be born, the twins conflict with Anna. She also died within days of her baptism. The probable solution is that Anna and the twins were all several months old at the time of their baptisms, and were only rushed to church when they became ill and in danger of death. It is likely that Anna was born shortly after her parents’ marriage, in fact. None of this would be known at all except for the date of Mary’s baptism, and the absolute truth cannot be confirmed.

Reasons Why Children Were Baptised at Different Ages[edit | edit source]

Parents were often neglectful in taking babies for baptism, especially if their denomination was one in which quick baptism was not viewed as an absolute necessity.

More often, in pioneer days when churches and clergy were few, people had limited opportunities for applying for baptism and even when the clergy came round, it may not have been convenient for the family to meet with him for the rite. People who lived far from town could not travel there at will, being restricted by lack of transportation, by bad roads, and by the demands of their stock animals and other household duties. It was fortunate that many clergy were willing to perform baptisms ‘on the hop’ as it were, being asked to do so as they passed and then baptizing the child with little further ceremony.

The records of circuit riders, or traveling missionaries, are of great use when trying to find the ceremonies associated with relatives who lived in newly-settled areas or far from larger settlements. It can be very difficult to determine whose records might be useful and where they might be.

Earlier, we mentioned the Anglican missionary of the 1830s and 1840s stationed at Milton, west of Toronto. His ‘parish’ covered eleven townships which went west as far as Berlin (Kitchener) and Waterloo and north into what is now Grey County. This area is now in four or five counties. Even given good roads he could not have visited any part of the region more than once or twice a year, and the roads were dreadful, impassable for long stretches of the spring and fall. They would be at their easiest for traveling in the winter, which presented other difficulties of cold and uncertain weather.

But any speculations we might have about how he did his work, especially as regards baptizing children, come to nothing when we discover that his records have never been found.

A great many clergy, even those who were not traveling, wrote the information about sacraments performed on slips of paper or in a notebook, intending to transfer them into a proper register when they had leisure. The slips might be lost in transit, or the clergyman might never find the time to make the fair copies. The difficulty of any system which involves copying genealogical information from one place to another is that there will inevitably be inaccuracies. Even when these inaccuracies are obvious to researchers, we cannot revise the information. We are stuck with recording it as given and then explaining what seems to be wrong with it.

One of the most common errors in baptismal records which have been copied from one place to another is the transposition of the baby’s name and the mother’s name. While the father’s name is a fixed thing in everyone’s mind, since men were so obviously important, the mother was often only ‘Mrs. X’ to the community at large and babies were often simply ‘Baby.’ Even after the christening or naming of the child, the smallest child might still be ‘Baby’ for some time. There were so many children. If someone else needed to refer to them, they might say, “That baby of John Smith’s,” or “John Smith’s youngest.” And so the child is recorded as Elizabeth, daughter of John and Elizabeth Smith, when in fact the baby’s name was something else, or even the mother’s name was something else. The result, more than a century later, is genealogical misery.

Another idea to keep in mind is that birthdates in baptismal records, if much earlier than the time of the christening, may be problematic. One reason people’s ages in census and other documents in the 19th century are so variable, is that people did not have to be aware of their age constantly, as we do. They did not have to write down their birthdate on documents; save for the ten-year census taken, it might be that no one would ask their age at all. If the people concerned were illiterate, as many were, the whole question of keeping track of an age was even more complicated.

So, if a child was born and months passed before the clergyman came along to baptize him, the parents might easily lose track of exactly when it was that he was born. The baptism of Andrew Lunn, son of James Lunn and Margaret Anne Hawthorne, born in Durham County, Ontario, is a good case in point. There is a Wesleyan Methodist record of his baptism, on 15 June 1879 by W. C. Jolly. His birthdate in that record is given as 25 May 1879, making him aged three weeks at the time.

However we know (from Andrew Lunn’s own testimony) that by the time he was baptized his mother was no longer sure when he was born; in fact, his generally accepted birth year was 1877 and his birthday was usually celebrated on 16 June in later years. His age was always a mystery, however, and now will remain so. Of the six children in his family, he was the only one baptized, and none of the births were registered.

Where Can I Find a Missing Baptism?[edit | edit source]

If you know the family’s religion (from the census, or from family information), begin by looking at the nearest churches of that denomination.

Look in the records of other denominations in the region whose theology might lead them to baptize children brought for christening, but whose parents were not active members of the congregation.

Keep in mind traveling missionaries, again of denominations who welcomed the baptism of children regardless of the religious status of the parents. In particular, remember that the Methodists in the 19th century were actively proselytizing in Canada, having made evangelism one of the first tenets of practicing their faith. They welcomed everyone. When in doubt, check out the Methodist records.

The Wesleyan Methodists in Ontario created an unusual archive of baptismal records, starting in the 1840s and extending in some cases to the 1890s. These records were created by the clergy sending copies of the baptisms they performed to a central office, where they were inscribed in ledgers. These were organized geographically by township. The originals are at the United Church archives in Toronto, but they have been microfilmed and are available in that form in many other places.

More recently the registers have become available as a searchable database. In addition, various Ontario Genealogical Society branches or private publishers have extracted the records for specific counties and published them in book form with indexes. Ask locally to determine if this is true for your area.

This is a page from the original Wesleyan baptismal ledgers, for the township of Algona in northern Ontario. The sparse population accounts for the few entries; most pages in the ledgers are crowded. The last entry, for Eliza Jane Halliday, gives her parents’ names (Timothy & M. A.), and residence (Algona), place of birth, date of birth and date of baptism.

The much smaller Methodist Episcopal denomination also recorded baptisms, and the records of the Niagara conference (Ontario) have been published in book form by the Ontario Genealogical Society.

Canada Methodist Episcopal Baptism Record.jpg

Are Records of ‘Believer’s Baptism’ of Any Use to Genealogists?[edit | edit source]

The Anabaptists who praxes baptism of adults have tended not to keep records of these baptisms in earlier years. The reason for this was that they were considered illegal organizations in their beginnings and were persecuted for simply existing by the governments of England, Germany, France, wherever they lived.

While they lived freely in Canada, able to praxes their religions without fear, they had not developed the habits of record keeping which the more mainstream denominations had, and so they did not think to begin.

Eventually, in the 19th century, church record keeping along with other kinds became more usual and eventually baptisms were written down along with other things.

It is always useful to record important dates in the lives of our relatives, and so, if you find a record of believer’s baptism for anyone in your family, it is wise to make note of it and then use it in the family history. As the date of baptism has no relation with any of the three traditional genealogical dates (birth, marriage, death), it will probably not play a great role in a plain genealogy.

In family history, however, it should be significant. For most people in the various Anabaptist churches, the act of coming forward to ask for baptism involved a serious commitment to certain religious beliefs and the public expression of them, and then to joining the church. This also meant that other members of the community approved of your choice and allowed you to join. These activities were of great spiritual and social significance to the individual concerned, and any record of their life would be defective if these facts were lacking.

So the answer is, yes, always record a believer’s baptism that you find. In terms of family history value, the record can be used to prove that an individual is in a particular place at a particular time, and had probably been there for a while, long enough to establish themselves socially. They can also be assumed to have reached years of discretion (i.e., in this case the ability to make up their own mind and make a commitment to the church), but exactly what this means will vary with the practices of the different churches. Some believers who were baptized may be as young as ten (or less), and others may be baptized when they are over 80.

References[edit | edit source]


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Religious Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.