Determining the Church Your Ancestor Attended

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Determining the Church Your Ancestor Attended

Prepare by Collecting Background Information[edit | edit source]

You will possibly find many different people with the same name as your ancestor, especially when a family stayed in a locality for several generations, and several children were named after the grandparents or aunts and uncles. Be prepared to find the correct church records by organizing in advance the exact details about the ancestor:

  • name, including middle name and maiden name
  • names of all spouses, including middle and maiden name
  • exact or closely estimated dates of birth, marriage, and death
  • names and closely estimated birthdates of children
  • all known places of residence
  • occupations
  • military service details

Dark thin font green pin Version 4.pngCarefully evaluate the church records you find to make sure you have really found records for your ancestor and not just a "near match". If one or more of the details do not line up, be careful about accepting the entry as your ancestor. There are guiding principles for deciding how to resolve discrepancies between records that are seemingly close. For more instruction in evaluating evidence, read the Wiki article, Evaluate the Evidence.

Searching for Clues to the Church your Ancestor Attended[edit | edit source]

Place Names in a Family Bible

Search home sources.[edit | edit source]

Thoroughly go over all home sources available to you in your home,
older relatives' homes, homes of relatives who might have received
the effects of deceased ancestors, including:

  • family history papers,
  • pictures, hopefully with a church in the background
  • old letters (i.e. with an old address),
  • family Bibles,
  • journals/diaries,
  • copies of birth, marriage, or death certificates,
  • funeral programs,
  • church records, memorabilia etc.

Ask family members for clues.[edit | edit source]

Interview extended family and close relatives as well as former neighbors.

  • Ask about family traditions about churches your ancestor’s may have attended.
  • Ask if people attended weddings or funerals, and at which church.
  • Ask for names of beloved ministers that were favorites of the family, or especially helpful.

Send for birth, marriage, and death certificates.[edit | edit source]

Each certificate could narrow down the residence town at the time of event, so you can then look for churches in that town. The marriage and death certificates could name the officiating minister and/or the church where the wedding or funeral took place.
Each Wiki state main page, under the "Getting Started" section, lists these articles:

How to Find Birth Records
How to Find Marriage Records
How to Find Death Records
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Look for obituaries in newspaper collections.[edit | edit source]

Look for clues in cemetery records.[edit | edit source]

If your ancestor was buried in a church cemetery, they may have belonged to that church. Also look for sexton records of the cemetery and funeral home records, if it is possible.
Cemetery websites are:

Use census records for clues to the residence of a family.[edit | edit source]

Census records were taken every 10 years starting in 1790. They state the exact town where each family lived in those years. They are indexed so you can locate your family usually quite easily. You can then look for the churches in or close to that town. To learn more about censuses, read United States Census. For links to online indexed census records, go to United States Census Online Genealogy Records.

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Look for geographical and historical clues.[edit | edit source]

  • Learn what churches were available in towns where the ancestor lived.
    • Some communities only had one church, so most residents would have attended that church.
    • Sometimes an ancestor preferred to attend a church close to his or her home, and was not concerned about the denomination he or she attended. Check churches close to your ancestor's home.
    • On the other hand, your ancestor may have traveled some distance to attend a church in the next town or county, if the denomination was important.
    • There is also the possibility that an ancestor may have started out with one church and converted to another church.
  • County histories can usually cover the history of early or original churches as the towns were settled.
    • Search the FamilySearch Catalog under the county name. Look under topics "Church history" and "History" within that county.
    • Find the Wiki page for the county for listings of online and printed county histories. Go to the main page for the state to find a list of links to county pages.
    • For county histories at, click on "Search", click on the state you are searching, and then click on the county you are searching.
  • Telephone directories:
If your ancestor lived in a large city, check the city directory to see what churches were in the neighborhood. Some denominations had congregations by ethnic type (Irish, German, English, African-American). City directories often list the pastor or priest, and you may be able to determine the ethnicity of the congregation. Use Yellow Pages Business Directory.
  • Societies:
Ask local genealogical and historical societies about historical churches in the area.

Church Information Found in a County History

Consider nationality clues.[edit | edit source]

If you know your ancestor's country of origin, it can give you a clue as to their religion. Some individuals immigrated to avoid religious persecution, and may have belonged to a church not popular or common in their home country. The following table gives the more prominent churches of a particular country and the first denomination you should research for you ancestor. It also gives the American name of the church, if it changed.

Country of Origin Prominent Church Church in U.S.
Denmark Lutheran Lutheran
Finland Lutheran Lutheran
France Roman Catholic Roman Catholic
Germany Roman Catholic Roman Catholic
Italy Roman Catholic Roman Catholic
Latin Countries Roman Catholic Roman Catholic
Norway Lutheran Lutheran
Poland Roman Catholic Roman Catholic
Scotland Church of Scotland Presbyterian
Sweden Lutheran Lutheran
England Church of England or Anglicans Protestant Episcopal