How to Find Church Records in the United States
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 as many of these exact details about the ancestor as possible:
- 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 approximate birthdates of children
- all known places of residence
- military service details
Carefully 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.
Look for online records.[edit | edit source]
Some records have been digitized and posted online, where they are easily searched. More are being added all the time. Partner websites such as Ancestry.com, FindMyPast, MyHeritage, and American Ancestors can be searched free-of-charge at any Family History Center.
Online databases are incomplete. This can lead to two common errors:
- Each state Church Records page lists several online collections.
- Each state has an Online Genealogy Records page. In addition, nationwide church records collections are listed in United States Online Genealogy Records.
- FamilySearch Historical Records
- USGenWeb Archives
- American Ancestors specializes in New England.
Look for digital and microfilm copies found in the FamilySearch catalog.[edit | edit source]
- The FamilySearch Library has a substantial collection of original church records and transcripts on microfilm for churches in the United States. These include records of many denominations, particularly the Society of Friends (Quaker), Presbyterian, Congregational, Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic churches.
- Online church records can be listed in the FamilySearch Catalog under the state, the county, or for a town.
- If you find a record that has not yet been digitized, see How do I request that a microfilm be digitized?
- Some records might have viewing restrictions, and can only be viewed at a Family History Center near you, and/or by members of supporting organizations.
- To find chuch records listed under a state:
- a. Enter your state name in the "Place" search field of FamilySearch Catalog. You will see a list of topics and, at the top, the phrase "Places within United States, [STATE]".
- b. Click on "Church records" in the topic list. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.
- To find church records listed under a county:
- c. From the original page, click on Places within United States, [STATE] and a list of counties will appear.
- d. Click on your county.
- e. Click on the "Church records" topic. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.
- To find church records listed by town:
- f. From the list of counties, click on Places within United States, [STATE], [COUNTY] and a list of towns will appear.
- g. Click on your town if it appears, or the location which you believe was the parish which served your town or village.
- h. Click on the "Church records" topic. Click on the blue links to specific record titles.
- i. Some combination of these icons will appear at the far right of the listing for the record. . The magnifying glass indicates that the record is indexed. Clicking on the magnifying glass will take you to the index. Clicking on the camera will take you to an online digital copy of the records.
Use finding aids that list specific churches and their existing records.[edit | edit source]
Sometimes there are finding aids that list churches, their existing records, and where they are stored, such as:
- A survey of American church records Although this older book is now outdated, it is helpful for a description of records that existed in 1985. If they have been moved since then, personnel at the previous location might know where they are now.
- A preliminary guide to church record repositories.
Each Wiki Church Records state page lists finding aids unique to that state.
Look for published books with transcripts of church records.[edit | edit source]
Many early records, especially from the 1600's and 1700's, have been transcribed and published in books.
These books can be digitized and available online. Check these online digital libraries:
- Google Books
- Internet Archive
- Digital Public Library of America
- HathiTrust Digital Library
- FamilySearch Digital Library
Correspond with or visit the actual churches.[edit | edit source]
Some records are still held in the local churches. Contact the current minister to find out what records are still available.
- Make an appointment to look at the records. Or ask the minister of the church to make a copy of the record for you.
- To find church staff available, you might have to visit on Sunday.
- Ask for small searches at a time, such as one birth record or a specific marriage. Never ask for "everything on a family or surname".
- A donation ($25-$40) for their time and effort to help you would be appropriate.
- If the church has a website, you may be able to e-mail a message.
- See the Letter Writing Guide for Genealogy for help with composing letters.
- Each denomination page offers an online address directory of local churches for that denomination.
Search church records stored in denominational archives.[edit | edit source]
Some denominations gather their records from the local churches and store them in centralized archives or libraries. Some archives only hold records for churches that have closed. Most have digitized catalogs of their holdings. Some have digitized online records. Some archives provide research services for a fee. For others, if you cannot visit in person, you might need to hire a researcher.
These Wiki articles will give you links to archives for each denomination.
|Wiki Articles for Records of Major Religious Denominations|
Search state archives and university archives.[edit | edit source]
Some church records have been deposited for preservation in government archives. Each Wiki state Church Records page will list known state archives and university archives with church records collections and their contact information. Generally, these archives have online catalogs of records. More and more of these are digitizing their records and posting them online.
In addition, these articles will list localized denominational archives, with collections unique to the region.
Contact local libraries.[edit | edit source]
Churches sometimes donate their records to local libraries. Call or write to the libraries in the close vicinity of the church your ancestors might have attended and the towns where they resided.
Correspond with genealogical or historical societies.[edit | edit source]
Some church records have been given to local historical societies. Also, historical societies may be able to tell you where the records are being held. To find a society near you, consult this list:
Consult the PERSI index for records published in journals.[edit | edit source]
- PERSI is the Periodical Source Index and is available at FindMyPast.com:PERSI., ($). It can be searched for free at any Family History Center. PERSI is an index to family and local history periodicals from 1847 to the present. Many of these periodicals publish church records. If you locate an index entry for a church, you will then need to find the periodical. Use the WorldCat.org search engine to find a library near you that carries the periodical. Library reference desks can be contacted to request a copy of articles, or you may need to hire a researcher.
Check for manuscripts kept in private collections.[edit | edit source]
Other records may be held in the homes of people such as retired ministers or clerks, or their descendants. They might be kept by private organizations.
- The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) lists several privately-held church records.
- ArchiveGrid - OCLC is also helpful for locating manuscripts and other sorts of archived records.