Course: 2024-16 – Using US Church Records for Family History

Coordinator: Sunny J. Morton

Description:

Do you ever face challenging genealogical problems for your U.S. ancestors? Church records can be your saving grace! You will learn to find and use church records to identify elusive U.S. ancestors and immigrant birthplaces, reconstruct family groups, follow migration paths, bolster document trails in record-poor situations, and build meaningful historical context.

The U.S. has a religiously diverse history and the course content has been designed to teach concepts that apply as universally as possible. Even case studies representing specific denominations teach widely applicable principles. Only three sessions focus exclusively on key historical subgroups: Roman Catholics, German-speaking immigrant churches, and Southern churches (Black and white).

Beyond the use of church records, you’ll also improve other genealogical skills. You’ll practice reading old handwriting (and even try writing with a fountain pen). You’ll go on a record scavenger hunt that teaches you finding skills. You’ll increase your appreciation of laws, historical context, and local sources such as newspapers. A special session on working in archival manuscript collections will be followed by a field trip to a local church archive.

Other Instructors:

Deborah Abbot, PhD
Judy G. Russell, JD, CG, CGL
Jeanette Sheliga
Renate Yarborough Sanders

Student Prerequisites: None

Recommendations:

Required textbook: How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records by Sunny Jane Morton and Harold Henderson (Genealogical Publishing Co.). Those who register for the course will receive a coupon code, allowing them to purchase it at a discount.

Other: Bring a laptop that will allow you to conduct online research, participate in classroom activities, and access your own research. You will be invited to apply what you learn as the week progresses and (optionally) share a short summary of your takeaways and planned next steps.

Day Session Title Description Instructor
Monday 1 Where Did My Family Go to Church? Determining a family’s religious affiliation (if they had one) is the first step in finding them in church records. We’ll do a flash history of the country’s changing religious landscape and introduce you to the little-known U.S. Census of Religious Bodies. Then, we’ll turn our attention to clues about a family’s faith in common genealogical records and explore avenues for tracing a minister’s denomination (pulled from a marriage record/obituary). We’ll even make educated guesses based on the time, place, ethnicity, etc. A handy worksheet will help you add your ancestors’ affiliations to your family tree. Morton
2 What Kinds of Church Records Are There? U.S. denominational records are something of a potluck: you never know what you’ll get. We’ll feast on a smorgasbord of documents created by a church: vital records, pew rentals, jubilee histories, cookbooks, by-laws, bulletins, donation lists, minutes, photograph collections, and more. Then, we’ll consider mentions of churches in other common historical resources. Morton
3 How to Find All Those Church Records We’ll cover general finding strategies for both manuscript and published records. We’ll talk about contacting open churches and using denominational trees to follow where records may have gone. We’ll dig into different kinds of denominational archives, university special collections, and records at other repositories. We’ll also spotlight WPA church directories and inventories and then do a church record scavenger hunt using ArchiveGrid, FamilySearch, and other digital archives. Morton
4 Following Them Back to the Homeland in Church Records: Two Case Studies Follow a Catholic family’s migration through many parishes and then across the pond–from Buffalo, NY, to Bavaria–using records, collateral research strategies, and more. Then, see how church records help us follow an English convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) who migrated to Utah and reinvented himself in a new climate and culture. Morton/Sheliga
Tuesday 5 Holy Headlines! Finding Church News in Newspapers See examples of what might be learned in community and denominational newspapers about faith-based organizations and their members, from obituaries of the faithful to picnics and bazaars. Get a handy cheat sheet with denominational newspapers for major U.S. faiths and where to find them. Learn how to find copies of newspapers online and offline, and start exploring online newspaper archives for mentions of your family’s church. Morton
6 Schools of Faith: Sunday Schools, Catholic Schools, and Religious Colleges Did your family members ever attend a school run by a church? Despite the enshrinement of the separation of church and state, faith-based education (partly driven by the Protestant v. Catholic tension) has a deep history in the United States. Learn more about religiously-supported schools and the records that may reveal your relatives’ school-days stories. Morton
7 “There’s No One Left To Talk To:” Using Synagogue Records to Tell the Story of a Lost Community In this case study, see how religious records were used to reconstruct a surprisingly rich history of the first Jewish residents of Homestead, PA. This inspiring personal introduction to working with these unique collections will demonstrate how you can similarly expand your understanding of your ancestors’ lives. Hepps
8 Catholic Records for Family History Roman Catholicism is one of the largest faith traditions in the United States, crossing many ethnic and language boundaries. Learn how to find sacramental records, what’s in them, and considerations for accessing these non-public records. Learn about ethnic parishes and diocesan archives. We’ll also take a deep, unique dive into the holdings of archives of religious congregations/orders (sisters and nuns). Whether your relative was a sister or was served by one, you want to know about these records–and the major transition these religious archives will experience in the coming years. Morton
Wednesday 9 One Body, Many Parts: Church Records in Black and White Sunday mornings are often referred to as “the most segregated time in America.” However, prior to Reconstruction, most churches were integrated, with people of color–enslaved and free–often outnumbering whites on the membership rolls of some Protestant and Catholic institutions, particularly in the South. Though perhaps assigned to separate areas within the edifice, the races were worshiping together. As a result, an abundance of records were created that provide genealogically relevant information, often not found elsewhere, which informs ancestral timelines and fills family history gaps. To perform exhaustive research of any antebellum ancestors, church records should be explored, not only for their genealogical value, but also to seek and document enslavement or enslaver status and to expand the narrative of each ancestor’s life. In this class, we will explore examples of records that reveal this information and where to find them. Sanders
10 Church Records of German-Speaking Immigrants As one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States, German-speaking immigrants and their descendants produced a prolific body of records representing many denominations. This overview of people and paper trails will take you from the baptisms, marriages, burials and confirmations recorded by colonial German pastors in Pennsylvania to the records of diverse congregations that later flocked to the Midwest. You’ll come away with a new appreciation of the deep impact of the church lives of many immigrant families of all ethnicities and their descendants—and the kinds of records they may have left behind. Beidler
11 Preparing for a Visit to a Church Archive Learn strategies to prepare for your trip to research at a library or archive, with a special emphasis on preparing for relatively unpredictable experiences at denominational libraries. When you plan before you go, you can maximize efficiency while you are there. Bergheimer
12 Field Trip! Visit to Smithfield United Church of Christ Archive We’ve scheduled a visit to the local Smithfield United Church of Christ, which has a fantastic archive dating back to its founding in 1782. Documents and artifacts of all kinds have been sorted, organized, and provided with finding aids. The collection includes the 1787 Penn Charter giving the congregation its land. Sheliga
Thursday 13 The Laws of God: Church Law for Genealogists Our ancestors didn’t just live by the laws of the place where they lived. They also lived by the laws of the church they belonged to, and sometimes, the church laws were incorporated into the civil laws of the area. Understanding those laws and the interplay of church and state can often explain why people did what they did and what the records we find really mean. Russell
14 Writing My Church’s Story: Lessons Learned that Can Help Genealogists Now, let’s look at church records from a different perspective: that of a person gathering them to tell her church’s story. Deborah shares lessons learned as part of the history committee for the Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Learn about the scattered records and resources she found in unexpected locations and see how the story of a church can be so much bigger than its membership records. Abbott
15 Hands-on Workshop: Understanding the Records You Find, Part 1 The thrill of finding old manuscript records can be tempered by the frustration of trying to understand them. Learn strategies for–and get hands-on practice with–essential skills. Learn tricks for reading old handwriting (you’ll practice it yourself with a fountain pen). Use language translation aids to decipher non-English language records. Consult guides to understand religious terminology. Mine derivative record resources such as printed indexes, transcripts and abstracts. Morton/Sheliga
16 Hands-on Workshop: Understanding the Records You Find, Part 2 The thrill of finding old manuscript records can be tempered by the frustration of trying to understand them. Learn strategies for–and get hands-on practice with–essential skills. Learn tricks for reading old handwriting (you’ll practice it yourself with a fountain pen). Use language translation aids to decipher non-English language records. Consult guides to understand religious terminology. Mine derivative record resources such as printed indexes, transcripts and abstracts. Morton/Sheliga
Friday 17 Show and Tell and Brainstorm: Church Record Successes and Brick Walls, Part 1 Class members will share their church-record discoveries and/or brick walls they’ve encountered while trying to find those records. They share proposed next steps. Class members will help brainstorm additional ideas. sunny Morton
18 Show and Tell and Brainstorm: Church Record Successes and Brick Walls, Part 2 Class members will share their church-record discoveries and/or brick walls they’ve encountered while trying to find those records. They share proposed next steps. Class members will help brainstorm additional ideas. Sunny Morton