Researching an ancestor’s religion can be so important to your family history. Your ancestor’s religion can not only provide you with additional records and documents to research but also can give you a glimpse into their beliefs and their life.
But what if you do not know what religion your ancestor was? Here are some ideas for determining what church your ancestor attended:
- Look at the history of the area where your ancestor lived. A historical atlas can be helpful in checking out what religious groups were living in an area. Living in an area predominated by a religious group may be a clue but does not necessarily mean they were a member of that religious group. But it is a start!
- Your ancestor may not have been part of a large religious community in their area but they may still be found in records from that religious community. Also, remember that people may have changed religions several times and can be found in the records of more than one church.
- Read histories of the county where your ancestor was from. Take notice of what churches were in the area. Remember that even though your ancestor may have started out being of one faith they may have attended a church that was closer to where they lived.
- Look at what you do know about your ancestor. Did they have a particular dress that might distinguish them as being from a certain religious group? Did they have certain beliefs that may be a result of being a member of a certain denomination? Religious beliefs may translate into political party affiliation, beliefs regarding military service, and social behaviors like perceived vices they shunned.
- Who were your ancestor’s neighbors and friends? People tend, not always but they tend, to hang out with those most like themselves. This can include those who are the same religious affiliation.
- Remember, that just because you, your parents and grandparent’s are a member of a particular religious affiliation-that doesn’t not mean great-grandma was of the same religion. I know quite a few people who have been surprised to find that their family was Mormon during the early days of the LDS church. Because their family left the LDS church-it was never spoken of and later generations didn’t even know their connection. This revelation can bring forth lots of religious records that can help them in their search. I’m sure you can think of other example where people found out their family was Jewish or another religion only through research.
- And finally, just like now-not everyone went to church. So your ancestor may not have left behind religious records. They may have chosen not to be a part of an organized religion. They may have been part of a small home-grown religious movement that met at their home. They may have been part of something considered alternative, like 19th century Spiritualism. This probably did not result in any records keeping.
Really a big part of finding your ancestor’s religion is getting to know the area they lived in and their community as well as you can. Read county histories, check out historical atlases, look at newspapers, consult PERSI and NUCMC. Get a sense of what life was like for members of the community during the time period your ancestor lived there. You may just start to see trends and then you can use those trends as leads to finding your ancestor’s religious records.