Saturday, March 17, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Church Records

Svedal Church. Nebraska. (c) Gena Philibert-Ortega

"Church Records" are a vague all-encompassing term for those records found at a church. In some cases that may mean a vital record substitute. But it could also  mean a record that is specific to that church, such as a membership list or a census. What is important to remember about church records is that you may need to search in many places to find them and you must learn a little about the religion/church and what records remain extant.

What church did your ancestor attend? It might not be as easy as knowing their religion. Another  church may have been attended due to the building's proximity to the family. In countries with state churches, vital record events may be recorded there regardless of the family's religious beliefs.

Why are church records important for finding female ancestors? They can include the genealogical basics we search for, name, date, place. They can also include important dates (birth, marriage, death), familial relationships, participation in church ordinances, and more. They may be the one place a female ancestor is listed.

What's important is to determine the church attended or religion of your ancestor and then seek out those records. Those records may be archived in a church repository such as the actual church building, a church archive, a church sponsored university, or even a county or state archive.

One resource you may find useful for research in the United States is the church inventories done by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These inventories were done as part of the Historical Records Survey and provide information about the church and records. This can be helpful in cases where you are researching a church that no longer exists.

These inventories can be found on state archive websites,, and FamilySearch as well as other websites and repositories. Some online examples include inventories for Florida, New YorkPennsylvania, and South Carolina.

Aside from "church records" don't forget about church publications like periodicals that may mention members.

Resources - Card Catalog - WPA
FamilySearch - Card Catalog - WPA Church


Denise Hibsch Richmond said...

Hi Gena, thanks for this information. Aside from looking for a female ancestor, I'd like to use church records to help identify town of origin in the "old country". Do you have a recommendation on how to prioritize an approach to church record research. Maybe going directly online instead of checking first with local churches in the U.S. isn't the best course. I'm pretty confident of the religion. Thanks for any guidance. Denise

Gena Philibert-Ortega said...

Hi Denise! If you know the church where the ancestor attended you may want to start with the FamilySearch Catalog or do some digging to see where that particular church archives their records. Some churches do have a regional or even a national archive that might be of help. Good luck!

Denise Hibsch Richmond said...

Thanks Gena!