Chapter Two of Morton and Henderson’s How to Find Your Family History in Church Records answers the question, “How can I use church records if I don’t know my ancestor’s denomination?” Given the wealth of information awaiting genealogists who delve into church records, this issue is fundamental to people who have hit a brick wall in their research. Below, we have excerpted the first two pages of Chapter Two to give readers a taste of how the experts uncover our forebears’ religious persuasions.
This chapter provides four approaches to locating ancestors’ churches. (If you already know the answer, you can skip this chapter-at least, until you need to ask it of another ancestor.) They are listed starting with the most direct, and likely most useful, approaches:
- Querying living relatives
- Consulting other genealogical information on the family
- Considering any migrations of which the family may have been a part
- Finding churches near family residences at a given time, using county histories, historical maps, and city directories
QUERYING LIVING RELATIVES
The most common source of knowledge on recent generations is the family itself. Some families have a history of attending the same parish for several generations. Other families may have diversified, but someone probably knows that great-grandma attended mass or was a lifelong Methodist.
You may have to ask this question of relatives you don’t know or don’t see frequently: second cousins, in-laws, great-aunts. In one case, the church was identified by cold-calling current residents of the ancestor’s hometown who shared the same unusual surname. Clues may lead in the right direction without telling all: a relative may recall only an Italian-language congregation, a “holy-roller” service, or a church near the elementary school.
So ask around the family:
- Did grandma or grandpa ever attend a specific church?
- Were they ever baptized? As a child or adult?
- Where was the church?
- Was anyone in the family married in a church or buried in a church cemetery?
- Did anyone join a different church from the rest of the family?
- Did any family members ever join the clergy /religious life?
- Did anyone attend a Sunday school or a church school?
Again, don’t limit inquiries to direct ancestors. Information about a sibling, cousin, aunt, or more distant relative may shed just the light you need to identify a family faith.
CONSULT OTHER GENEALOGICAL INFORMATION ON THE FAMILY
Documents associated with someone’s life may mention a church affiliation:
- A delayed birth certificate or military benefits application may cite (or include!) an infant baptismal record as evidence of birth.
- Obituaries often mention a church affiliation, a minister’s name, place of services, and place of burial-all useful clues to follow.
- Local or county histories may mention church affiliation in a biographical sketch of a relative. Skim the section on local churches for any familiar names.
- A government marriage record or newspaper marriage announcement should say who married the couple. Research that minister’s affiliation through his listing in a city directory, county minister’s license, biography in a county history, or similar sources.
- Other documents and artifacts-such as funeral programs, mass cards, insurance paperwork, death certificates, iconography on a tombstone, jewelry, devotional books, family letters, and more-may point to a family’s religion.
Continued . . . .