Photo of First Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis by the Detroit Publishing Co., via the Library of Congress (LC-D4-17326)
When people settled in a new area, one of the first things they usually established was a church. This means that churches typically existed and kept records before there was any governing body to do so. Therefore it’s common to find church records of births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths that predate any records available from governmental sources. And since the recording of vital records was traditionally the responsibility of the church, the further back in time you go, the more you’ll have to depend on church records for basic genealogical information.
Finding Church Records
The first step in discovering church records pertaining to your ancestor is to determine which church he or she attended. This may be information that you already know. However, if you aren’t sure which church or even what religion your ancestor might have been, there are plenty of ways to find out. Clues can be found in many of the records we’ve already discussed, such as cemeteries, obituaries, and other newspaper articles. Nationality may be a clue (Germans are often Lutheran, French are often Catholic, etc.), but there are always exceptions. Locality may provide another clue. As the saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together,” so if a town was settled by members of a particular denomination, and your ancestor was an early settler, then it’s likely that he or she was a member of the same denomination. You can also try asking other family members who may know family stories that you are unaware of.
Accessing Church Records
If you know the church where your ancestor attended services, and if that church is still in existence, then you may try contacting their offices to find out if they possess historic records or if they’ve donated them to another institution. If the church no longer exists or if you were unable to get specific information about the archives from the church office, then you’ll have to depend on other sources. Most historic church records in Indiana have been archived by denomination, with separate organizations taking responsibility for each set of records. The Indiana Genealogical Society maintains a very informative page regarding church records on the FamilySearch.org wiki. Here you will find specific information for accessing each denomination’s archives.
Once you know where to find the records pertaining to your ancestor’s denomination, you can have a librarian or genealogist do the research for you (for a fee) or make the trip yourself. If you choose the latter, make sure you go prepared. Most of the libraries and archives listed on the FamilySearch.org wiki page have online catalogs that will give you a better idea of the specific records in their collections. You should always have some idea of the records you want to access before you go. Also, make sure you know the institution’s policies regarding access and photocopying. Some records may be stored off-site and accessing them may require advance notice. Each facility is different, so make sure you consult the website or contact them directly before you go.
What You’ll Find
In addition to vital records, you may find registers that list all the members of a congregation, minutes of church-related meetings, bulletins and newsletters that report other events, and many other documents containing useful information. The particular records kept varies greatly by denomination, but if your ancestor was involved in any religious organization, then there are likely records available that will shed light on his or her story.
A Few Tips
- Some denominations and individual congregations kept better records than others, so be aware that not every church will have a treasure trove of records for you to sift through. And despite the best efforts of archivists, many records have sadly been lost over the years. If all of your searching proves unfruitful, there may not be any records still in existence for the church you’re researching.
- If you have trouble determining what church your ancestor attended, don’t be discouraged. It can be a very difficult puzzle to solve. Keep researching in other areas and eventually a clue will turn up.
My late father only had a handle on his birth date (sometime in July) from church records from his baptismal record in a small village church in Greece, of all places! The “official” records in the provincial capital (Corinth) had been burned in a fire. And this was in 1897…