Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Discovering Important Church Records at the Family History Library and the BYU Family History Library

Both the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah and the Brigham Young University Family History Library in Provo, Utah, just 45 miles south of Salt Lake City, have very extensive genealogy collections. Since both institutions are sponsored and operated indirectly by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you would expect that both would have a lot of original source records about the Church. But perhaps surprisingly to some researchers, they both have extensive collections of church records from hundreds of other denominations.

It always surprises me when I ask genealogical researchers about the church affiliation of their ancestors and they indicate that they do not know that information. Regardless of the researchers' religious interest or affiliation, it is highly likely that the researchers' ancestors were involved in a particular religious denomination. This is important because of the preeminence of church records in recording births, marriages, and deaths along with other valuable information concerning the movements of our ancestors. Additionally, some of the oldest available records have been preserved by the churches.

Civil registration of birth and death records, especially in the United States, is only a very recent phenomenon. For example, in Utah where I now reside, civil registration of birth records began only in 1898 and both marriage and death records have been kept only from the previous year of 1897. In the eastern part of the United States, some birth and death records were kept at a local level in town records from the very earliest times, but there were no laws requiring the registration of either births or deaths. Marriages, because they affect property ownership, have been the most widely recorded. Since each state developed its own system and laws concerning recording vital record information, in most of the states these records do not exist until the 1900s.

Genealogical research is historical research and to understand and find church records genealogical researchers must know the history and religious practices of their ancestors in some detail. However, one of the obstacles to learning and using this information is the variety of the different religious practices and the relatively large number of separate denominations. There is sometimes a major challenge in locating the records that may have been kept locally, regionally or even nationally. Historically and even today, some countries have established "state" religions and all the people living in the country must "belong" to the designated church. For genealogical researchers, this fact makes locating their ancestors much easier than it could be. But for those whose ancestors belonged to alternative denominations, the task of finding the records, if they exist, can be overwhelming.

A good place to start your investigation of church records is to review the background material provided in the following, very valuable book.

Szucs, Loretto Dennis, and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking. The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Provo, UT: Ancestry, 2006.

This book has been incorporated into the online wiki and look for the section on Church Records. See

For the serious researcher, the Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library has a large and impressive collection of books about religions of all types and denominations. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia article concerning the Library. See Wikipedia: Harold B. Lee Library.
The Harold B. Lee Library (HBLL), located in Provo, Utah, is the main academic library of Brigham Young University (BYU), the largest religious and private university in the United States. The library has approximately 98 miles (158 km) of shelving for the more than 6 million items in its various collections, as well as a seating capacity for 4,600 people. With over 10,000 patrons entering the building each day, The Princeton Review consistently ranks the HBLL in the nation's Top Ten University Libraries–#1 in 2004 and #3 in 2012. Named for Harold B. Lee, former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the library's motto is "...Learning by study and also by faith."
Likewise, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah is world renowned for its genealogical collections. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia article about the Family History Library. See Wikipedia: Family History Library.
The library is in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the headquarters of the LDS Church are located. It is the largest genealogical library in the world and is open to the general public at no charge. The library holds genealogical records for over 110 countries, territories, and possessions. Its collections include over 1.6 million rolls of microfilmed records onsite and access the total collection of more than 2.4 million rolls of microfilmed genealogical records; 727,000 microfiche; 356,000 books, serials, and other formats; 4,500 periodicals; 3,725 electronic resources including subscriptions to the major genealogical websites. 
The library offers research assistance to help patrons trace their own family history. Professional genealogists and volunteers offer assistance in about 30 languages, which includes reading and translating genealogically relevant documents. The library also offers free one-on-one consultations on difficult research problems. Additionally, there are classes on genealogical research topics free to the public and classes available online. Free family history research advice and information are offered online at the FamilySearch Research Wiki.
In order to utilize these vast resources, it is still absolutely necessary to identify the religious affiliation of your ancestors. In some cases, especially for those ancestors who lived in rural areas, it is possible to identify their church by where they lived. Where there is one predominant religion, any search should begin with the denomination of the closest church building. Some churches, such as the Catholic Church, are organized geographically so locating ancestral church records is dependent on identifying the exact location of the events in your ancestors' lives. Many other denominations also have geographic divisions and the process of finding the records is somewhat simplified, but in some cases, such as in large cities, identifying the church where the records might be kept is much more difficult.

Assuming you have determined your ancestors' religious affiliation, your should begin your search for records with the FamilySearch Catalog on There are a vast number of church records from around the world included in the huge microfilm collection at the Family History Library and these microfilmed records are all cataloged in the online Catalog. In addition, all of these microfilmed records are in the process of being digitized and many of the records are already available in the Historical Record Collections or directly available from the catalog entries.

Stay tuned for further installments.

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