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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Finding and Using Church Records

I had another comment as follows:
The best way to obtain information from a church my ancestors attended and then what to do with that information.
It might be a good idea to start out with the fact that church records are not public. No one has a right to look at the records. So it is a good idea to inquire politely if the records are available for inspection. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research says:
Q: How many religious congregations are there in the United States?

A: There is no official directory for all the congregations in the county, so sociologists of religion have to rely on statistical estimates extrapolated from surveys. These are often disputed, and to complicate matters, thousands of new churches open each year, while thousands of others close. Hartford Institute estimates there are roughly 350,000 religious congregations in the United States. This estimate relies on the RCMS 2010 religious congregations census. Of those, about 314,000 are Protestant and other Christian churches, and 24,000 are Catholic and Orthodox churches. Non-Christian religious congregations are estimated at about 12,000.
 So hunting down church records might be a little bit of a challenge. Fortunately, many of the congregations will share their historical information with genealogists. Also fortunately, most of these congregations are divided into more or less defined denominations. Here is what the Institute has to say about denominations:
Q: How many denominational groups are there in the United States? 
A: This is a very tough question, because it depends on how a denomination is defined. There were 217 denominations listed in the 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. But there may well be other groups that function as a denomination but do not regard themselves as such. The single largest religious group in the United States is the Roman Catholic Church, which had 67 million members in 2005. The Southern Baptist Convention, with 16 million members, was the largest of the Protestant denominations. The United Methodist Church was the second-largest Protestant denomination with 8 million members. In third and fourth spots were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormon church, with 6 million member, and the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly black Pentecostal denomination, with 5.5 million members.
Of course, as we go back in history the make up of the different denominations changes and becomes a little more unified. The first challenge is determining which denomination your ancestors belonged to and next, determine which congregation. Then, if you can still find a functioning church organization of the same denomination, you start your search for records. I suggest looking at the FamilySearch Library Catalog by location and then in the subject heading of Churches. This may give you a good idea where to start. For example, if your ancestors were Southern Baptists, there is a Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville, Tennessee. Much smaller denominations may not have a centralized location for their records and each church congregation would have to be contacted individually.

This may seem like an impossible task, but the practical reality is that church records may be the only detailed records kept of a family. Going back historically, the Catholic Church and many of the Protestant Churches provide some of the only records of the common people in Europe. In Spanish speaking countries, Catholic Church records are the main area of research about families. In the areas of the United States where the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church are predominate, there is a really good chance that the records were preserved and are available somewhere.

Overall, the answer to the question is it depends, but with some major qualifications in favor of good records. Just assume the records are there and keep looking and asking.

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