Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Church Records and Histories for Genealogy Research

by Mary Beth Newbill, Southern History Department, Central Library

South Highland Presbyterian Church

One source that can give additional insight into our ancestors and their lives is church records. Given that most states did not require the registration of births and deaths until the early 20th century (1908 in Alabama), church records have the potential to help genealogists break through the dreaded “brick wall.” Many churches kept records of those joining and leaving, baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

Of course, locating the records can be challenging. The logical place to start is with the church your ancestors attended. If you already know this and if the church is still operational, then you’re halfway there. Just give them a call or an email and ask if they have historical records. If the church closed, they may have left their records with a depository or historical center. Many faiths have libraries or historical societies that maintain records from congregations that are no longer in existence. The links below represent a small sample of the religious archives and depositories that are available:

Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives
Presbyterian Historical Society
United Methodist Church
Friends Historical Library (Quaker)
American Jewish Archives

If you don’t know which church your ancestors attended, family tradition and country of origin can help get you started. Do a little research into the history of the community in which they lived. County histories are wonderful resources for documenting early houses of worship. Without realizing it, you may already have documents that give clues to your ancestors’ faith. Obituaries and wedding announcements may mention a church by name. Marriage licenses often list the name of the officiant. If that person is a minister, look them up in city directories, local histories, or census records to see what church they were affiliated with.

Many churches publish histories to mark a milestone anniversary. The Birmingham Public Library's Southern History Department has a robust collection of local church histories. Often, these books include names of the founding members, early church officers, pastors, and photographs of important events in the life of the congregation. If your ancestor was a member of the clergy, the library has numerous biographical and ministerial directories that will help you, such as Brief biographical sketches of some of the early ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the Ministerial directory of the Baptist churches in the United States of America.

To learn more, join us Sunday, October 28, in the Central Library Arrington Auditorium at 2:30 p.m. for a workshop on church records and histories as a genealogy resource. This workshop is part of our programming for Family History Month and is free of charge, but registration is requested. To register, call the Southern History Department at 205-226-3665 or visit the BPL events calendar.

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