Faith's Rewards
9/27/2009
What might you find in your family's church records? These genealogical blessings. .

Heaven only knows what you might learn about your family history from church records, an often-overlooked genealogy resource (at least for US research). For example, because many of the men in my mother's family during the late 1800s and early 1900s were Methodist ministers, I found in a church history this vivid description of my great-great-uncle's unusual death:

"Dr. Dickinson's death 'came suddenly, tragically, unexpectedly; but it found him ready.' Instantly killed in the fearful cyclone which swept the city of Eufaula on March 5, 1919, he was on the Master's business when the summons came. Just a moment before the walls of the building into which he had gone on business for the church fell before the fury of the storm, one who was with him cried out, 'Dr. Dickinson, what shall we do?' Quietly he replied, 'We are in the hands of the Lord.' With this confession of faith on his lips he went away to be with his Lord forever."

Even if you don't discover your ancestors' stories in such heavenly detail, church records might hold answers to puzzles you thought you didn't have a prayer of solving. Before the advent of official government vital records—whether in the United States or in your ancestors' native lands—churches filled the role of local record-keeper.

Depending on the place and the denomination, the church may have recorded not only such religious events as baptisms, marriages and burials, but also comings and goings from the region or even the country. You'll find churches that kept censuses of a sort: member lists, tithing records, even household lists. Churches maintained orphanages and schools, and published newspapers and congregational histories, too.

But family history researchers often miss these records as we fixate on the varieties of government paperwork. And church documents' locations may be less obvious—it's not exactly like going down to the county courthouse. You might not  know what kind of church Great-grandpa attended, so how can you begin to find records it kept on him? A little detective work can overcome these roadblocks and lead you to revelations about your family history.