Genealogy Tip: How to Find, Read, and Use Baptismal & Similar Records

Introduction: In this article, Jessica Edwards gives tips for finding and using religious records in your genealogy research. Jessica has had a lifelong interest in her family’s history – especially on her father’s side, which goes back to the first settlers in Pennsylvania, Jamestown and New England.

Thanks to all the information available online, genealogists can easily access many government records – but how can you find religious records, like for a baptism? In this article, I’ve put together basic facts on what religious records are and how they differ from civil records.

Illustration: woman using a computer

What if There Aren’t Civil Records?

What do you do if you’re trying to find the birth record of an ancestor who moved to South Carolina in 1880? You look for church records (an exception to this is Puritanism, which believed that marriage was strictly a civil matter). Instead of birth records, churches recorded baptisms, which often times meant the baptism of a baby – but some people had baptisms at other ages, so be open to researching past that point for your ancestor. For this reason, these baptism records are a good substitute for birth records.

Another way that religious records can help with genealogy is that, instead of death records, churches recorded the burials of members of their congregations. Often these people were buried right on the church grounds, so you might be able to find their records and their gravesite.

How Can I Find Out Where to Look?

You must determine the denominational preferences of your ancestors and the churches they belonged to or attended and, second, you must discover where the records are now located (many may no longer be in existence or may be accessible by microfilm/microfiche only).

In the Colonial period, possibilities of religious affiliations were fewer because there were few established churches, plus some colonies virtually had only one faith while others had an official religion.

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For example, in New England the Congregational Church dominated, but in the South the Church of England (also called Protestant Episcopal) reigned. Maryland was where many families were Roman Catholics, and early Dutch settlers in New York and New Jersey belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. In Pennsylvania, the Society of Friends (Quakers), as well as various German denominations like the Lutherans, were strong.

The American Revolution brought the abolishment of “official” religions and mandated separation of church and state when the Constitution was approved.

In the 19th century, immigrants generally settled among those of similar background: Spanish, French, Irish, and Acadians were usually Roman Catholics; Scandinavians, who settled mainly in the upper Midwest, were usually Lutherans; Germans, who gathered in Pennsylvania and along the Mississippi River, were most likely either Lutherans or Mennonites. An interesting offshoot of settlers from all of these religions was caused, after 1830, by people converting from these religions to Mormonism (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Mormons started sending missionaries to Europe soon after their organization on 6 April 1830.

Knowing the Old World origins of your ancestors can help determine their religious preference. But remember that our ancestors frequently changed denominations in America as they often joined or attended the church nearest them for the sake of convenience (the nearest church or synagogue for the original religion they believed in might be several days’ journey away).

Many of them became Anabaptists or Baptists; others, Mennonites or Amish; while others joined German Reformed or German Evangelical churches; and those who migrated South might have become Methodists. The Scotch-Irish frequently established Presbyterian churches and the Huguenots (French Protestants) joined a wide range of denominations, including Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Quaker, and Baptist.

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The Baptists split into several factions because of different interpretations of the Bible. During the Civil War, the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians divided into northern and southern branches. So also look at what was happening religious-wise in the United States at the time period of your ancestor.

The small number of Jews in Colonial America were from Portugal and lived in New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. In the 1800s, Jews began coming to the United States from Russia, Romania, Poland, Austria, and other European countries, and they were from all branches of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Not until the early-20th Century did Jewish migration become substantial.

If you can trace your ancestors to the 1700s or earlier in this country, look in the Anglican, Baptist, Congregational, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Quaker, or Roman Catholic churches. If your ancestors arrived between 1820 and 1850, in addition to the churches just listed, they may have belonged to Mormon, Episcopal, Methodist, German Reformed, Unitarian, or Universalist churches (Methodists and Baptist had the fastest-growing churches during this period).

One of the best clues to an ancestor’s religious history is the name of the person who conducted their christenings, confirmation, baptism, bar mitzvah, wedding, or funeral. You can often find information about him in church or synagogue archives which may tell you about his congregation.

A gravestone in a church cemetery is another possible indicator of church membership (look for symbols engraved on them). Other good sources are diaries, journals, or letters which may refer to the religion of family members. But keep in mind that some families may have had different religions, and some families may have had members ostracized because of this division within the family. (A second cousin of mine was to have become a priest, but after a year or so of study he left, joined a different religion, met and married a woman, and raised a family – but my family records recorded that he “died” the day he left the priesthood.)

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Depending on your ancestor’s denomination, finding records can take some time. Many denominations kept extensive records and others did not. Some transferred their records to a central archive while others entrusted their records to a minister or to private hands.

What Are the Differences in Types of Religious Records?

A good understanding of the differences between religions and how these compare to civil records is needed. The website RootsIreland.ie gives some good information on this topic.

  • A church baptismal or marriage record is a record entered by the priest in his parish register.
  • A civil record is a state record. The civil records usually contain more information than the church records. For example, a civil marriage record will contain the bride and groom’s parents’ names, addresses and occupations, whereas the church record will only sometimes contain the fathers’ names and less often the mothers’ names of each party. Catholic and Church of Ireland (Anglican) parish records also vary in the information that they contain.
  • A civil birth record will contain the occupation of the child’s father. This is rare in Catholic Church baptismal records but more common in Protestant records.
  • A civil death record will state the cause of death and the name of the informant of the death, whereas a Church of Ireland burial record will usually not have that information. A civil death record does not state the graveyard in which the person is buried.

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