Church records can be a terrific resource for your genealogy research. But if you’re not sure what church your ancestors attended, how do you know what church records to look for?
The denominations that families attended may have changed over the years. In some faith traditions, like Catholics and Mormons, it is important that the members of the church be baptized and married by the clergy of that church—so it is likely that your ancestors in those faith traditions made the effort to travel to the closest church within that denomination. In other faith traditions families may have felt some flexibility in which denomination they attended, often based on proximity or the appeal of a local pastor or congregation.
In looking for church records about your ancestors, start with the faith tradition of your parents and grandparents. Chances are that the family has attended the same church for multiple generations. But—there wasn’t always a Presbyterian or Baptist church in every town.
When I was growing up in Lower Gilmanton, New Hampshire, there was only one church in town: a Congregational church. It seemed then that every small town had a Congregational church. So, if you wanted to attend church in Lower Gilmanton, you either went to the local Congregational church or made a trip to Barnstead, Belmont, Pittsfield, or any of the other towns in the area that had a church of the denomination you were more comfortable with.
In the early 1960s a group of Baptists was organized in Lower Gilmanton and they wanted to meet in the Congregational church. It was agreed that they would rent it and hold religious services on Sunday afternoons. In this case two denominations shared the same building.
Genealogy Search Tip: Check the records of all of the churches in the area where your ancestors lived. Be flexible—just as they were—because they may have attended multiple churches during their lives. Since it was common for couples not of the same faith to marry, it is possible to find, for example, that the Methodist groom was married to the Baptist bride at the area Baptist church—and then, when they moved west to settle in Kansas, they attended the Congregational church.