Genealogy #OffTheGrid

Genealogy-#OffTheGrid-Researching Church Documents

From my early days of research, I’ve always known that my local church housed records from long ago. The old Sunday School building was also known as the storage building for the church. It sat adjacent to the cemetery and begged for attention every time I glanced at it. The roof was made of tin and the boards were separating from the sides. They were warped into curved and wavy shapes that released a sad appearance. For those who were not aware, the building looked simply like an old barn decaying next to the rows of headstones. I would often wonder how the contents inside were fairing against the rain and storms. I worried about those old dusty books filled with handwritten notes. I would ask my mother at times, “Why keep the records there when we have a nice church building here?” I was never given a reason why the records were kept there, at least I don’t remember hearing of one. And, looking back, I don’t suspect my mother knew the reasons why either. But, there they were for years, sitting in old boxes covered with dust, leaves and twigs blown in by the wind.

I do remember one particular Founder’s Day celebration during one early autumn when all of the church members gathered for a reunion. Several drove their old wagons and buggies to church that Sunday and we all had a huge picnic in the field next to the old storage building. The weather was beautiful and Mom made our dresses for the occasion. Mom said we looked like the young girls on Little House on The Prairie when we were arriving at the church. My best friend rode her own pony for several miles along the road and the entire congregation enjoyed the festivities. To my amazement, the services were held outside in front of the old storage building and later members were allowed inside. The records were retrieved and brought out into the sunshine with great anticipation for me. Everyone got to peer inside the old books and share stories about the old days. I knew I was the 6th generation of my family to attend this church and I gasped at the amount of history those old books represented.

A portion of the records were ruined and there was no need in dwelling on what was lost but instead we all rejoiced in what we found, especially me. The records were later organized and filed away for safe keeping and for the future generations. It was a perfect day filled with all my favorite things, family, best friends, good food, old stories and old records. I remember feeling really happy on the way home. Mom never said a word about why the old church records were moved, she just gave me a special smile whenever I talked about them.

Mom’s Little House On The Prairie Girl

Over the years, the records of that church brought so many details to my family tree. I assumed that every single church that was in existence for any great length of time would have the same type of records. False !! This turned out not to be true at all. You may find one church that has only baptism and church member records. While another church may have these with additional birth and funeral records. In fact, you may find a church that has been in existence for over 200 years and offers no access to the church records by the general public. I have experienced all of these at one time or another. The records of any individual church belong to that church and it’s members only. The general public does not have a right to demand the records at all. I get this question so often and I have to remind many that church property is not state or federal property. All churches, regardless of denomination, are considered as private organizations.

Photo of Cataloochee Valley Church, North Carolina

Examples of church records are baptisms, christenings, weddings, funerals, church member lists, Sunday school records such as certificates, awards, surname lists. Burial records, family memoirs, confirmations, removal from membership, finance reports, family reunion notes and church newsletters. If you know the location of your ancestor and the denomination, don’t overlook church records especially during the early 19th and late 18th centuries. Where other records don’t exist, church records may advance you to your next step in researching your family history.

Location + Denomination = Church Records

If you learn the church history of the local area, you will have a better understanding of what records may be available. Local historical societies may also contain church records as well as state archives. I have found many publications of church history. Some of these are filled with genealogy clues and much more. Many denominations would create memoirs for their departed church members. This is especially true of the Moravians and these records can give you details from birth to death.

If a church no longer exists or does not hold records on the premises, the original documents may be located at the national denomination location. For example: The American Baptist Historical Society out of Atlanta, Georgia, stores many records from the early Baptist churches of North Carolina and the southern states. Early Quaker records in North Carolina can be located at the Hege Library of Guilford County Community College. Church records do exist and even though the details of these documents may vary, finding them may be the greatest treasure for your family tree.

Enjoy Your Journey

Remember, you don’t have to know the name of the church to locate records. If you know your ancestor’s location, the timeline when he/she lived there and their denomination, you can find the church. Examine local history and match this to your timeline. Keep in mind, church records are not always available and as always think positive while you’re on your journey.

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