Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Published on: February 8, 2002
Our ancestors were church goers. Often the church building was started before some of the homes and barns in the early days of a community. And these churches kept records and documented their history.
First thing to discover is what denomination were they? An obituary often gives an indication, either due to the service being held in a church or a comment about their being a 'long time member of xxxx church." A less obvious clue is the name of the pastor holding the service. The title used may be a lead as to their affiliation and often their church is mentioned. Other documents that the family has may contain information. Certificates of baptism for their children, the wedding location, Sunday School papers and church bulletins in the family Bible can all provide info.
So where are these records now? Some of them may be found at the appropriate archive for the denomination in question. See my article on "Answering the Call" for how to locate and find these types of records. Local historical societies may have acquired them. If the building is still there, they might actually be in the structure, even if it hasn't been used for years.
If the congregation is still thriving, these records may still be kept in the building they were created in, or its successors. My church, which recently celebrated 175 years, has recently had the records microfilmed to insure that they are preserved and available for future generations. The church is in its third major building! Copies have been provided to a couple of other key locations so that they are available. We are debating whether the older ones should be posted on the web or are they too recent to be shared.
Many churches in the early years, and even to today, generate a membership listing on a regular basis. These can be found going back hundreds of years. Some of them even produce a pictorial directory every few years or so. Special occasions, such as church anniversaries, the retirement of the pastor, or even a conference hosted at the building may generate a special remembrance book. These can often only be found at the church or in the homes of those individuals that were members at the time.
Church plates were once a common keepsake created for members. My parents have a set that represent all of the churches and colleges that they served at over the years ringing the dining room. It is a visual history that could not be replaced or duplicated! It is possible the church even has extra ones squirreled away in a storage room that they would be delighted to share with someone with an interest and connection to them.
So how do you find these items? Several of the repositories and reference libraries that specialize in local history have them sitting on their shelves. I found a great-grandmother and her children that lived in Central New York listed in the church directory sitting on the shelf at the Public Library in Detroit! Every once in a while these items may appear on an online auction house. Church plates, brochures, booklets, yearbooks can often be found for sale. Estate sales are another good source for such items, but do require you to be in the geographical region of interest.