The Desert Shamrock

Arizona’s Original Irish Newspaper

Volume 10, Number 4, July/August 1999, page 20


Church Records


by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.

Professional Genealogist & Historian


Church records are among the very best genealogical sources available.  Most significantly, church records date back well before the creation of civil registration of vital statistics and other records frequently used by genealogists.  Unfortunately, church records are the most under-used sources in genealogy.  This is because of the existence of so many different denominations.  Identifying and locating the many various church records can appear to be a daunting task to the average genealogist, but it can be well worth the effort.

Church records can vary significantly in types of information they provide.  This is generally determined by the basic theology and social role of each denomination.  In addition, church records will vary in existence and content from country to country depending on whether the church was the state-church or a “free” church.  In a state-church, the clergy was a semi-public official who not only kept records for the church, but also specifically kept vital records for the government.  In a “free” church, the clergy only kept records as necessitated by the theology of the church, which may not include vital records.  Thus, church record-keeping systems transcended national and religious boundaries.

        The histories and establishment of churches in Europe would have a great effect on the establishment and record-keeping of churches in America.  The variety of immigrant groups and religious preferences made the early establishment of a state-church in America difficult.  Based on this fact, the Founding Fathers later created the separation of church and state in the Constitution.  In America, not only would there be a greater number of different denominations, and creation of new denominations during the “Great Awakening” after the American Revolution, but there would also be a great separation within denominations according to ethnicity; the Irish Catholics attended a different church than the German and French Catholics in the same community.

        Generally, most church records are not unlike civil records, though with some differences.  Especially in the case of birth, marriage and death records.  For example, churches would record the infant baptism or christening with the date of the event, but may include the date of birth as well as the names of parents, grandparents and other key information.  Instead of deaths, the church recorded the burial, though possibly including the actual date of death, as well as other information.

        Though christenings, marriages and burials are the most important and widely used of church records, they are by no means the only types of records kept by the churches.  They also kept membership lists, including admissions, dismissals, transfers, and other records tracking the movements of members.  There are also church minutes, vestry books, ministers returns, registers, records of church social groups, the church cemetery records, and a wide variety of other church business records.

        As mentioned earlier, the only difficulty with church records are the great numbers of denominations and churches leaving an over abundance of records.  To help narrow the research in church records, it is important to determine what denomination that a family belonged to, and identify a specific church in the community that the family lived.  Then, determine whether the church still exists and has its records, or where the records are currently kept and whether available for research.  Books such as The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, available at any public library as well as genealogy library, has more detailed information regarding church records and research, and can identify the many denominations, their archives and records repositories including addresses and contact information.  Many denominations have archives and repositories in each state as well as a national archives, and they can help provide information as to the existence and availability of churches and records, and sometimes research assistance.

In England, a 1538 Act of Parliament required all ministers of the Church of England to record baptisms, marriages, and burials in their parishes.  This law carried over to the Church of Ireland which is part of the Anglican Communion of churches.  However, Roman Catholicism is the religion of the majority in Ireland.  The third largest faith in Ireland is Presbyterianism which is mostly confined to the Ulster counties.  Other denominations of historical significance in Ireland include the Baptists, Congregationalists, Huguenot Protestants, Jews, Methodists, Moravians, Mormons, Palatine Protestants, and Quakers.

However, no matter what religion an ancestor was, it is suggested to also look into the records of the Church of Ireland.  Strict laws required Church of Ireland affiliation to hold offices, own land, and even be buried in a cemetery; cemeteries in Ireland were owned by the Church of Ireland.  Therefore, it was common for persons of other religious denominations to also be baptized in the Church of Ireland.  There are other reasons why individuals and families may appear in multiple church records, such as marriages between those of different religious affiliations.  The book Ireland: A Genealogical Guide, by Kyle J. Betit and Dwight A. Radford, has a chapter on church records, going into detail on the many various religions in Ireland, including their archives and records repositories with addresses and contact information.

Meanwhile, many records are slowly being indexed, abstracted, transcribed and published by historical and genealogical societies.  A wealth of information is constantly being made available.  Also, churches often publish anniversary histories, and many of their records have been microfilmed and are available from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City through its local branch centers.  Meanwhile, now with the Internet information is becoming more easily accessible and available faster.

        For previous articles on the basics of searching for your family history, visit my web site at; click on Professional Services, then Genealogical Writings.

DISCLAIMER: This is an important reminder that the above article is provided here exactly as originally written and published several years ago. Therefore, while most of the primary context of the article may still be relevant, please be aware that possibly certain of the information and references may now be outdated, such as individuals and organizations, links, contacts, facilities, etc. Please follow-up accordingly for more updated information.

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©2013, Robert M. Wilbanks IV, Scottsdale, Arizona
created Nov 15, 2013; last updated Nov 15, 2013