How to Use Church Records for Genealogy

How to Use Church Records for Genealogy

PREMIUM: Elevenses with Lisa Episode 41 Show Notes

Welcome to Elevenses with Lisa, our weekly  little slice of heaven where friends get together for tea and talk about the thing that never fails to put a smile on our face: Genealogy!

As you know, birth, marriage and death records are essential to genealogy. We call them vital records, and there are two types: civil and church. Each records unique information. To get the full picture, you need both when available.

In this week’s Elevenses with Lisa show, my special guest wrote the book on finding U.S. Church Records. Sunny Morton is the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records.  She’s going to help us discover the important and very unique role  that church records play in genealogy.

Even though Sunny’s book is focused on how to find records in the U.S., everyone can benefit from seeing how church records can be effectively used to solve genealogical challenges.


Sunny Morton’s book is available at Amazon  (Affiliate link – we will be compensated when you use our link which helps support this show. Thank you!)

Church Records in Genealogy

In this episode Sunny provided three case studies testifying to the value of using church records on common genealogy brick-wall topics:

  1. finding an overseas birthplace,
  2. finding unknown parents’ names,
  3. and finding unique insights that turn boring names and dates into compelling stories and ancestral identities.

Using Church Records to Find an Immigrant Ancestor’s Birthplace

She was looking for an overseas birthplace for Carolina O’Hotnicky, an immigrant who lived much of her life in Olyphant, PA, and died there in 1937. Sunny searched for and found many common genealogical records: census records, Carolina’s husband’s naturalization records, and her death certificate. None of these records revealed her birthplace. Church records offered new hope.

Carolina gave birth to several children whose baptisms were recorded at Holy Ghost Catholic parish. Sunny contacted the church, and they sent her transcribed certificates that listed an overseas birthplace for the children in what is now Slovakia. This didn’t quite make sense since the children were baptized just a day or two after the date of their birth in Pennsylvania, U.S.A.!

Sunny inquired about the discrepancy and the original confidential church register was rechecked. As can often happen, a slight error was made. The country listed (Slovakia) was actually the birthplace of both of the parents. Subsequent research into these overseas locations confirmed that to be the case.

As in this case, Catholic baptismal records can be an especially wonderful resource for finding an ancestor’s parents’ overseas birthplace. Access to original registers can vary by church, so it’s possible you may not be allowed to see them in person.

This is not an isolated case of church records providing important information about ancestral hometowns. In fact, a study from 2013 showed that the US source most likely to reveal an immigrant’s ancestral hometown was church records!

U.S. Records most likely to reveal the hometown of a German immigrants:

  • Local church vital records  65-76%
  • Military muster and pension records 20-30%
  • County genealogies  20-25%
  • State death certificates  20-25%
  • Passenger arrivals, obituaries, county histories, state censuses 15-25%

“Tracing German American Immigrants,” Nathan Murphy,  FamilySearch blog, May 9 2013,

Church Records Search Strategies Recap:

  • Church records are often a source of ancestral hometown information
  • When you find a record transcription, go the extra mile and try to obtain a copy of the original for review and comparison.
  • When in doubt or when information doesn’t quite add up, go back and carefully revisit the source.

Using Church Records to Find an Ancestor’s Parents’ Names

Sunny shared the case of Henry Fox who was born in Colorado in 1890. He died in Colorado in 1961. Sunny found the Henry’s civil marriage record at the Colorado State Archives. Unfortunately, it didn’t mention the couple’s parents’ names. As was the case with Carolina O’Hotnicky, other typical genealogical records did not provide the answer.

A close inspection of the civil marriage record did provide a very valuable clue. The document was signed at the bottom by the officiant “G. Raeber, Pastor”, indicating that a church marriage record would also have been created. But which church? The first line of the document provides the extra nugget of required information: “a Catholic priest.”

Sunny used the strategies from my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox and located a Catholic Directory from 1889 in Google Books. This is a great example of church related records and sources that fall outside of birth, marriage, and death records. (Learn More: Discover more surprising genealogical sources that can be found in Google Books in Elevenses with Lisa episode 30.)

Using strategies laid out in her book, Sunny tracked down Father Raeber’s assigned parish for that year, St. Ann’s. She learned that the parish is closed, but she was able to find the records at the Archdiocese of Denver archives.

As is often the case, the archives would only send her excerpts – a copy of the single line from the marriage register book –  but it was enough. These snippets told her the ages and birthplaces of Henry Fox’s parents. And it provided THEIR parents’ names! “Hallelujah!”

Church Records Search Strategies Recap:

  • Carefully inspect civil records for clues such as the officiant.
  • Use Google search, and specifically Google Books to search for supporting historical information.
  • Take the time to track down where records are archived today and make inquiries.

Unique Insights Provided by Church Records

While reviewing the obituary for Oglesby Johnson found in an old newspaper, Sunny discovered a bit of information that could provide leads to tracking down the church he may have attended. Listed in the obituary was the name of the church where the funeral was held (New Hope Church) and the names of several Reverends.

Sunny set out to try to find the church on a map from the time period. She found success at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. There among the many unique historical maps in their collection, Sunny found a hand-drawn map of the Hartwell, Georgia area. On it was drawn the church and several residences.

Next, she turned to Google Earth to try and find the location today. Google Earth provided a wonderful aerial view as well as an up-close view of the church and cemetery today thanks to Street View. (Learn More: Watch episode 12 of Elevenses with Lisa to learn more using Google Earth for Genealogy. You can also find step-by-step instructions for many genealogical projects in Google Earth in the book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.)

Armed with information about the cemetery associated with the church she turned to the Find a Grave website. There she found a plethora of Johnson burials. Continued research dug up the book History of Reed Creek by Hugh Gray Jr. (Hartwell, GA: Gray’s Printing, 2002) which provided an insider’s view of community life in the church.

As is sometimes the case, Sunny was unable to locate records from church. However, she did discover there was a predecessor church. The New Hope Church was created when some existing members withdrew from the Reed Creek Baptist Church. She turned to PERSI, the PERiodical Source Index to look for old church records that may have been transcribed in an item like a journal or newsletter. In this case the records were transcribed and published in the Savannah River Valley Genealogical Society Newsletter! She found it on the shelf at the Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center. (Learn more about the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Elevenses with Lisa episode 31 with Librarian Allison Singleton.)

She found that the Reed Creek Baptist Minute Book transcription showed Oglesby’s parents and the enslaving family. Sunny turned to a local area research who was able to track down the original records. These records had even more information than was provided in the transcription.

Church Records Search Strategies Recap:

  • Clue to church records can be found in historical newspaper articles such as obituaries.
  • The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has a vast collection of unique historical maps and gazetteers.
  • Google Earth is an excellent free software program for finding geographic locations.
  • Search for cemeteries and ancestors for free at the Find A Grave website.
  • Search PERSI to find old journals and newsletters for organizations such as genealogy societies. Read my article PERSI for Genealogy: the Periodical Source Index to learn how to search the index and how to gain access to the records.
  • Turn to local area researchers as needed to gain access to hard to access records.

Recap: Genealogy Found in Church Records

  • Names, vital events, relationships
  • Overseas birthplaces and other places
  • Info on hard-to-find ancestors
  • Contemporary accounts
  • Unique stories

Sunny Says: “In many places, churches kept records of members’ names, locations, vital events, and family members’ names long before comparable government or other community records did the same. Better yet, church records weren’t generally kept at a courthouse, so if some of those important government records were destroyed by fire or other disasters, local church records from the same time period may not have been affected. Church records were often created at the time of an event, making them a relatively reliable source of information.”

Get Sunny Morton’s Book

Records created by U.S. churches are an often-overlooked resource for genealogists. But they can be a fantastic brick-wall buster, helping you find your immigrant ancestors’ overseas birthplaces, learn more about elusive ancestors (especially women and children and ethnic minorities), and flesh out their life stories. In How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records by Sunny Morton and Harold Henderson, you’ll learn to identify where a family may have worshipped, find any surviving records and put them to use for your family history.

Get 20% off your purchase of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records with coupon code LLC20 when you shop at (Expires 2/5/21)

church records book cover

Sunny Morton’s book is also available at Amazon.

Answers to Live Chat Questions 

One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.

From Bill: Loved your church records w/ Sunny.  I found Roman Catholic sacramental records for all US military in NY. Here is the link: Catholic sacramental records of US Military members are all kept at the Archdiocese for Military Services USA, Office of Sacramental Records and can be obtained for a fee.  See:

From Diane L.: ​I can’t wait for this! was going to order death cert for Gr Gpts, Is there certain guidelines to ordering death cert. to get them? Can I get one for GGP or a great aunt?

Linda J​ @Diane L. depends on the State as each is different. Go on State website, click until you find how to order Death Records. Some states are pretty easy, others not.

Sunny: Thanks for all the great questions! Remember, you can get 20% off How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records with promocode LLC20 at The promocode is good through February 5, 2021.

From GeneBuds: What was your initial cold call question?
Sunny: When I cold-called the relatives back in the hometown, I just asked something like, “If you’re related to the O’Hotnicky family that worked at the fire station in Olyphant, I’d love to hear from you.” I think I mentioned I learned some tips from Lisa Louise Cooke’s free Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast, episodes 14 and 15.

​Related Questions on Pennsylvania church records:
Question: My brick wall ends (starts?) in SW Pennsylvania. Her 1st child is born in SW Pennsylvania. How do I find church records for this area between 1790 to 1820?
From Robin J.: How to find birth or marriage records for eastern PA for Lutherans in 1750’s+ – my brick wall I’ve tried all the major site a and even on a research trip to the area.
Robin J.: Is there a Lutheran/German resource for church records in eastern PA for late 1700’s
Sunny: Finding church records in general can get harder the further back in time you go, and this time period begins to be more challenging. That said, the process of tracking down church records depends entirely on the denomination and sometimes on the individual church. Pennsylvania especially had a lot of religious diversity, and the various churches can be hard to tease apart. That said, there are some fantastic repositories in Pennsylvania that may hold the records you want. Learn more in my book!

From Carolyn S.: ​Lutherans and Catholics have good records for the most part. What about Baptist, Methodist or ??
Sunny: Methodist records tend to be pretty genealogically good, almost as good as Catholic or Lutheran. Unfortunately, Baptist records tend not to be as easy to come by, and when you can, they’re often not as genealogically helpful. Of course, there are exceptions to every generalization!

From Barbara D.: In the USA are there central places for specific religion records of certain States – ie – in Ontario we have Presbyterian Archives, Wesleyan Methodist Archive etc.
Sunny: Yes, each denomination has its own way of archiving records, whether to regional archives (Catholic diocesan or Methodist conference) or central archives (Latter-day Saints), or to specific archives such as the Presbyterian Historical Society or Congregational Library. That said, sometimes records were archived before a denominational library/archive was established, or there may not be one, in which case you’d have to look to regional archives, including Special Collections at universities that themselves are/were affiliated with a faith tradition. One of the reasons I wrote separate chapters for each of the major historical denominations was to be able to identify the various archives.

From K M: Catholic nuns change name. Is there a paper trail to find her family?
Sunny: Great question! Yes. Each order of nuns has its own motherhouse, which would have an archive. The archive should have files on each woman who was part of that order, which included her original name and her next-of-kin. Once, I was looking for a nun and all I had was the name she later assumed (Sister Mary Bertilla) and a time/place where she was serving. The diocesan archivist for that area put me in touch with motherhouse archivists for all the orders that existed in that time/place. They were very kind/prompt about checking their files for her name.

From Linda J.​: Sunny, would Evangelical Lutheran be included with “Lutheran”?
Sunny: Yes!

From KT: Would the church hold records on deconesses, Sunday schools, organizations of the church the women participated in? want to find out gals .
Sunny: Great goal, KT! Yes, churches that had auxiliaries generally created records of their activities. I have especially seen these for Methodist churches. They would often have been archived wherever the church membership records ended up. A tip: sometimes the membership records end up online, or transcribed in a book, etc., but the auxiliary records don’t. Follow the source citation for the membership records back to the original archive and see whether their collection for that church has additional records.

Barbara C.: How to find Universalist records from 1800s Vermont?
Sunny: I do not specifically cover Universalist/Unitarian records in my book, so I’ll point you toward their official repository for any further questions.

From Sheryl T.: If your relative IS the minister, what kind of records in the church should I ask for?
Sunny: Great question. Some denominational archives have created ministerial files with biographical and career information in them; I would definitely check the denominational chapter in my book to see if such is the case for them. Many faiths kept ministerial directories and/or had annual meetings of ministers where their names/congregational assignments might be listed (the latter might also have information about their ordinations, salaries, disciplinary action, or committee work). The actual church records may have been personally maintained by your relative or at least will likely mention him in the course of performing weddings, baptisms, etc. He may also have maintained personal ministerial logs or journals, which may or may not have ended up with a church archive.

From Gayle P.: ​What are suggestions for searching Quaker Records in Pennsylvania?
Sunny: My book has an entire chapter on Quaker records. I’ll just say two things here: first, Quaker records are often incredibly rich in genealogical detail. Second, I’d start first with an enormous collection of Quaker records on, if you’re a subscriber. It does include several record sets from Pennsylvania.

From Mary D.: How can you access PERSI without getting a subscription?
Sunny: PERSI, the Periodical Source Index, is exclusively searchable on Findmypast. You don’t need a subscription to search PERSI. Your searches will bring up a list of results with “teaser” information in them, which at times itself may be sufficient to lead you to an article of interest. Otherwise, if you’re not ready to subscribe, consider purchasing PayAsYouGo credits to get a la carte access to just the search results you’re interested in. Learn more about PERSI from Lisa Louise Cooke.

Linda B.: I have United Brethren minister who rode the circuit from KY to Canada, any ideas of where to start? He lived in Auglaize Co, Ohio
Sunny: My book has a section on the United Brethren church in the “German Churches: Reformed and Sectarian” chapter. You’ll want to determine when he was a minister. There was a big split in the church in 1889, which means the record trail splits, too. My relative who was United Brethren stayed in the group that eventually joined with what is now the United Methodist church, and I found records about him in a United Methodist conference archive in Pennsylvania. Consult the chapter in my book about the various archives, depending on which church your minister was part of. It’s complicated—it took me a while to tease it apart myself (but this eventually helped me write this section of the book, so it won’t be as complicated for others!).

Sunny: Don’t forget your promocode: 20% off How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records using LLC20 at through February 5, 2021.

From Lynnette B.: ​Can I transfer old home movies directly from a DVD to YouTube or do I need to have the information in mp4 form before transferring to YouTube?
From Lisa: YouTube accepts the following file formats:

  • .MOV
  • .MPEG4
  • .MP4
  • .AVI
  • .WMV

From Debbi W.; Searching for criminal records in California between 1906 – 1914, not prison but likely county jail and county court systems. any suggestions on where to start?
From Lisa: Check out the California Correctional Institutions page.


Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 249

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 249

10 Questions to Rate Your Readiness for Genealogy Research Success

You will find the complete show notes for the topic discussed in this episode at the Elevenses with Lisa show notes page here.  

Are you ready for a year of successful genealogy research? I’ve got 10 important questions you need to ask yourself to rate your readiness for genealogy success this year. 

Click below to listen: 

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How to Search the U.S. National Archives Online Catalog for Genealogy

How to Search the U.S. National Archives Online Catalog for Genealogy

Elevenses with Lisa Episode 40 Show Notes

Elevenses with Lisa is our little slice of heaven where friends get together for tea and talk about the thing that never fails to put a smile on our face: Genealogy!

The National Archives is a wonderful resource of unique genealogical records. Though the archives are closed, the website is open, and it’s a great place to search for records and prepare for future genealogy research trips.

The National Archives website and online catalog can be a bit mystifying. If you’ve ever tried to search it and wound up frustrated, you’re not alone. This is often the case because the nature of the archives and the search function of the online Catalog are not genealogically focused. Armed with an understanding of how and why it is set up the way it is, and the know-how to search, refine, and download documents, you’ll be ready to add it to your genealogy toolkit.

In this video episode and article, we’ll be answering important questions such as:

  • What kind of genealogy records can be found at the National Archives website?
  • Which genealogy records are not available at the National Archives?
  • How do I search for records at the National Archives online Catalog?
  • How can I retrieve only digital items from the National Archives Catalog?
  • How can I get better search results in the National Archives Online Catalog?
  • How do I download files from the National Archives Website?
  • What is the Record Group Explorer?

Original Air Date: Jan. 21, 2021

Important Links:
The National Archives Website:
Search the Catalog:

What Kind of Records Can be Found at the National Archives Website?

To understand the types of records we can expect to find we must first understand the role and mission of the National Archives. Their role is preserving and making available only the permanent Federal Government records. Some have genealogical value.

  • These records are arranged as the agencies created them, so there is no master subject or name index.
  • While they have 110 million + digitized pages in the Catalog, this represents just a small fraction of the holdings.
  • The Catalog contains descriptions for their nationwide holdings in the Washington, DC area, regional facilities, and Presidential Libraries.
  • The Catalog currently contains descriptions for 95% of the records, described at the “series” level.
  • You can find basic information about the records, including size and location, from the catalog description.
  • The National Archives is regularly adding more file unit and item descriptions, many of which include digital files.

Some traditional genealogy records can be found at the National Archives such as:

  • Census Records
  • Passenger Arrival Records (Immigration)
  • Land Records
  • Military Personnel Records
  • Court records
  • Fugitive slave cases
  • Naturalization records
  • Federal employees
  • Applications for enrollment in Native American tribes

Most if these records are available in person. However, all National Archives locations have been closed since March 13, 2020 and remain so as of this writing.

Genealogy Records You Will Not Find at the National Archives

Because the following genealogy records are not created at the federal level, they would not be cataloged or found at the National Archives:

  • Birth
  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Death records
  • Deeds and wills.

To obtain these records, check with the appropriate state or county.

What to do before you search the National Archives Catalog online

Before you begin your online search:

  • Write down your research question.
  • Decide what topic you want to browse.
  • Think of possible ways your ancestor interacted with the Federal Government.

On the National Archives website they provide a great example of a research question that a genealogist might have and how it can lead to records.

QUESTION: Why did my ancestor have a significant decrease in net worth between the 1860 Census and 1870 Census?|
ASK YOURSELF: How might your ancestor have interacted with the federal government that could help explain this discrepancy?
RECORDS TO SEARCH FOR: The Bankruptcy Act of 1867 allowed many people to file for voluntary bankruptcy. The genealogists could search in the National Archives Catalog for bankruptcy AND [state where you ancestor lived during that timeframe] to see if bankruptcy records are available that could help answer the question.

How to Search the National Archives Catalog Online

There are three key types of searches you can conduct in the catalog:

  • Keyword searches
  • Filtered searches
  • Advanced search

Let’s start with a keyword search:

  1. Go to
  2. Enter keywords in the search box in the center of the page.
    (If you are looking for an exact phrase using two or more words, put them in quotation marks example: “bounty land”)
  3. Press the magnifying glass button to run your search.
  4. The results will be returned starting with best results at the top.  
  5. To view a description, click on the blue title.  

You can use the filters on the left side of the results page to narrow down your results.

Refine your search results by type if you know the type of material you want. Example of material type include photos, maps, or textual records.

It’s important to remember that just because the item appears in the result does not mean that it is available online. Many of the descriptions don’t include digital images of the records.

How can I retrieve only digital items from the National Archives Catalog?

You can dramatically narrow down your search results to include only digital items that you can review from home. To do this, on the search results page, click on the filter Archival Descriptions with Digital Objects. This will revise your results list so that you will only see descriptions of items with images attached.

How can I get better search results in the National Archives Online Catalog?

It never hurts to try searching by name, although many record descriptions will not name the people who are named in the records. You can improve these searches by using quotes around the entire name, or just the surname. This will restrict results to only items that exactly matches what appears in the quotes.  

You’ll notice that there isn’t a specific search field for names in the National Archives Catalog.  Here are several additional search strategies you can use when searching for the names of people:

  • Search on the person’s full name in first name-last name order.
  • Search for last name – first name within quotes
  • Search on the surname only. Again you can use quotes.
  • Search on spelling variations using the search operator OR. This works well when searching name variations such as: Burkett OR Burkette.
  • Search on variant spellings of the first name, including “Americanized” versions.

Example: Joseph Maggio OR Guiseppe Maggio.

Again, keep in mind that most descriptions in the National Archives Catalog do not include the names of people mentioned in the record. If you know an individual participated in event, search for related keywords and look within the records. You will need to read them to see if your ancestor is mentioned.  

Another way to improve your search results is to shift your focus from people to topics. This is strongly recommended by the National Archives. You are much more likely to get a greater number of results because people aren’t usually named in descriptions. Be sure to read the description carefully to see if the item will be helpful and worth requesting.

When searching topics, think about and make a list of relevant phrases and keywords. For example, when searching for Land Records, try searching for phrases such as:

  • “Bounty Land”
  • Homestead
  • “Land Entry”

Premium Members Exclusive: Downloadable National Archives Topic Search cheat sheet (PDF)

How to Download Files from the National Archives Website

After clicking the description on the search results page you will be on the record page. If there is a digital image, it can be downloaded. Look below to see if there are additional pages. You can click to select the desired page and then click the download icon just below the image.

If you would like to download all of the images, look below the list of images to see if a compiled PDF is available. This will allow you to download and save all of the images in one convenient file.

The Record Group Explorer at the National Archives Website

The Record Group Explorer offers a unique way of visualizing and finding records at the National Archives website:

  • Allows you to browse NARA’s holdings by Record Group
  • Use it to get a sense of the scale and organization of records
  • Explore what is available online via the Catalog
  • Provides an overview of the digital scans available online within a Record Group: textual records, photographs, maps and charts, electronic records, and more.

Records are grouped by specific government agencies. Each group is represented visually in a section. The section is light blue, signifying the total volume of textual records. If a dark blue bar appears in the section, it is an indicator that some of the records are digitized. The percentage or number (depending on the view you select in the grey Record Group Explorer Tools bar across the top) of digital images will be shown.

If the section is green, that indicates that there are records online but they are not textual records. They may be items like photographs or films.

If the section is grey, there are no records available online at all.

Click a section to learn more about that Record Group and explore the records.

Record Group Highlight: Motion Pictures

The National Archives holds a surprising number of motion pictures. As you browse or search, focusing on topic will likely be more helpful than searching by name. Consider looking for your ancestors’ homes, businesses, military service, events and associated locations.

Check out Motion Picture Library Stock Shots, ca. 1953 – ca. 1959

“A series of films: 306-LSS, a group of more than 400 black and white reels of stock footage that ended up in the hands of the United States Information Agency (USIA).”

Answers to Live Chat Questions

One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.

From Sue M.:  Do they hold WPA and CCC records?
From Lisa: Yes to both!

From Steve S.: Can you use the * and ? as search operators in the NARA catalog? Also thanks for de-mystifying this site! you have made it much more understandable.
From Lisa: After the show Steve did some searching and found this handy page providing additional search tips and operators supported by the website. Thanks Steve!    

From Michael R.: Are the Naturalization records in the National Archives different from those in local courthouses?
From Lisa: I haven’t looked lately, but about 15 years ago I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and received my great grandfather’s federal naturalization paperwork. It included a photograph that was not included at the county court level.

From Lynnette B.: I had my parent’s old home movies put on DVD’s several years ago. What is the next step in making them more available? Adobe spark video? YouTube? I want to identify each person on them?
From Lisa: An easy way to get started is by making Adobe Spark Videos (see episode 16)  which is free and easy. Use the Titles feature to add text explaining who is who. Uploading them to your free YouTube account channel is a super easy way to share them.


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