Best Strategies: How to Find Church Marriage Records

Finding church marriage records may not be as easy as finding civil marriage records. I’ve invited genealogist Sunny Morton to share her best strategies for finding U.S. church marriage records from her new book How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide.

Strategies for Finding U.S. Church Marriage Records

Marriage records are part of that genealogy trinity of U.S. vital records. In addition to documenting the wedding, marriage records may also serve up the equivalent of genealogical party favors, such as the birth dates, birthplaces and sometimes even parents’ names of the bride and groom.


Civil or government records are generally the first ones we turn to in the United States. These types of records are commonly referred to as “vital records,” since they document important events in a person’s life like birth, marriage, and death.

Civil marriage records can be fairly easy to find and access. However, that’s not always the case. There may be times you can’t obtain a civil marriage record. If you do find it, it may not include all the information you were hoping for. And sometimes you’d just like to find more corroborating evidence or additional clues about their lives. That’s when it’s a good idea to turn to church marriage records.

Best Strategies for finding church marriage records

Though not all of our U.S. ancestors were married in a church or by a member of the clergy, many of them were, so church marriage records may exist.

In general, finding U.S. church records is a two-step process:
1. identify the right church
2. then find its records.

However, this may actually involve a few additional steps.

I’m going to share with you the steps and strategies of this process from my new book How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide. Along the way we’ll see how they apply to a real genealogy case that resulted in success.

Step 1: Identify the Church of Your Ancestor

Identifying the church in which an ancestor married is key to locating any surviving record of it.

Let me give you the first and most important tip: the answer may be sitting under your nose.

What do I mean by that? Start by looking carefully back through other records you already have about the bride or groom. These types of records include obituaries, oral histories, county histories, tombstones, etc. Do they mention a church affiliation?

Church Clues in other genealogical records

Example for Lisa’s family history

Even if they don’t mention a church, perhaps one of these records can give you a clue.

For example, let’s say the husband’s obituary mentions his lifelong religious affiliation, like Methodist or Catholic or Baptist, but not the name of the local congregation. My book offers several detailed strategies for tracking down the church name, but here’s one of the most helpful: Look at city directories, histories or maps from that time period to identify nearby churches of that denomination. Keep in mind that before the age of the automobile, people couldn’t travel far to attend church.

Let’s say you find both Irish and German Catholic parishes in the area. Based on what you already know about your family, with which did they likely affiliate?

If you’ve got the civil marriage record, look at the name of the officiator. Do you see a title hinting that this was a minister, such as “Rev” (short for Reverend)? (As an FYI, the initials “J.P.” stand for Justice of the Peace, a civil office.)

Occasionally you may even see the denomination written right in the record, as it is in the Colorado civil marriage record of Mike Fox and Mary Eiarrman:

How to find church records: Colorado civil marriage record

Colorado civil marriage record of Mike Fox and Mary Eiarrman

Most marriage certificates don’t state a minister’s affiliation but searching with Google may be able to help you with that.

For example, the Indiana marriage certificate for another ancestral couple of mine identifies the officiator as “S.B. Falkenberg, Minister.” Googling that name, along with the keywords church and Indiana, led me to online books that identified him as a Methodist.

Additional digging revealed that “Somers B. Falkenburg”—probably the same guy—was specifically assigned to the Rushville Circuit of the Southeast Indiana Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1860. This was around the time and place I’m looking for that 1861 marriage record. (Learn to do this kind of digging yourself from my book. See Chapter 14 Methodist.)

Step 2: Find Where the Church Records are Located

Once you’ve identified the church, it’s time to search for congregational records that may document the marriage.

Your strategy may vary, depending on the denomination, the time and the place. Again, my book can help you: there’s a chapter with general strategies for finding church records and there are specific chapters on various denominations. Here are some get-started strategies.

Googling the Church

Find out whether the church still exists by googling the church name and location or using the online congregational locator tools I mention in the various denominational chapters.

If the church still exists, you’ll likely find a website, Facebook page, or other contact information. Reach out to their office and ask about their old records.

If you can’t find the church online, it may have closed, merged with another church, or been renamed.

Contact the Church Organization

You might turn to regional church offices or archives, such as those of a Catholic diocese or Methodist conference, to see whether they can tell you anything about that church or its records.

Methodist Conference c. 1904

Each denomination has a different organizational structure. (See the 12 different denominational chapters in Part 2 of my book.)

An Example Search

How to find church records: civil marriage records search

Searching for church directories

Remember that 1889 civil marriage record for Mike Fox and Mary Eiarrman I showed you previously? Let’s take a look at the process I used to find their church marriage record.

Since the civil marriage record told me that the officiator Godfrey Raeber was a Catholic priest, I turned to the annual Catholic Directory for that year to see what parish (local congregation) he was assigned to.

I googled catholic directory 1889 and found that year’s edition online at HathiTrust Digital Archive.

Keyword-searching within the directory for Raeber didn’t bring up any results, but I didn’t stop there. I paged through it until I found the listing for the diocese of Denver (it is now an Archdiocese).

I found the priest listed at St. Ann’s, but his surname was spelled a little differently, which is why I couldn’t find him with that keyword search:

How to find church records for genealogy

Immediately, I googled St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Denver, Colorado. Nothing came up. So, I googled Denver Catholic diocese archive and found the archdiocesan archivist’s contact information. I called him and asked what he could tell me about St. Ann’s parish and its records. The parish had closed, he said, and he had the records right there. What did I need?

Hooray! I mailed him a check and emailed him the specifics of my request. He sent me back a copy of Mike and Mary’s entry line in the marriage register:

In case you can’t read it easily, the entry references their marriage on the 28th (the month and year, in preceding columns, are “ditto-marked” the same as the entry above it, which I can’t see, but I have the date already from the civil marriage record). Then Mike Fox’s name appears, age 23, “1” for his first marriage, Denver residence, son of Martin & Francis, born in Germany.

How to find church records for genealogy

How to find church records for genealogy - marriage entry

Similar information appears for Mary, the bride, though her surname is mostly illegible. These details (age, parents’ names, birthplace) were what I hoped to learn when I originally ordered the civil marriage record—but it’s not there. Only by taking the extra steps to find the church marriage record did I uncover these additional details.

I’m still looking for a Methodist record of that marriage recorded by S.B. Falkenberg. I’m guessing his was a traveling assignment covering many small towns, which means his own personal log book may have been the only place he would have created a record, if indeed he did. The records of itinerant ministers are not easy to find.

The Search for Church Marriage Records Can Lead to More Gems

It’s true that you won’t always find church records of ancestors’ marriages or other life events such as births, baptisms, deaths or burials.

Sometimes the records weren’t created; for example, Baptists didn’t generally record marriages, as they weren’t considered a religious rite.

Or perhaps membership records have been destroyed or lost.

Occasionally, you’ll track down the records only to find they aren’t accessible to researchers. That’s sometimes true for Catholic sacramental records, which are confidential—though many church or archive offices will release copies or transcriptions of older records.

How to find U.S. church records

But while following the process for church records, you may discover other gems that can add color to your family history stories.

For example, when I was looking for Catholic parish records in Olyphant, Pennsylvania, I found a short history of the church. It described the devotion of its earliest members, who raised the funds to erect their building and even helped dig its foundations. Though I can’t prove it, I have reason to believe this family was part of that devoted group.

Other times, you may find photos, directories, reminiscences or other records that give you a glimpse of your ancestors’ church community life.

A Genealogist’s Guide to Finding Church Records

While the 2-step process for finding church marriage records is straight-forward, each case requires unique resources. In How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide which I wrote with Harold Henderson, CG lays out a plethora of specific resources for the major Christian denominations in the U.S. before 1900:

church records book cover• Amish,
• Anglican,
• Baptist,
• Congregational,
• Dutch Reformed,
• Latter-day Saint,
• Lutheran,
• Mennonite,
• Methodist,
• Quaker,
• Presbyterian,
• Roman Catholic,
• and various German churches.

More than 30 archivists, historians, and genealogical experts in specific faith traditions have contributed their knowledge to the book.
Church records won’t always be your genealogical salvation, but every so often—hallelujah!—they will prove to be your saving grace.

About the Author

Sunny Morton (along with Harold A. Henderson, CG) is the author of the books How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records: A Genealogist’s Guide, and My Life & Times: A Guided Journal for Collecting Your Stories. She is also a contributing editor to Family Tree Magazine.

(Disclosure: Genealogy Gems is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. Thank you for supporting articles like these by using our link.)

 

We Dig These Gems! New Genealogy Records Online

We dig these gems new genealogy records onlineHere’s this week’s roundup of new genealogy records online: Australia, France, New Zealand and, in the U.S., records for AK, CO, IL, IN, MA, MD, ME, NH, NY, PA and WI.

AUSTRALIA – NORTHERN TERRITORY – PROBATE. Ancestry.com has a new probate index (1911-1994) for Northern Territory, Australia. The collection includes images of an index “organized first by year range, then alphabetically by surname and given name.”

FRANCE – MILITARY. FamilySearch.org has published a new online index to military conscription records for Saône-et-Loire (1867-1940). Privacy restrictions apply to those born less than 120 years ago.

NEW ZEALAND – PROBATE. More than 350,000 browsable records (and over 10,000 indexed records) have been added to a free FamilySearch.org collection of New Zealand probate records (1843-1998). Original records are sourced from Archives New Zealand offices in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

US – VARIOUS – MARINE. Over 315,000 records are part of a new Ancestry.com collection of applications for seaman’s protection certificates, (1916-1940).

US – VARIOUS – MARRIAGE. Findmypast.com announced the addition of around 10 million additional U.S. marriage records to its growing online collection. According to a press release, “This second installment includes significant additions from Indiana, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Maine.” Nearly a million of these are new to online publication and, at least for now, exclusive to Findmypast. (The collection is part of a FamilySearch partnership.)

US – VARIOUS – PROBATE. Ancestry.com has updated its collections of wills and probate records for Wisconsin, Maryland and Colorado. Coverage by time period and county varies.

US – ARKANSAS – CIVIL WAR. About 172,000 indexed records have been added to a free FamilySearch collection of Arkansas Ex-Confederate Pension Records (1891-1939).

US – MASSACHUSETTS – TOWN CLERK RECORDS. FamilySearch has added nearly half a million indexed names to its free online collection, Massachusetts Town Clerk Vital and Town Records 1626-2001. A new related collection of Massachusetts town records is also available on FamilySearch.

US – NEW HAMPSHIRE. Over 100,000 indexed records have been added to a free FamilySearch.org collection of New Hampshire Birth Certificates (1901-1909). According to the collection description, “Records consist of index cards that give the town and date of the event and often much more information.”

sign up newsletterNew genealogy records appear online by the millions every week. Keep current by subscribing to the free weekly Genealogy Gems email newsletter. The newsletter comes with a free e-book by Lisa Louise Cooke on Google search strategies you can use to find MORE genealogy records online that you need. Simply enter your email address in the box at the top of this webpage where it says “Sign up.”

 

Family History Episode 25 – Using Civil Birth Records in Family History Research

Listen to the Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast by Lisa Louise Cooke. It’s a great series for learning the research ropes and well as refreshing your skills.

Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast
with Lisa Louise Cooke
Republished April 1, 2014

https://lisalouisecooke.com/familyhistorypodcast/audio/fh25.mp3

Download the Show Notes for this Episode

Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.

Episode 25Using Civil Birth Records in Family History

In our last episode we covered marriage records. We finish up vital records in this episode by going back to the beginning: birth records.

There are two major categories: civil and church records. Today I’m bringing in professional genealogist Arlene H. Eakle, PhD, who will helps us to see the challenges we face and the success we can have locating civil birth records. (In Episode 26, Arlene will join me again to walk us through the world of church birth records.)

Here are some take-away tips from our discussion in this episode:

  • When you start researching in a new area, learn when government birth records began to be kept. Every state and some cities began birth registration at different times. Today, in some states you order records before a certain date from the local government and more recent ones from the state vital records office. Do your research! Start with this Vital Records Chart from Family Tree Magazine.
  • In the U.S., most government birth records were kept by the county, except in New England and independent cities. In the 20th century, the state took buy medication cart over jurisdiction of vital records in most states.
  • Birth records often have the names of parents and child and the place and date of birth. You may also find parents’ birthplaces, marital status of parents and even the date of marriage.
  • A single locale may have logged births in multiple sources, for example, for those who lived in or outside the city limits, or segregated records for blacks.
  • The actual birth record may have been logged as part of a list of names on a columned form. Birth certificates are a modern thing!
  • Some records have been digitized and indexed or microfilmed. Check the Family History Library catalog on FamilySearch.org first. If they have birth records, they’ll tell you whether they’ve been digitized or indexed on their site, or whether they’re available on microfilm.
  • Of course, many birth records are also available on subscription websites like Ancestry.com, FindMyPast.com, MyHeritage.com and more. If you are a subscriber, check their online holdings, too.
  • When ordering a birth record from a government office, they may type up a certificate to send you. That’s nice, but also ask for a photocopy of the original birth entry or record. There’s often more on the original record than the certificate—and you’ll minimize errors by looking at the real record.

Arlene H. Eakle, Ph.D., is the president and founder of The Genealogical Institute, Inc. and a professional genealogist since 1962. She holds both MA and Ph.D. in English History and an Associate degree in Nursing.

Adoption of Washington State Native Americans Among New and Updated Genealogical Record Collections This Week

Adoption of Washington State Native Americans records are now available for genealogical research. Also this week you can fill up on North Carolina school books, California land dockets, Florida newspapers, Canadian Aboriginal Peoples records, Lower Canadian census for 1825, and new additions to historic British newspapers.

dig these new record collections

United States – Adoption of Washington State Native Americans

Washington, Applications for Enrollment and Adoption of Washington Indians, 1911-1919 is now available at FamilySearch.org. This collection consists of records created during the creation of the Roblin Rolls of Non-Reservation Indians in Western Washington. The enrollment and adoption proceedings of Indian tribes in Western Washington that were not on tribal census records makes this collection unique. It is arranged by tribal name claimed by the applicant, and then by applicant’s name.

Records may contain:

  • English name of the primary individual or family members
  • Indian name of the primary individual or family members
  • Birth, marriage, or death dates
  • Birth, marriage, or death places
  • Place of residence
  • Ages
  • Number of children in the family
  • Occupation
  • Other biographical details about the family or individuals such as migrations
  • Tribal affiliation
  • Religious affiliation
  • General information about the tribe

United States – North Carolina – School Books

North Carolina Digital Heritage Center features highlights from the collections at DigitalNC, an online library of sources from across North Carolina. This week, the archive has added almost 90 years worth of “BlueBooks” from St. Mary’s School in Raleigh. The years covered are 1911-2000.

St. Mary’s School was both a high school and a college. In particular, the Student Blue Books could be especially useful for genealogists or historians, as they document the names, activities, and some addresses of the students.

United States – California – Land Docket

Ancestry.com has California, Private Land Claim Dockets, 1852-1858 available online. This record collection includes case files regarding private land claims in California. They are based on historical Spanish and Mexican land grants that took place before California became part of the U.S.
California, Private Land Claim Dockets, 1852-1858 for José Abrego at Ancestry.com

California, Private Land Claim Dockets, 1852-1858 for José Abrego at Ancestry.com

The purpose of these records was to show the actions taken regarding the claims after they were confirmed valid. Additional items within these case files include: notices and evidence of claims, certificate or plats of survey, affidavits, deeds, abstracts of titles, testimonies, appeals, and letters.

Each record in the index usually includes the name of the landowner, their docket number, and the record date.

United States – Florida – Newspapers

Do you have ancestors from Florida? Newspapers.com now has the Palm Beach Post. With a basic subscription, you can see issues of the Palm Beach Post from 1916 through 1922; or, with a Publisher Extra subscription, access earlier years and additional issues from 1922 to 2016.

Florida’s Palm Beach Post first began publishing in 1908 with the name Palm Beach County, and in 1916 (by this time called the Palm Beach Post) the paper made the switch from running weekly issues to daily.

Canada – Aboriginal Records

Library and Archives Canada added over 600 documents from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recently. These records can be viewed at the Library and Archives Canada website.

These records include transcripts of more than 175 days of public hearings, consultations and roundtables; research studies by academics and community experts; and submissions by non-governmental organizations. Until now, patrons could only access this collection in person at LAC’s downtown Ottawa location, or by submitting a reprography request. This is a wonderful asset to the many helpful collections online for Canadian researchers.

Lower Canada – Census

The Lower Canadian Census of 1825 from Findmypast contains over 74,000 records covering modern day Labrador and southern Quebec. Each search result will provide you with an image of the original document and a transcript. Information may include the language your ancestor spoke, where they lived, and with how many people they lived. It does not name each of the inhabitants in the home by name, but they are marked by age.

1.2 million Irish immigrants arrived from 1825 to 1970 according to Wikipedia. The peak period of entry of the Irish to Canada in terms of numbers occurred between 1830 and 1850, when 624,000 arrived. Quebec was a port of entry. So, if you have Irish immigrants who you think may have come to Canada by 1825, this might be a great census for you to look at.

Britain – Newspapers

Over 1.5 million new articles have been added to the military publications available at Findmypast in their historic British Newspapers. The Naval & Military Gazette and Weekly Chronicle of the United Service are two of the new titles added. Additional articles come from the Army and Navy Gazette.

More on Native American Research Collections

This week’s records featured Adoption of Washington State Native Americans. But whether you are searching for your Native heritage in Canada, the Western United States, or the Southeastern United States, we know you want the best in education and helpful tips. We have created a three-part series regarding how to use the Native American collections on Fold3.com here:

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting Genealogy Gems!

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