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.)

 

MyHeritage App Ranks in Top 100–and Gets A Redesign

MyHeritage app updateThe MyHeritage app is growing in popularity around the world, and it’s got a fresh new update!

A “completely redesigned version of our mobile app for iOS and Android” is now available, says Chief Genealogist Daniel Horowitz. “The enhanced app enables families around the world to build their family tree, instantly discover ancestors and relatives, and preserve and share their legacy, all with a better looking and more intuitive interface.” Download the free app here: iOS and Android.

The mobile app is increasingly popular around the world, says Daniel. “So far more than 4 million people have downloaded the MyHeritage app, and its usage is growing worldwide. Within the last 3 months, the MyHeritage app for Android has ranked in the top 100 apps in its category on Google Play in 40 countries. In addition it is currently ranked in the top 5 apps in its category in Denmark and Norway in both Apple’s App Store and Google Play.

“The Android version was recently selected by Google as a ‘featured app’ in more than 100 countries, making MyHeritage the first company in the family history industry to receive such recognition.” Watch the video below about the redesigned app:

how to start a genealogy blogClick here to see why we partner with MyHeritage here at Genealogy Gems. Want to learn about more various genealogy apps? Go to our home page and, from the category list on the left, select “apps.”

How to Find German Villages for Family History

Show Notes & Video: Finding your German ancestor’s village is key to finding the genealogical records you need to go further back in your family tree. In this session you’ll learn:

  • How and why it is important to know the “Heimat” because many records are kept on the local level.
  • How to de garble a village name that is handed down to you (a common problem!) 
  • Records to search for village names.
  • Resources for finding those records. 

My guest presenter is James Beidler. He’s an expert on German genealogy and was gracious enough to share his expertise in the Genealogy Gems booth at Rootstech a few years ago. Visit James Beidler’s website.  Get the book: The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany. (Thank you for using our affiliate link which supports this free content.)

Watch the Video

Show Notes

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members

Researching your ancestors deep into Germany simply doesn’t happen unless you know the name of the village of origin. This presentation goes over the sources to tie your immigrant to a Heimat and then find the village and its records! HIghlighted in this article are the strategies and resources referred to in this video. 

German Methodologies Review:

Your first job is to find every document of the immigrant ancestor or that mentions the immigrant ancestor:

  • Prepare for surname variants
  • “Redundancy” is a virtue (e.g., obit may well have something tombstone does not)
  • Even items such as letters and diaries might give clues!
  • Be prepared for village names to be corrupted
  • Familiarize yourself with German maps / gazetteers
  • Look for “patterns of association” with other individuals
  • Process any piece of information that might distinguish the immigrant (e.g., occupation, names of other family members, etc.)

Utilize “whole family” genealogy

  • If specific records don’t exist for your ancestor, try others in family

Look for published sources

  • 1700s families: Burgert / Jones / Yoder / Hacker
  • 1800s families: Burkett / Germans to America / Emigration indexes

Search International Genealogical Index

Search for:

  • References to individual
  • References to clusters of the surname if it is not common
  • References to shipmates
  • References to “associated persons”

Look for other sources of immigrant information:

  • Heitmatstelle Pfalz immigrant card file
  • Hamburg embarkation lists
  • German phonebooks
  • Google searches

Use the “concentric circles” strategy

  • If a village is found for the above categories of people (surname, shipmates, associated persons) but your immigrant is not found …
  • … work out from that village in “concentric circles” to other surrounding villages

“Things found on the way to something else”

  • Machmer / Magemer / Mahomer example
  • Never turn away luck!

Types of records that might yield a place of origin:

  • Naturalizations
    Declarations of intent (“first papers”) Naturalization petitions (“final papers”)
  • Baptisms of children
  • Marriage Records
  • Church burial records
  • Tombstone
  • Obituaries
  • U.S. Census
  • Family Bibles
  • Family Registers
  • Fraternal societies’ records
  • Enlistment papers
  • Discharge Papers
  • Pension documents
  • Letters from relatives
  • Postmarks on letters

Internet Websites Resources for German Research

The resources listed below can help us answer some of the most common questions we ask as genealogists. Some examples of the questions and Websites that will help:

1. What was the village of origin for my German-speaking immigrant ancestor?

Baden-Wuerttemberg 

Brandenburg: Frankfurt an der Oder 

Bremen Passenger Lists, 1920-39 

Brunswick, 1846-1871 

Mecklenburg (Institute for Migration and Ancestral Research) 

Niedersaechsen

Northern Friesland (search Friesland)

Rhein emigrants 

Schleswig-Holstein 1800s 

Westphalia emigration lists 

2. How can I help untangle the garbled name of a village of origin?

Meyers Gazetteer online 

Atlas des Deutschen Reichs by Ludwig Ravenstein 1883 

GOV Genealogical Gazetteer (part of Genealogy.net supersite) 

Comprehensive gazetteer of German places east of the Oder and Neisse rivers 

3. How can I get in contact with possible relatives from my ancestor’s village of origin?

Das Telefonbuch (German telephone directory)

German National Tourist Board 

(Also – Google names of villages and find out which local tourist board the village is a part of – e-mail directly to them)

4. How can I find out about German archives?

FamilySearch wikifor guides to Germany and its component states 

Archivschule Marburg Portal D (list of archives) 

Resources

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members

 

We Dig These Gems: New Genealogy Records Online

We dig these gemsWe learn about so many fantastic new genealogy records online every week. So each Friday we round up several of them for you to glance through. Watch for databases and documents that your ancestors might appear in–but also watch for the kinds of records that may be out there already, that you haven’t yet looked for. This week: British women in World War I, Polish-American marriages, Irish vital records, Canadian travel photography, Scottish artifacts and documents and a Louisiana (US) press archive.

WWI WOMEN. FindMyPast has posted over 9,500 UK records that illustrate the various roles played by woman during the Frist World War. These include:

POLISH-AMERICAN MARRIAGES. A new database of Polish-American marriages has been posted by the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast.

According to a press release, “This database contains the names of couples of Polish origin who were married in select locations in the Northeast United States. The information was taken from marriage records, newspaper marriage announcements, town reports, parish histories or information submitted by Society members. The time period generally covered by these lists is 1892-1940. It includes the States of Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont. Connecticut and Jersey City, NJ will be added at a later date.”

IRISH BMD. Over a million records appear in a new database of Irish records of the city and county of Derry~Londonderry and Inishowen, County Donegal. Entries span 1642-1922 and include:

  • Pre-1922 civil birth and marriage registers,
  • Early baptismal and marriage registers of 97 churches,
  • Headstone inscriptions from 118 graveyards, and
  • Census returns and census substitutes from 1663 to 1901.

Click here to access these records (and other County Derry resources) at RootsIreland,ie (subscription required).

CANADIAN TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHY. A small but visually rich collection of pictures promoting Canadian tourism is now at Flickr Creative Commons. Use these to explore places your ancestors may have visited (and the images that may have lured them there) if they vacationed by rail in the 1800s or early 1900s. (Click here to learn more about finding great historical photos at Flickr Creative Commons.)

SCOTTISH ARTIFACTS AND DOCUMENTS. A new digital archive at Historic Scotland has launched an online database of 400 artefacts now includes over 400 artifacts important to Scottish history. Everyday household objects, ship models, coins, weaponry, bits ‘n bobs of old homes and buildings, industrial machinery and miscellaneous photos, books and ephemera are all browsable on this site. It’s a great place to look for images that help illustrate your Scottish ancestors’ history.

LOUISIANA PRESS COVERAGE. The Louisiana Digital Media Archive has launched as “the first project in the nation to combine the media collections of a public broadcaster and a state archives,” according to its site description. “This ever-expanding site contains a combined catalog of thousands of hours of media recorded over the past half-century.  You can see interviews with Louisiana civil rights pioneers, notable political figures, war heroes, artists and literary icons. You’ll have a front row seat to Louisiana history through video of historic events. You can also visit remote and endangered Louisiana places and cultures.”

check_mark_circle_400_wht_14064Not sure how to find record sets like these for YOUR family history? Here’s a tip! Set up a Google Alert. Say you want to know whenever new material on Polish-Americans in Detroit is found by Google’s ever-searching search engines. Click here to learn how to set up this search (or any other) Google Alert for genealogy.

This tip comes to you courtesy of the book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Second Edition by Lisa Louise Cooke–the fully-revised 2015 edition that’s packed with strategies that will dramatically improve your ability to find your family history online.

Millions of global records now at FamilySearch.org

Millions of records from around the world are new at FamilySearch this week, and are completely free! These new collections include Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, and South Africa. PERSI also got a big update this week at Findmypast, as well as new and updated records for Canada, England, and Ireland.

new genealogy records at Familysesrch

New collections free at FamilySearch

Australia. The new South Australia, Immigrants Ship Papers, 1849-1940 collection includes immigrants’ ships papers, containing a record of births and deaths aboard, 1849-1867 and 1873-1885. Indexed records in this collection include passenger lists arriving and departing from South Australia. (Original records in the State Records of South Australia, Adelaide.) Get started with Australian genealogy research with these tips from an expert at Legacy Tree Genealogists!

Denmark. FamilySearch has been adding census records for Denmark recently, and the latest new collection is the 1921 Denmark Census. This collection includes over 430,000 images, and these census collections were all provided by MyHeritage and previously from the National Archives of Denmark.

Finland. Church Census and Pre-Confirmation Books, 1657-1915: This collection contains church census books and pre-confirmation books kept by the Lutheran Church in Finland. These records come from a database at MyHeritage, citing Kansallisarkisto (National Archives of Finland), Helsinki.

France. Explore over half a million indexed records for Saône-et-Loire, Census, 1856, a complete indexing of the population censuses.

Italy. The Salerno, Civil Registration (State Archive), 1806-1949 collection includes civil registration (stato civile) records of births, marriages, and deaths within the custody of the State Archive of Salerno (Archivio di Stato di Salerno). Almost 6 million images are in this collection, and availability of records is largely dependent on time period and locality.

South Africa. Lastly, this collection of Pietermaritzburg Estate Files 1846-1950 is also new at FamilySearch. Records include death notices, vital records, wills, distribution accounts, and succession duty accounts.

Need help using FamilySearch? The Unofficial Guide to FamilySearch.org by Dana McCullough provides the guidance you need to discover your ancestors and make the most of the free site’s valuable resources. Learn how to maximize all of FamilySearch.org’s research tools–including hard-to-find features–to extend your family tree in America and the old country.

PERSI update at Findmypast

The Periodical Source Index (also known as PERSI) has had another large update at Findmypast. Almost 11,000 new articles and 30,000 new images have been added, covering Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Toronto, and Yorkshire. PERSI is an excellent resource for discovering articles, photos, and other material you probably won’t find using conventional online search methods.

Click here to learn more about PERSI for genealogy research. Genealogy Gems Premium Members can also check out Premium Podcast episode #135 for more tips on PERSI (sign-in required). Not a Premium Member? Click here to get started!

Canada – New & Updated Collections

From Libraries and Archives Canada: Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files. “As of today, 502,740 of the 640,000 files are available online in our Personnel Records of the First World War database…Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order.”

Ancestry.com updated two of their collections for Canada this week: Ontario, The Ottawa Journal (Birth, Marriage, and Death Notices) 1885-1980 and the Canada Obituary Collection, 1898-2017. Both of these collections come from microfilmed copies of the newspapers.

England Registrations

Recently announced on Twitter: “The General Register Office for England and Wales (GRO) is piloting a service from 12 October 2017 to provide portable document format (PDF) copies of digitized historical birth and death records. The pilot will run for a minimum of 3 months to enable GRO to assess the demand for this service over a prolonged period.” England and Wales records which are available as PDFs in this extended pilot include births (1837 –1916) and deaths (1837 –1957).

Ireland: Historical Newspaper

A new historical newspaper title was added to the British Newspaper Archive this week for Northern Ireland. The Coleraine Chronicle 1844-1910 was published by Alpha Newspaper Group in Coleraine, Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The collection features nearly 3,500 issues and over 26,000 pages.

genealogy giants quick reference guide cheat sheetGet the most out of your genealogy records websites subscriptions!

Use the jammed-packed Genealogy Giants cheat sheet by Sunny Morton to quickly and easily compare all of the most important features of the four biggest international genealogy records membership websites: Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com, and MyHeritage.com. Then consult it every time your research budget, needs or goals change. Tables, bulleted lists, and graphics make this guide as easy to use as it is informative. Available in print or digital download.

Disclosure: This post 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 the free Genealogy Gems podcast and blog!

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