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.)

 

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 259 Special Christmas Episode

A Cup of Christmas Tea with Best-Selling Author Tom Hegg

(This post includes affiliate links. If you decide to make a purchase we will be compensated at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!) 
“A Cup of Christmas Tea” New York Timesbest-selling author Tom Hegg joins me for an inspiring conversation about this story of the importance of touching base with our fellow man. It’s a message we can benefit from any time of year. It’s also a wonderful reminder of the importance of family and how our older family members hold a piece of our own history in them.
 
 
Cup of Christmas Tea with Tom Hegg

Get your copy of A Cup of Christmas Tea here.

Listen to Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 259

In this special audio version of the interview, listen to Tom recite this wonderful story A Cup of Christmas Tea set to beautiful music. You’ll also hear him recite the children’s classic Peef the Christmas Bear.  To Listen click the media player below (AUDIO ONLY):

Watch the Original Video

This audio comes from my YouTube video series Elevenses with Lisa. You can watch the video interview at the Elevenses with Lisa episode 38 show notes page.

Get $10 off StoryWorth

Give your relatives a meaningful gift with StoryWorth. Get started right away with no shipping required by going to https://storyworth.com/gems 
You’ll get $10 off your first purchase! 

Become a Genealogy Gems Premium Member

Premium Members have exclusive access to:

  • Video classes and downloadable handouts
  • The Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast
  • Elevenses with Lisa downloadable ad-free show notes PDF cheat sheets

Become a member here.

Genealogy Gems Podcast App

Don’t miss the Bonus audio for this episode. In the app, tap the gift box icon just under the media player. Get the app here

Get the Free Genealogy Gems Newsletter

The Genealogy Gems email newsletter is the best way to stay informed about what’s available with your Premium eLearning Membership. Sign up today here.

Our Sponsor:

MyHeritage: Click here to start finding your family history at MyHeritage

MyHeritage

MyHeritage.com is the place to make connections with relatives overseas, particularly with those who may still live in your ancestral homeland. 

 

Follow Lisa and Genealogy Gems on Social Media:

Music: FairyTale Waltz by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ Source: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1100232 Artist: http://incompetech.com/
We Wish You a Merry Christmas by Twin Musicom is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ Artist: http://www.twinmusicom.org/

How to Find and Browse Unindexed Records at Ancestry – The Better Browsing Checklist

Browse-only collections at Ancestry and other genealogy websites are sometimes viewed as inaccessible, but they are actually a hidden treasure. Learn how to access these browse-only collections at Ancestry and expand your family history research.

better browsing ancestry checklist

In the past we’ve written about how to access browse-only content at FamilySearch.org. Many readers said it opened a whole new world of genealogy records to them that they didn’t know they were missing. 

The good news is that FamilySearch is not alone in offering browse-only content. Ancestry.com also has browse-only collections of digitized records. (Not an Ancestry.com subscriber yet? Click here to learn more. This is an affiliate link and we are compensated if you make a purchase, which supports this free blog. Thank you!)

Knowing how to search and browse records effectively is critical because you shouldn’t just rely on hints. Ancestry, for example, only provides hints from about the top 10% of their most popular databases. That means if you only spend time on reviewing hints, you’re missing a massive amount of genealogical information available in all of the other records. 

Typically you’ll be using the search feature to find those other records. However not all records are searchable. That’s because after the long process of acquiring the rights to digitize and publish a genealogy record collection, it takes even longer to get them indexed for a variety of reasons. Thankfully, Ancestry doesn’t always make us wait to gain access to them until the indexing is complete.

The digital images are published without an index. This means they are not searchable by names and other keywords. Therefore, it can take some time to locate a record within one of these collections. But I think you’ll agree it’s more convenient to look through them from the comfort of your own home rather than renting microfilm or traveling to a far off location!

Here’s your checklist for better browsing. 

HOW TO FIND BROWSE-ONLY RECORDS AT ANCESTRY

While Ancestry.com doesn’t make it quite as easy as FamilySearch to find browse-only or partially-indexed databases, it’s still very much worth the effort. 

1. Head to the Card Catalog

From the main menu on the Ancestry website, select Search > Card Catalog.

Ancestry.com Card Catalog Search

2. Search and Filter

In the upper left corner you can search the catalog by title and / or keyword. However, if you know the type of record you are looking for, such as military records, the best place to start is filtering by that category. If the list is long, you can then search within that category by keywords. 

Ancestry card catalog filtering column

3. Determining if the Records are Searchable

If you don’t see a search box on the left side, then you can assume that this collection has not yet been indexed and therefore isn’t searchable by keywords and other data. Instead you will see typically see the source information box at the top.

browse only genealogy record collection at Ancestry

HOW TO FILTER BROWSE-ONLY GENEALOGY RECORDS

1. Browse This Collection Box

On the right side of the screen you will see a Browse this Collection box. The filtering options presented will depend on the way the collection is organized. 

Filter browse only genealogy record collection at Ancestry

In the case of the Nevada County Marriage database, a drop down menu allows you to filter by county.

2. Make a Selection

As you can see in my example, once I selected a county I can also filter down by record books. So even though you can’t search names, you can often zero in on the portion of the collection most relevant to your search.

filtering down browse only records at Ancestry.com

Browse this Collection box

 

HOW TO BROWSE RECORDS AT ANCESTRY.COM

Once you have selected the available filters, you’ll find yourself in the digitized records. They are displayed in a filmstrip layout which will come in quite handy for navigation through the pages. 

Filmstrip navigation of genealogy records at Ancestry.com

Navigation is crucial since we can’s search by names and keywords. Let’s take a closer look at the ways you can navigate:

browse navigation at Ancestry.com

Browsing a digitized genealogy record collection at Ancestry.com

 

Finding the Filmstrip

if you don’t see the filmstrip view, click the filmstrip icon:

Filmstrip View

 

Finding and Using the Original Index

 

WATCH THE BONUS VIDEO below to see the next section in action. Click on the sound button to the right of the play button to turn on the sound. 

 

Many records that were originally bound in books like this collection include index pages. In this book the index appears at the beginning. If you look closely at the filmstrip images it’s easy to spot where the index lists are and where the records begin. 

index pages and record pages

So even though Ancestry hasn’t had the chance to index the records yet, they are indexed in the book. This will make the job of browsing for the records you need even easier. 

The “About” box on the card catalog entry often includes important information about whether or not the collection has an index. One example of this is the Canada, Photographic Albums of Settlement, 1892-1917 record collection. It is a browse-only series of digitized photo albums by Canada’s Department of the Interior between 1892 and 1917. The collection description includes very useful instructions such as: “At the beginning of each album, you will find a table of contents with a brief description of each photograph and the photograph number. Use these tables to help you browse to the photograph of interest.” As you can see, taking a few extra moments to read about the collection can make browsing it much easier. 

Browse only database of Canadian records

Save Time When Browsing Between Volumes

Remember that Browse this Collection box on the right hand side of the card catalog entry page? (See the Browse this Collection box image 6 images above.) This handy menu is also embedded in the record viewer. If you need to switch to a different book, album or other portion of the collection, you don’t have to hit the back button and start over. Instead, at the top of the viewing page, click the volume or collection you are currently viewing (this appears as a sub-title under the main title of the collection.) A browse structure menu will appear showing you all the other options within the collection. Just click the one you want and you will be instantly switched over. Think of it as pulling a different volume of a series of books off the shelf!

Browse structure on viewer page at Ancestry

Switching volumes within the collection within the viewer.

 

Browsing Indexed Records

There will be times when even though a record collection is indexed, you may still want to browse it. Browsing isn’t just for unindexed records. Many genealogy gems can be found by browsing a database that you’ve already searched. You may spot neighbors of interest, other surnames from your family tree, and more. So even when you are working with a record collection that has a search box, look for the browsing option in the right column.

browse indexed records at Ancestry

 

HOW TO FIND THE NEWEST RECORDS AT ANCESTRY.COM

The records most likely to not yet be indexed, and therefore browse-only, are the newest records added to Ancestry. If you’re looking to bust through a brick wall, here’s a great way to find the newest records that just might do it.

1. Go to the Card Catalog

From the main menu on the Ancestry website, select Search > Card Catalog.

2. Sort the Records

In the right hand corner you’ll find a Sort By menu. Select Date Added

New Records at Ancestry.com sorted by Date Added

Select Date Added from the Sort by menu.

3. Newest Record View

The Card Catalog will now be presented in the order in which the records were added. The newest records will appear at the top of the list.

4. Filter the List

Use the filters along the left side of the page to filter the collections by record type, location, and date. Then use the search boxes to target keywords. This will give you results that include your keyword starting with the newest collections.

BONUS PDF AND MORE RESOURCES

Making a small investment of time in getting to know the search and browsing functions of a website can pay off big.

BONUS PDF: Click to download a handy ad-free PDF version of this article for easy reference: How to Find and Browse Unindexed Records at Ancestry

Here are three more articles and podcast episodes here at Genealogy Gems that can help you maximize your genealogy research efforts:

WHAT DID YOU UNCOVER USING THESE BROWSING STRATEGIES?

Please leave a comment below and share the genealogy gems that you uncover using these techniques. And of course if you have any questions, leave those as comments as well and I’ll reply.

Pin It on Pinterest

MENU