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.
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?
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:
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.
Each denomination has a different organizational structure. (See the 12 different denominational chapters in Part 2 of my book.)
An Example 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:
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.
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.
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:
• Dutch Reformed,
• Latter-day Saint,
• 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.)
A project that began in 2017 to digitize important sacramental records in the history of Boston’s Catholic Church has just been expanded. Here’s the latest on this important project from American Ancestors and the Archdiocese of Boston.
Historic Catholic Records Online Project Expansion
Announced by American Ancestors and the Archdiocese of Boston
20 Additional Years of Records—from 1901 through 1920—and more than 60 Additional Greater Boston Catholic Parishes Are To Be Added to the Historic Digital Genealogy Project at AmericanAncestors.org
August 7, 2019—Boston, Massachusetts—American Ancestors and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston (RCAB) today announced an expansion of its ongoing program to digitize important sacramental records in the history of Boston’s Catholic Church. This expansion of a project collaboration announced in early 2017 will effectively double the original 11 million names of parishioners to be included when the project is completed to encompass a total of approximately 21 million names—a treasure in research terms for historians, genealogists, scholars, and the public at large. Images are available to browse now. Name-searchable records will be available in an expanded database from American Ancestors on their award-winning website AmericanAncestors.org.
These historic records document several sacraments of the Catholic Church in Boston and surrounding towns including baptism, confirmation, holy communion, marriage, and the anointing of the sick. They are valued for research because they contain detailed information about the Catholic parishioners of greater Boston, their relationships with each other, the church, and often the community.
When announced in January 2017, the Historic Catholic Records Online Project—the first of its type in the U.S. to digitize a significant number of sacramental records from any U.S.-based Catholic archdiocese—encompassed 154 parishes in 84 towns within the Boston Archdiocese, covering the years 1789 to 1900.
Today’s announcement extends the project’s reach to cover records through the year 1920—adding 20 additional years of sacramental records to the project and eventually bringing more than 60 new parishes within it—all formed within the Boston Archdiocese after 1900.
Catholic parishes in the towns of
- Forest Hills,
- North Andover,
- and Winthrop
will now be included—covering important phases of greater Boston’s early 20th-century history and stories of immigration, social, and cultural change.
Brenton Simons, President and CEO of American Ancestors, also known as New England Historic Genealogical Society, celebrated the amplification of the project, noting “Throughout our 175-year history, New England Historic Genealogical Society has collected and shared countless manuscripts, artifacts, data, and other resources that tell the inspiring story of the American family. The expansion of this historic collaboration between the Boston Archdiocese and American Ancestors will enrich the research of family historians in America and beyond and be especially informative in Irish, Italian, and French Canadian genealogy. Newer parishes from the 1900s add Lithuanian, Polish, and Portuguese genealogical data of interest.
“I offer our deep gratitude to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston for recognizing the historical value of this data—especially Thomas Lester, the Archivist and Records Manager of the Archdiocese, whose forward-thinking vision toward preservation and collaboration inspired this important project and its expansion we are announcing today,” Simons said.
Lester, as the Boston Archdiocese’s leading advocate for records preservation, stated “We recognize the value of this collection to many groups, foremost among them historians and genealogists. This second, expanded phase of our project with American Ancestors, is a result of the overwhelming positive feedback received during the initial phase announced with them in January 2017.
“Use of the records by researchers around the world has exceeded our original expectations and we are excited to offer additional content, with more insights, and deeper glimpses into the history of the Roman Catholic people and parishes in greater Boston. Of equal importance is that we are continuing to create a digital backup to help preserve these irreplaceable records.”
“The completion of the expanded project, covering all records through the year 1920 is now anticipated to be by the year 2029,” stated Molly Rogers, Database Coordinator for American Ancestors, “with all browsable (non-indexed) and indexed names from all parish archives expected to be online by that time.”
The project is enormous in scope, with a large amount of data to be digitized and then laboriously, manually indexed, transcribed, and, in most cases, translated to English for name-searching capabilities.
Some of the first records from this expanded time period—browsable images of pages from parish archives—are available and may be viewed at AmericanAncestors.org/image-example by members of American Ancestors and by non-members alike, with a free online registration as a Guest Member at AmericanAncestors.org/membership/guest-users. Searchable records (indexed by name) are available only to subscribing members of American Ancestors—visit AmericanAncestors.org/Join.
Volunteers coordinated by the staff of American Ancestors undertake the greater portion of the work of scanning and indexing the Historic Catholic Records Online Project documents.
Much of this effort is carried out at the American Ancestors headquarters in Boston’s Back Bay. In 2017, American Ancestors launched a Historic Catholic Records Fund to enable philanthropy to support the project. Information about contributing to this fund can be found at AmericanAncestors.org/catholic-records-fund.
# # #
About American Ancestors and New England Historic Genealogical Society
American Ancestors, also known as New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS), with its national headquarters located in Boston’s Back Bay, is the oldest and largest genealogical organization in America. It serves more than 260,000 members and millions of online users engaged in family history nationally and around the world. It is home to a world-class research library and archive, and an expert staff.
American Ancestors offers an award-winning genealogical research website at AmericanAncestors.org with more than 1.4 billion records and maintains a publishing division which produces original genealogical research, scholarship, and educational materials, including Mayflower Descendant, a quarterly journal of Pilgrim genealogy and history.
Resources for Using Church Records for Genealogy
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!
Big records updates at the Genealogy Giant website Ancestry.com! Brand new collections of birth, marriage, death, and census records for Canada were added this week, along with a Remembrance Book for the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion. Additionally, new vital records are now available for Germany.
Canada – Birth, Marriage, Death, and Census Records
This year, December 6th marks the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion, which was a devastating maritime disaster in Nova Scotia, Canada. Ancestry has recently made available the ‘Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book,’ an online searchable database with detailed information for 1,946 casualties – more than 300 of whom are recently-confirmed and identified victims.
Ancestry also had a huge update of vital and census records this week for Canada:
AncestryDNA for Canada is on sale for just $99! Reg. $129 CAD. Sale ends 12/24/17. Excludes tax & shipping.
Alberta. Explore the new Births Index, 1870-1896, the Deaths Index, 1870-1966, and the Marriages Index, 1898-1942. Note that the marriage index is slightly irregular, in that each image only includes either the bride or the groom and their marriage year.
Newfoundland. Search baptisms and marriage records in the new collection of Church Records, 1793-1899. You’ll also find records from various churches in Newfoundland in the Births, Marriages, and Deaths, 1757-1901 collection, and the Births, Marriages, and Deaths, 1850-1949 collection. Also available are the 1921 Census, the 1935 Census, and the 1945 Census. Those databases originate from the Newfoundland Department of Tourism, Culture, and Recreation.
New Brunswick. New vital records collections start with Births and Late Registrations, 1810-1906. Then you’ll find Marriages, 1789-1950, which include registers, certificates, delayed registrations, and returns. And Deaths, 1888-1938 is also now online.
Prince Edward Island. Baptisms, Marriages, Burials, 1780-1983 is comprised of church records for Prince Edward Island. The Marriage Registers, 1832-1888 collection was created from newspapers, church records, and other sources that may or may not be provided. The Death Card Index, 1810-1913 contains pictures of the index cards from the Prince Edward Island Provincial Archives.
Nova Scotia. Lastly, Antigonish Catholic Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, 1823-1905 are now available for Nova Scotia. The earlier registers are written in paragraph format, while later registers are typically pre-printed forms with information filled in by hand.
German Vital Records
Lots of new vital records collections for Germany recently became available, starting with Waldshut-Tiengen, Births, Marriages, and Deaths, 1870-1945. This collection of civil registers includes records from 9 additional communities which are today boroughs of Waldhut-Tiengen.
Next are Erfurt, Germany, Births, 1874-1901 and Marriages, 1874-1900. Additional events from the life of the child or the couple were sometimes recorded later on in the margins, but have not been indexed.
You’ll also find Zschopau, Germany, Births, 1876-1914, Marriages, 1876-1920, and Deaths, 1876-1958 now at Ancestry. It may be helpful to note that during the time period of these collections until 1918, Zschopau belonged to the Kingdom of Saxony.
Finally, Traunstein, Germany, Births, 1876-1905, Marriages, 1876-1934, and Deaths, 1876-1978 are also online, where you’ll find names, dates of birth, dates of deaths, witnesses, informants, parents, signatures, and other information.
Get the most out of Ancestry!
Getting started on Ancestry.com can be a little daunting. As one of the world’s top genealogy websites, it’s packed with information about millions of people–perhaps including your ancestors. These step-by-step instructions will help you start building your family tree and learning more about your heritage. Click to read our recent article Getting Started on Ancestry.com.
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!