When there are no civil registrations of birth, marriage and death records, church records can serve as alternative sources for these vital records. Finding these records can be difficult, frustrating and time consuming. Before you can begin your search for church records, you must determine the religious affiliation and residence of the person you are researching. In addition, you must know the approximate date of the event that you are attempting to document.
Church registers of births, deaths and marriages are the most helpful to genealogists but often there are other types of useful church records available. The existence of these other types of records varies with the denomination and the era of the church. These records can include lists of members, church accounts, journals of clergy, disciplinary records, and family registers. Church newspapers are also useful. They can include obituaries of lay members and clergy and items about church members who have moved away.
Church records of births, deaths and marriage may seem easy to interpret but there is often more information in them than you are first aware. Particular ethnic groups may have traditions in the naming of children or in the choosing of witnesses that can reveal collateral lines or highlight relationships between families. Researching the traditions of a particular ethnic group or church may help you interpret the church records more effectively.
- First, determine where your subject was living when the event in which you are interested occurred. The federal censuses are often the best source of this information.
- Next, identify churches of the relevant denomination in the area. Published county histories, denominational histories, yearbooks, conference reports and church histories can help you find the relevant churches in the area. You can find these materials by searching the Library Catalog, under location and under denomination name (Example: "Dane county" AND Methodist) or under the names of the individual churches. The same search may be used to find unpublished church records in the Archives online catalog, ArCat.
- Finally, locate the records of the specific church or churches. A Guide to the Church Vital Statistics Records in Wisconsin (Call number: CD 3590 H46 at the Reference Desk), although outdated, lists known collections of Wisconsin Protestant church records, circa 1942. Many published church records can be found in the Library Catalog, searching by location and the phrase "Registers of births." For example: "Dane county" AND "registers of births". Many unpublished church records can be found in the state Archives. The Archives catalog, ArCat, can be searched using the same search terms as can be used with the Library Catalog.
- Other published church records for the US, Canada, and Europe are indexed in PERiodical Source Index (PERSI), an annual index of articles from genealogical periodicals (Call number: CS 1 P48 in the Reading Room Reference Area). After searching PERSI, you will need to search the Library Catalog to see if the Society Library owns the publication you require.
- If you don't find the church records you need here at the Historical Society, check current denominational yearbooks or directories, city directories and phone books to see if your church is still in existence. Search the Library Catalog, by the location and the term "city directory" or "yearbook" or "telephone directory". (Example: "madison" AND "wisconsin" AND "city directory"). If you are looking for the unpublished records of a church from outside of Wisconsin, consult Requesting Research Assistance for more information.
- If the church is still in existence but the records are unpublished you may want to write to the church to inquire if the records survive, who holds them and how to access them. If the church still holds the records, you may want to ask them to search the records for you. When you write to a church, remember that they may be able to do only a small amount of research as a favor to you. Be polite, do not ask for too much and send a donation. If you will need extensive research done ask them if it is possible for you or for a hired researcher to look at the records.
The world's largest collection of church records is held by the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Check out their website at www.familysearch.org for a catalog of holdings and to find the Family History Center nearest you.
How to Access Church Records
If you plan to visit the Library, search the Library Catalog for the call numbers and the locations of the church records in which you are interested. By preparing in this manner, you will be able to make the most of your time at the Library.
Unfortunately, published church records do not circulate out of the Library. If you cannot come to the Library and have the title, author, and page numbers from a specific publication from which you would like photocopies, or you do not have a page number, but would like us to check a particular publication for a person or family and make copies of the information, consult Requesting Research Assistance.
If you plan to visit the Archives, search the on-line catalog, ArCat, for the call numbers and the locations of the church records in which you are interested. By preparing in this manner, you will be able to make the most of your time at the Archives.
If you cannot visit the Archives and the material you wish to use is on microfilm, it may be available via interlibrary loan. If the material is not available on microfilm, you will need to make a reference request to the Archives. Please find more information on our Library Services page or contact the Archives reference staff to make a reference request.
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