Okay, not everybody has a religion, but if you’re looking for ancestors who lived before the twentieth century they almost certainly had a religion and if they didn’t you’ve got one interesting ancestor and you ought to be looking into his/her life more thoroughly.
According to the 1870 census there were about 72,459 churches in the U.S. serving a population of 38,558, 371 or one church for every 530 people. Today several studies indicate about 335, 000 churches serving a population of about 304, 000, 000 or about one church for 900 people. These are approximate numbers, but you get the idea. Most small towns in America had a multiplicity of churches and most of them were fairly small. Mid 19th century America was fertile ground for new churches. What we might now consider to be minor differences in doctrine could often spawn enough disagreement that someone would stomp off and form a new church. In his book, Family, Ian Frazier says, “In the United States, after the Revolutionary War, Protestant sects proliferated like diet colas.” This is partial list of the possibilities for church membership taken from his book: Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians (low, middle and high church), Methodists and Baptists. Among the Baptists there were Hard Shell, Free Will, Particular and Seceder. There were also Shakers, Quakers, Mormons, Finneyites, Rappites, Unitarians, Lutherans, and many more, and these are just the Protestants.
All of these churches had one thing in common; they kept records. Church records can possess a wealth of information. The best thing about church records is that many of them have survived decades and centuries and are still there to be found.
Where do we find these records? Some of them can be found in books. A History of Sullivan County talks about Luke Davies, a person of interest to me, and recalls the founding of the First Baptist church of Thompson, New York and a” furious controversy” between the Baptists and the Presbyterians. Some denominations keep websites with historical information. It has been a great pleasure to me that the Seventh Day Adventists keep an index of obituaries of Seventh Day Adventists and will send them to you for five dollars each. Virtually every Seventh Day Adventist who died in this country has at least one and often two obituaries. Forgive the pun, but if you’re a genealogist it’s like you died and went to heaven.
Some 19th century churches continue to exist and most will share their records with you. How do you search for a church? First try the phone book for the town where your ancestor lived. If it’s not there find a website for the denomination, find the state or city headquarters for that denomination and contact them asking what happened to the church you are looking for and where its records might be kept. If none of this works try the local historical society and the state archives, many church records have come to reside in archives. Try the local library. Many, if not most, town libraries have local history collections. Librarians are among the most helpful people on Earth. If they don’t have it they will probably point you in the right direction.
In the last half of the 19th century many local histories were compiled. These contain many biographies and a good number of them will list the church your ancestor attended. Birth, death, and marriage records also contain information about the church or the name of the minister.
So search those records, write those letters or emails, make those phone calls, and then sit back and wait for the good stuff to arrive in your inbox or in your mailbox.