Churches and Schools
In just about every town, you can find a church and a school. Throughout much of history these buildings have served as the center of the community, a focus of daily life for area residents. For this reason, church and school records often provide intriguing insights into the lives and personalities of earlier generations. They may also supply concrete facts, such as dates of birth or baptism, marriage, and death, or proof of family relationships.
Church and synagogue records are a very valuable source for pre-1900 baptisms, marriages, and burials, but be prepared to face a few challenges. The existence of more than a hundred different religious denominations can make it difficult to determine the church with which your ancestor had an affiliation. Churches themselves have appeared, disappeared, and merged over time. Record keeping varies widely. Some records are in the custody of individual churches, others in diocesan collections, and still others in national archives or other repositories. Generally, there are few catalogs or indexes to these church records, and the vast majority cannot be accessed online. In most cases you'll find it necessary to visit the church or archives in person, or to hire a researcher.
To locate church records, you must first identify the denomination of your ancestor, and the actual church that she attended. Don't just assume that your ancestors practiced the same religion that you do today. It's very common to find individuals or families who have changed denominations. In rural areas, the choice of churches was generally limited, and residents may have attended the church or parish most convenient for them. Once you determine the religion, a directory may be able to help you pin down the closest church to where your ancestor lived.
When you have located the church, you next need to find out where the records are kept. Begin with an online phone directory or Internet search to see if the church still exists, and then contact it to learn about the availability of records for your time period of interest. If the church is no longer in existence, an e-mail or call to the local historical society or library, or to the regional headquarters for that denomination, may provide you with information. Many older church records have been published in book form or in local genealogical and historical periodicals. Look under your locality of interest in online library catalogs and in PERSI. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections can be useful in locating church records held by libraries and historical societies (see Chapter 2).
The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, published annually by the National Council of Churches in the United States and available for purchase from their website, lists all major denominations with contact information and a capsule history. ChurchTag (
One of the largest sources of transcribed and/or indexed church records online is the International Genealogical Index at FamilySearch (
Even in the many cases where the actual church records are not online, you can do a lot of the background research on the Internet. The Family History Library has microfilmed records for many denominations that you can learn about by doing a place search in the online Family History Library Catalog. The websites for regional and national headquarters for many denominations offer information on the availability of records for family history research, as well as online directories of churches, parishes, or synagogues.
From the seventeenth century to the present day, schools and other educational institutions have created records that may have information about your ancestors, including registration records, class lists, alumni lists, transcripts, report cards, school censuses, and class photos. If your ancestor went to college you may be especially lucky, as colleges and universities tend to create, maintain, and preserve more comprehensive records than most primary and secondary schools. School fraternities and sororities also provide a potential source for records on such ancestors.
The one-room rural schoolhouse was a vital part of early American life, but these records, even if they have survived, may be hard to find. As the schools were closed, records may have been deposited with county or state repositories. Sometimes the local library or historical society may have these records, or know where they are kept. Twentieth-century school records are usually much more comprehensive, and can often be found by contacting the school or school district directly. Try your favorite search engine to find schools in a particular location, using a search such as schools lexington county south carolina. The Board of Education in the state in which your ancestor attended school may also be of assistance in locating records. You'll often find, however, that many schools restrict access to personal information on people who may still be living. You may be able to get around these privacy issues by proving that you're a relative of the individual of interest, and that she is deceased.
As with church records, most school records cannot be accessed online. The previously mentioned subscription site Genealogy Today (
Yearbooks, school newspapers, and alumni registers and directories provide alternative avenues for research when the school records themselves are unavailable. If the school still exists — especially in the case of colleges, universities, or private schools — these resources may be available through the school library or alumni association.