Ancestor Search: Enter as much information as you know about your ancestor and click search:

  First Name:
Last Name:
Birth Year
Death Year

From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 2/15/2006

Lessons From the Church Register

Grandma always told me she remembered her baptism. I was skeptical. After all, the event likely took place when she was an infant. Later when I viewed the records of the church, I learned that Grandma was right and I was wrong--she would have been old enough to have remembered the event. This week we will look at the records of this church and discuss some of the lessons they can teach us.

One is fortunate when four generations of your family attend the same church over a period of seventy years. It is even more fortunate when the records are readily available on microfilm. I spent hours poring over the records of the Bethany United Church of Christ in Tioga, Hancock County, Illinois. The first thing I learned is that Grandma could easily have remembered her baptism: she was five when it happened. She and two of her siblings were baptized by the church’s minister in 1915. It was no wonder she remembered the occasion. After locating this record, I was reminded that I should search for several years after the birth in order to find a baptism, even if baptisms are typically within a few weeks of the birth. Grandma was not the only non-infant whose baptism appears in the records of the Tioga church. Sometimes baptisms are delayed because there is no minister available. Sometimes a family decides to wait (maybe they don‘t like the minister) and sometimes an adult converts from another denomination. Others even older than Grandma were found among the church’s christening records.

Maria Kunz was baptized on 19 September 1886, at the age of twenty-one. It is an atypical entry as Maria was baptized on the same day as her small daughters, Martha and Maria. Daughter Maria was the only one who was an infant. Mother Maria’s husband’s family had been members of the church for some time and apparently she joined the church at the time her daughters were christened.

Name Variations and Interpreting Handwriting
Maria’s entry lists the names of her parents, even though they were not members of the church. The maiden name of Maria’s mother is particularly interesting. The name initially appears to be Martha Ramble[i?]. The last name Ramblei is the German pastor’s rendition of the English surname Rampley. It is a reasonable variation, but not one that I usually encounter when researching this last name. To the untrained eye, the mother’s first name may look like “Marsha” but it is not. It is Martha. The German script itself creates potential problems with these entries.

It takes time to learn how to read the script correctly. A hasty conclusion almost led to confusion for me on another family.

I thought Bieger (or a reasonable variant thereof) was the maiden name of my ancestor Franciska Trautvetter. On an initial look at several of the christening records for her children (dating in the 1870s), Franciska’s maiden name appears to begin with the letter “L.” Lieger is significantly different from Bieger, and is especially vexing as the initial letter has a different sound. A closer look at the records and the German script is warranted. What appears to be an “L” is not an “L,” and I may be making a variant where none exists. Two things helped me to interpret this letter correctly. One was a guide to German script from the Family History Library website. The other was viewing the letters in the context of other records and not simply analyzing one record alone.

The German Handwriting Guide contains the “ideal” script for the time period in question. Of course, this script on the chart is the standard. Ministers, like other humans, do not always write in a perfect script. (Have you compared your handwriting to what you were taught in the third grade?) Yet this set of samples was extremely helpful in providing a guide to interpreting many of the letters in these records.

Reading other entries also helped. Fortunately for me, Franciska’s sister was named Louise and Louise was a godmother of one of Franciska’s children. Consequently, both the first name “Louise” and the last name “Ligert” were written in the same christening entry. I compared the first letter of Louise’s first name (clearly an “L”) with the first letter of her last name (what I thought was an “L”). They were not the same letter after all. As I read through the records (especially ones for other families), I realized that when the pastor made his “L” that it was always connected to the letter immediately following. That was not the case with this letter, which I later determined was a “B.” Those initial letters were never connected to the following letter. What I thought was a variant was not a variant after all--what I thought was an "L" was actually a "B." My ignorance could have created an additional spelling where none existed.

Combining Scripts
Just when I thought I had a fix on the handwriting and was reasonably adept at reading it, there would be entries with a combination of scripts. Of course, these entries were always the ones I was really interested in and the illegible part would invariably be the word or name I did not know. It can be confusing when a minister makes a capital “T” two different ways in the same brief marriage record. And yet it happens.

General Information About Church Records
The amount of detail in church records varies among different denominations. Generally speaking those denominations that practiced infant baptism, kept more detailed records, usually records of baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals. Additional records may also be available.

Other denominations may have kept records that are less detailed. These records are still worth searching as they may allow a researcher to place an individual in a specific place at a specific point in time.

Obtaining Church Records
Church records are not public records and do not fall under the same regulations as county and state records. They are records created by the church for the use of the church and usually continue to be the property of the church. Consequently, in some cases, certain types of records and materials may not be open for public inspection, especially more recent records documenting births and marriages. As with any record, patience and tact with the record holder is suggested.

The best place to start is with the church itself. The pastor or church secretary may or may not even be aware of the location of older records or how to read or interpret them. (This can be the case if, for example, what was originally a Polish Catholic church has now become a Hispanic Catholic church.) If I contact a church by mail and ask for information, I usually enclose a small donation as a courtesy, at least one that will cover the cost of a photocopy and a stamp, if not more. Keep in mind that the church may not be large and may not have the staff or the budget to handle some requests. Your letter should be specific. (“. . . a baptismal record for Susie Smith born in 1900,” is preferable to “. . . all the Jones baptisms”).

If the church is no longer in existence, attempt to find out what happened to the church’s records. If the congregation folded into another one, that church may have the records. If the church dissolved entirely, the records may have been kept by the final pastor or sent to an archive of the church, at either a national, regional, or state level. The following list is a sampling of websites for church archives and is not meant to be comprehensive.

The county genealogical or historical society may be aware of the location of church records for disbanded churches in the area where the church was originally located. A posting to the appropriate county message board or mailing list at can also be helpful. Many church records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library and performing a place search on the Library’s card catalog may locate the desired record. For rural churches, the card catalog should be searched at several locality levels, specifically the county, the township, and the village. Records may not be classified according to what the researcher thinks is the “right location.”

Lessons Learned
Not all events happened in the typical way. Non-native speakers of the language can create additional spelling variants. Learning how to read foreign scripts and languages is important.

Records of your ancestor’s participation in his or her faith may give you hope for breaking past those brick walls. And never assume anything. Sometimes Grandma was right!

Records discussed in today’s article can be viewed here.

Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is currently a member of the board of the Federation of Genealogical Societies (FGS). He conducts seminars and lectures nationally on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry Magazine and Genealogical Computing. You can e-mail him at or visit his website at:, but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Copyright 2005,

Michael's Other Genealogy articles