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  • Made in America: Church Records of Home Grown Christianity

    Dwight A. Radford

    This column will focus on some strategies and logic in utilizing the records of American churches. By this I literally mean those churches without European roots. I recently came across a book quite by accident and knew it wanted to come home with me. It was Paul K. Conkin's American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997). In this book Mr. Conkin discusses the American redefining of the Christian message and what that meant to various movements. He has chapters on Restoration Christianity (Christians and Disciples), Humanistic Christianity (Unitarians and Universalists), Apocalyptic Christianity (Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses), Mormon Christianity (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), Spiritual Christianity (Christian Science and Unity), and Ecstatic Christianity (The Holiness and Pentecostal Movements).

    To this list I could even add the Southern Baptists and the Cumberland Presbyterians; both home grown versions of the American dream apart from Europe. However, Mr. Conkin did not cover these. If you're saying to yourself, "but my ancestors didn't belong to any of these movements so why read the column?" I would just say read on! There's method in my madness.

    For the purpose of Irish Immigrant genealogical research, the records of these denominations are often overlooked. This is unfortunate because many of them actually had large numbers of Irish born as members. Basically what this means is that the Irish, upon arriving in America, became caught up in the excitement of redefining what faith and spirituality meant in the American culture. Why is this? I have some thoughts on when to search out these little used resources and when not to. My thoughts are as follows:

    1. Some movements such as the Holiness, Pentecostal, Unity Christian Science and Jehovah's Witness actually do not begin until the latter part of the nineteenth century, thus making their usefulness limited as other records such as civil records can be used to fill in needed information. This is understandable, although if you can't find family information don't neglect them.
    2. The type of records generated by these American churches range from detailed accountings (in the case of the Mormons) to brief minutes (such as Southern Baptists and the Restoration churches). Within records, regardless of how brief, can be very important information. For example, churches such as the Disciples of Christ kept minutes which detail when members transferred in and transferred out of the congregation. If these transfers tell where they came from or where they went this can solve some difficult migration problems. Also, minutes of the churches may record previously undocumented marriages, deaths and even births. Although many American churches only baptized believers (with no infant baptism) remember that if an entire family joined a particular denomination at the same time then their ages, birth dates or sometimes even birth places may be recorded -- for the entire family!
    3. Often American churches grew up in a frontier environment which means that literacy was limited and church records scattered. I'm sure this reason and the lack of indexes discourages researchers. Scattered records are certainly a problem in all denominations on the frontier, not just American ones. So I always suggest seeking records in three places:
      • Contact the denominational archives such as the Disciples of Christ Historical Society in Nashville or the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. Both of these archives hold records for various branches of their respective movements.
      • Always look at the collections at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City for microfilm copies of records. Using the example above, the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia has been microfilmed but the Disciples of Christ Historical Society has not.
      • Contact the state archives or a university library for the area that you're researching in for records. It is surprising to find that many church records have been deposited with these state organizations. For example, the Family History Library has acquired many church records for Ohio and Tennessee through the state archives systems and through universities. Many of these types of repositories have web sites and online catalogs.

    If all the easy ways to find records don't pan out, try contacting the local library in the county or town where you are researching and see if they can steer you in the right direction. Local knowledge, whether from a librarian or a local denominational secretary, can be invaluable.

    For those of you who have weathered this column and you're still are wondering WHY, then I offer some advice. Although your ancestors may not have belonged to an American church -- let's say they remained Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist or Roman Catholic -- then American church records may still be valuable to you. This, of course, depends on what you are looking for. In America people were free to basically do what they wanted so although your ancestor remained Episcopal, don't assume that the brother or sister of your ancestor did. A sibling may have become a Disciple or a Mormon, AND it may be within the records of the Disciples or the Mormons that immigrant origins in Ireland are preserved! That is my case for using the wide variety of American home grown church records.

    Let's use the Mormons as an example. I live in Utah so I have reason to take a special interest in the topic. I was consulting with a fine lady a couple of years ago from Minnesota who had come to the Family History Library to research her Irish ancestors. She was raised a Methodist in Minnesota. I took one look at her pedigree chart and almost fell over. It was a perfect test case for proving what I've known all along.

    In her pedigree was the immigrant ancestor who was Church of Ireland in County Down, but who had joined the Mormon Church (LDS Church) when the Utah missionaries came preaching in Scotland where this man had settled. After arriving in Utah in the 1860s he became disillusioned and joined the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS Church) which is comprised of Latter Day Saints who did not migrate to Utah but stayed in Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. Well when he joined the RLDS Church he moved from Utah to California where he was a prominent member of that church. His descendant (this woman's mother) moved to Minnesota where there was not an RLDS Church so she raised her family Methodist. This is the American way! What was the most interesting part of this story is that the Irish origins of the Irish immigrant were not preserved in the LDS records but in the RLDS records!

    I will now leave you with some of the lessons that I have learned (often the hard way) from years of doing Irish genealogy professionally:

    1. Do not automatically think there is not a Mormon branch to your family. This is especially true with Protestant Irish families who spent time in England, Wales and Scotland. If you're searching the Ancestral File or IGI and you find some shirt tail relative baptized in the LDS Church in the 1840s to 1860s then this is your connection.
    2. In America many families lost loyalty to one church or another. Families became split religiously -- especially through marriage or as revivals swept through town. One family may have many traditions in their genealogy (at the same time).
    3. Not only did Protestants experiment with American churches but so did Roman Catholics. I would guess that half the Irish Catholic families that I trace in America have either left the church or their children left their church. Of course whether this was by choice, through marriage outside the church, or simply by neglecting their religious duties is anyone's guess.

    If you have not given American churches a chance in your research, I would highly suggest it. In some parts of the United States the American churches actually outnumber those with European roots. It's a strong part of our history and one of the most neglected ones genealogically speaking.

    Happy Hunting

    Dwight A. Radford

    Dwight Radford is a professional genealogist residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. He specializes in Irish and Irish Immigrant research and travels to Ireland yearly to conduct research on behalf of clients.
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