Beacon Street Diary blog
How Did You Find That?: Churches and their Records
by Sara Trotta, Librarian
A few weeks ago, I discussed the process library staff go through to find more information about specific people using our materials. Today, after a deep dive into our collection of Spiritualism materials, I’m channeling Billy Mays: but wait--there’s more!
As the Congregational Library, it’s not surprising that many of our patrons come to us hoping to learn more about individual churches. Sometimes, this is part of a genealogical project, i.e. “I know my ancestors were Congregationalists and lived in X town around Y year, can you help me find a baptismal/marriage/death certificate?”. Sometimes, this is research about their own church’s history, or part of another historical enterprise all together. The process for locating this information is similar regardless, but there are a few complicating factors to keep in mind.
First, historically Congregational churches operate (generally) independently which means each individual church will make its own choice about where their historical records are stored, and as a result Congregational church records are spread out in a number of different repositories. While a church is still open, they typically retain possession of their records, or they may make arrangements with local organizations to house their oldest records. The Congregational Library generally only accepts records from churches that have closed (with Park Street Church and Old South Church being two notable exceptions). The church itself is the best source of information on where its records are stored and how they can be accessed. This also means that there is no mandate for a church to deposit their records with us. While we try to reach out to churches that are closing to let them know that we are willing and available to preserve their records, each congregation makes the decision that is right for them. It may not serve a congregation in California well to have their historical records kept in New England where access to former members and their descendents would be difficult.
Secondly, things change! Congregational churches are some of the oldest in the country. Over hundreds of years--or sometimes far fewer--churches may undergo name changes, schisms or mergers with other churches. Town names and boundaries shift, or churches relocate, making them difficult to track down, especially if they may have closed a century ago or more. What was once the First Church of Rehoboth, MA could become the Congregational Church of Seekonk, MA, and eventually Newman Congregational Church of East Providence, RI.
Lastly, the historical record is fragile and incomplete. Records from the 17th or 18th centuries are rare and vulnerable to any number of natural or human disasters. Church records may have been destroyed or damaged in fires or floods, lost to time, or never kept (or kept in an incomplete, scattershot way) in the first place. Unfortunately, sometimes the historical information you’re looking for simply doesn’t exist.
I bring these points up not to discourage, but because I believe that forewarned is forearmed, especially when it comes to archival research. And of course, there are a number of tools at our disposal to help overcome some of these challenges. To find out which Congregational churches were active in a particular area at which time Richard Taylor’s regional indexes are the best resource. These books also have detailed information about changes to church names, mergers, splits, and whether a church is still open and more. This series includes The Churches of Christ of the Congregational Way in New England (digitized), Southern Congregational Churches, Congregational Churches of the West, Plan of Union and Congregational Churches in the Mid-Atlantic States, Congregational and Plan of Union Churches in the Great Lakes States, and Congregational Churches on the Plains. For locating the records of Massachusetts, former CLA Librarian Harold Worthley’s An Inventory of the Records of the Particular Congregational Churches of Massachusetts 1620-1805 is an excellent resource. For Massachusetts churches formed before 1805, it can tell which records exist, what they contain (vital statistics, etc), and where they are located at the time that it was published. Sometimes, if a church’s records were destroyed or lost, it will also note the nature and location of any copies.
If a church has closed, but the records did not find their way to the Congregational Library, there are a few places we can check. ArchiveGrid is an online resource that will search archival repositories across the countries for relevant records. It is thorough, but by no means complete so if you cannot find the records you’re looking for there, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Smaller institutions in particular are less likely to have their finding aids searchable through ArchiveGrid and these smaller institutions are often where Congregational Church records end up.
Congregational church records are often found in public libraries (especially ones with strong local history or genealogy collections), local or state historical societies, state archives, local college and university archives, or the archives of regional and national Congregational organizations like the UCC. Even if the records can’t be found there, local organizations may have information about what may have happened to them. It’s always worth inquiring.
These are the tools that library staff turn to when we are hunting down a church or its records, and it is my hope that sharing these resources can empower you to find more on your own. Of course, the path of historical research never did run smooth, so we are here (and happy!) to help navigate around roadblocks and pitfalls and answer your questions.