How to Find Your Ancestor’s Church

Church records can fill in the gaps caused by non-existent vital records. Even when we do have civil vital records, church records often contain different pieces of information. They can be invaluable to our genealogy research. But to get into these records, it helps to know what church your ancestor attended. Here’s how you can find your ancestor’s church.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 59

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 10 minutes.

Find the Denomination

Before you can find the particular church your ancestor was a member of, you need to figure out what denomination he or she was. Consider:

  • Where they are buried. Is it affiliated with a denomination?
  • Their children’s names. For example, Lorenzo Dow was a popular name among Methodist families.
  • Societies they belonged to. Knights of Columbus is an organization for Catholic men. (The Masons, on the other hand, is not.)

Your ancestor’s denomination might be more fluid than you think. If there wasn’t a nearby church of their denomination, they might have gone to a church whose teachings were “close enough.”

Finding the Specific Church

Once you have an idea of what denomination your ancestor was, it’s time to start looking for the specific church.

Cemeteries. Is your ancestor buried in a church cemetery?

Obituaries. Does the obituary state where the funeral took place? If it was in a church, there’s a good chance that your ancestor was a member there.

Marriage Records. Look at your ancestor’s civil marriage records. Did a minister perform the wedding? If so, research that minister and find out what church he/she was affiliated with. (I have a step-by-step example of this kind of research here.)

City and County Directories. Most city and county directories have a section listing various organizations, including churches. (These listings are usually at the very front or the very back of the directory.) With this list, you can see what churches existed at the time and where they were located. When looking for your ancestor’s church, start with the ones closest to where they lived or which have an ethnic identify that matches your ancestor’s.

Indianapolis City Directory, 1879 showing churches

R.L. Polk & Co’s Indianapolis Directory for 1879 (Indianapolis: R.L. Polk, 1879). Image courtesy Internet Archive.

Things to Keep in Mind

Your ancestor’s denomination could have changed during his or her lifetime. Just like today, people would change their affiliation because of political differences or join the church of their spouse.

If your ancestor was upwardly mobile socially, he might have changed churches in order to attend the “in” church. It wasn’t uncommon that members of a certain standing in the community were expected to go to a particular church. This gave people the chance to “see and be seen” by those they wanted to do business with.

Don’t overlook the ethnic aspect of churches. If your ancestor identified with an ethnic community, he or she might have attended a church not in their neighborhood, but would instead attend an ethnic church farther away.

Finding the Church’s Records

Of course, once you figure out your ancestor’s church, you’ll want to get into the records! First, see if that church is still in existence. If it is, contact them to see about the availability of their records. If the church doesn’t exist, here are a few suggestions:

  • If the church has a hierarchy, check with the next level up. For example, if the Catholic church that your ancestor attended has closed, check with the diocese.
  • Check with nearby churches of the same denomination. If the church merged with another one, they might have transferred their records to that church.
  • Contact the local genealogical or historical society. They are the people most familiar with the records in the area. They should be able to point you in the right direction.

How to Find Your Ancestor's Church

Posted: February 14, 2021.

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  • Once I have found the actual church, I have reached out to ask if they have an in-house archive. Many do keep records in their own library. Or, they may be able to direct you to a library that houses their records – where they have been donated. I found some church records in a college library archive just by googling 🙂

    • I know the church also. It’s in Holland where all the graves were washed away in a 1953 flood. How do you find the church on line? I want to see if the have a record of who was buried there!

  • I am one of the lucky Americans who has a HUGE branch that was entirely Quaker! My great-grandfather was Quaker, and all of his forebears for at least 100 years before were Quakers. Just today, I found an ancestor whose Quaker roots go back as far as 1667 in England! Quakers kept excellent records, partly because they were excluded from much of society. Many Quaker records are available not only at Quaker libraries but on the internet and on If you find a relative, and their listed church is “Friends,” you have a Quaker in your tree.

    • Hello, I have family names who were Quakers, My Gifford Family was Quakers ? and married a person with this ” Tobey Family name” . I have been searching for more information @ the Quaker Family names and where they lived during their life.I have been doing Family History for a long time and Blessed each time I locate another family name. Sincerely, Corrine Supernor.

  • A man I’m researching (not a relative) had the unusual name of Lorenzo Dow Butters Shaw. I never knew there was a religious (Methodist) significance to his name. Thanks, Amy!

    • I taught researching family records at an Adult School and worked helping various students over quite a few years. I ran into so many people named Lorenzo Dow surname and so many females named Helen Marr surname that I finally researched both names. One was a famous preacher and the other was a character in a popular romantic novel.

  • I am lucky enough to have several generations that went to the church I grew up in so I volunteered at our local historical society to go there & the church left me copy all their old registers for when people were born & died. Give your local historical society a try.

  • This is brilliant information, Amy…. Thank you!
    And the idea of children’s names is new to me, but makes absolute sense. I’m assuming they were named after important leaders in the denomination?
    I will have to go find out who Francis Asbury was 😉

    • Yes, it wasn’t unusual at all for parents to name their children (especially their sons) for influential people like politicians and church leaders. Lorenzo Dow was a wildly popular Methodist preacher; Francis Asbury was the one of the first two bishops of the Methodist Episcopal church in the U.S.

  • A very relevant post for me! Just two days ago I added finding the likely churches in Milwaukee Wisconsin where my mother and her siblings may have been baptized to my next research steps. I have had a brick wall for my maternal immigrant grandparents for thirty plus years. DNA might finally get it, but we just don’t know my grandmothers maiden name. It isn’t what we thought. I have thousands of DNA matches on my fathers side and a half dozen on my mothers…one first cousin and the others fourth to sixth. I’m hoping that one of the godparents in church records will be related. You’d think I’d have done this years ago, right?

    Love your posts. Thank you!

  • Great article Amy. Thank you. I have a grandfather named Isaac Newton Miller born around 1835. Turns out that Isaac Newton who was a scientist and philosopher was a very popular name at that time.

  • Years ago I was searching in a small Wisconsin town for church and school records and I finally learned they were being kept in someone’s attic and weren’t available for viewing. Wow, wonder how many hundreds of important names and dates were lost due to good intentions!

    • I would say historical societies and archives in the area where his circuit was, archives of the denomination he was affiliated with, library and archives where he (and his descendants) lived. Look in catalogs like WorldCat, DPLA, and even the Family History Library. Check out PERSI to see if anything has been published about him.

  • Hi Amy, my ancestor belonged to an African American Masons’ Lodge. The name of it was listed in the funeral program. Besides having this as basic information, what is the significance of it?

  • I have 26 or so microfilm rolls of Baptist church records in my collection.

    They have a great amount of information and family information in them

  • I found your examples of denominations interesting. I’ve never found a Methodist “Lorenzo Dow”, but tons of “John Wesleys”.
    And you should not discount Catholic Freemasons, there are some, dispite official prohibition.