Early American Church Denominations


Early American Church Denominations

What Church Did Grandpa Attend?

Copyright ©1998 by Beverly Whitaker, MA

Website Author: Beverly Whitaker
Beverly is a professional genealogist and author with a background in both public education and religious education. She combines these qualifications to present a picture of the influences of ethnic, political, family, and social groups upon the choice of religious affiliation of colonials and early American pioneers.


What subjects will be covered in this website?
First, I'd like for you to recognize the "genealogy" of American churches, and in particular how they developed before the Civil War.

Second, I intend to convince you that you will know a lot more about Grandpa if you can learn his church connections, not just factual information, but also something about his lifestyle.

Third, I suggest
-- what records might be available,
-- what church records might contain,
-- and how to begin to access them.


Can the content of this website be copied?
This is copyrighted material.
If you include portions of the information contained here in your own compiled genealogy, history sketches or school papers, you should cite as your reference: Beverly Whitaker. "What Church Did Grandpa Attend?" Kansas City, Missouri, 1998-2003 as summarized on Internet web page: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~gentutor/churches.html

Using this script as an oral presentation requires written or email permission from Beverly Whitaker, 4318 N. Baltimore, Kansas City, MO. State the group for whom the presentation is to be made, along with the date. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope or send your request by e-mail: gentutor@yahoo.com

You have permission to place a link to this web site on your own web page. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~gentutor/churches.html

Where can I obtain additional information?
I am not your source for answers to specific questions, either about denominational history or where to find the specific church records you seek. I don't have the time to do the considerable research necessary to provide responses to such questions.

A general bibliography of references is included at the end of this commentary.


Table of Contents
Dominant Church Denominations in the Thirteen Colonies
1820 to 1850: Denominational Expansion
1850-1900: New Groups, Ethnic Groups
1900 - Present: Considerable Re-grouping of Denominations
Biographical Sketches and Denominational Connections
What Is Contained In Church Records?
How Do I Locate Church Records?
Where to Find Clues!
Questions to Ask When Seeking Church Records
Bibliography: American Church Records

Dominant CHURCH DENOMINATIONS in the Thirteen Colonies

There's been an interesting change regarding church membership during American church history. Colonial church membership was relatively low--rarely higher than a third of adult New Englanders and as low as five percent of adults in the South. Yet there was a relatively regular participation during the colonial period in religious activities and rather high church attendance. A study of diaries, missionary reports sent back to England, and other fragmentary evidence suggests that in 1700 as many as half to three-fourths of the colonists attended some kind of religious service with some regularity. Now in modern United States, formal church membership is considerably higher than actual church attendance. Figures in the 1980s showed around 60% of Americans were church members. [Source: Mark A. Noll. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada.]

Connecticut: Congregational
Delaware: Anglican, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian
Georgia: Anglican, Moravian

Maryland: Roman Catholic, Presbyterian
Massachusetts: Congregational
New Hampshire: Congregational
New Jersey: Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Quaker, Presbyterian
New York: Dutch Reformed

North Carolina: Anglican, Presbyterian
Pennsylvania: Amish, Brethren, Lutheran, Mennonite, Moravian, Quaker, Schwenkfelder, Presbyterian, Reformed

Rhode Island: Congregational
South Carolina: Anglican, Huguenots
Virginia: Anglican, Presbyterian

1820 to 1850: Denominational Expansion

America's independence was followed by denominational expansion.
Add the following denominations to the above list:


The most rapid growth during this time period was among the Methodists and Baptists

1850-1900: New Groups, Ethnic Groups

By the turn of the century, additional groups had large memberships:

Adventist Assemblies of God
Church of God (all types) Church of God in Christ
Evangelical United Brethren Russian Orthodox
Pentecostal (all types) Polish National Church
Salvation Army
Greek Archdiocese of North and South America


1900 - Present: Considerable Re-grouping of Denominations

(Note: In addition to the denominations already named, hundreds
of smaller denominations developed by the middle1900s,
and in recent years, considerable re-grouping has taken place.)

The churches attended by your family are a rich part of their heritage . . . and yours!

The church pictured here is a small Baptist church in Lowell, Iowa, where many of my ancestors worshipped. When as a child I visited my grandparents, this is the church we all attended together. I particularly remember being pleased to see so many of my relatives gathered there on Sunday morning. And on Christmas Eve, the church would bulge with everyone from the community attending.



I could abstract a chapter out of a history book about how the various denominations developed. Instead, allow me to give you examples from my own family tree. The names themselves aren't important to you, but the denominations they represent are significant because they demonstrate the development of church life in America. I want you to be aware of ethnic connections and geographic migration patterns and the influence of a neighborhood, because these give us powerful clues as to why Grandpa chose to attend a particular church. Once we have found the right church, we have a good chance of finding some sort of record that confirms our suppositions and adds to our pool of information.

Biographical Sketches and Denominational Connections

The Rev. Jean Ranc, a Huguenot of Spanish descent, was born in Paris. In 1680, he fled the religious persecution and settled with his son, Hans Valentine, in Strasburg in Alsace, which was then a part of German territory. There he married a lady of French-Dutch descent. Their two sons came to America, Johann Michael in 1728 and Johann Philipp a year later. They settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, welcomed there by the Mennonites. On one occasion these two men were listed among the single brethren absent from a Moravian service at Bethlehem, PA. Another time, Johann Philipp's religion was identified as being in the Reformed Church. Still later, he and his wife Anna Barbara are identified as Presbyterians who were disappointed when their daughter Eva became a Dunkard (sometimes called German Baptist.) When Eva married, she wanted her husband to become a Dunkard also, or at least to wear his beard in the manner of his neighbors who were Dunkards, but Durst refused on both counts. Durst was a Lutheran who had come to Pennsylvania in 1749 from Switzerland. Their daughter Barbara married Christian Harshbarger; that must have pleased Eva, because Christian was a member of the Dunkard church. However, during his lifetime, he adopted the views of the Universalist church and distributed tracts of that faith to his 8 children and 70 grandchildren. And as the family continued to interact and intermarry with neighbors, eventually the line came down to my dad's mother who was a Methodist.

And I guess that's how Grandpa became a Methodist. That wasn't his heritage though. His grandfather, Johann Gottfried Altmann, born in Silesia, Prussia, came to America in 1856, and crossed the country straight to Iowa by train. Iowa's Henry County History indicates that he was a Republican, a School Treasurer, and a Lutheran. His wife's religious connections were with the Reformed Church. And we found confirmation records for their daughter Pauline at St. Peter's Evangelical and Reformed Church at Franklin, Iowa (1872). And when Pauline married, she and her husband Robert DeLang became members and often attended the nearest German-speaking church, in West Burlington, Iowa--St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Robert Brereton was one of the thousands who came from Ireland in the 1850s. You probably assume he was Catholic; so did his neighbors. But he wasn't. He was Protestant, coming out of an English heritage from generations before. A brother who came with him was a Methodist preacher. This really surprised the rural Iowa community in which they both lived. Likewise, you would have expected that James Matthews who was Scotch-Irish would have been Presbyterian, but he's buried in a Quaker cemetery and shows up in Quaker records--including being kicked out for awhile for fighting as a Regulator in North Carolina and again in the Revolutionary War. I have little doubt but what his Quaker wife and inlaws influenced his church membership! However, subsequent research has shown that the Matthews family before him were also Quaker from the time several generations back they came to America.

That's my dad's religious heritage. My mother's was much different. And I'm going to outline it here, not so you get acquainted with all my ancestors, but rather I want to demonstrate clearly how ethnic roots and geography are intertwined with church connections. And I want you to see how various denominational groups were developing parallel to each other.

Rev. Stephen Bachiler, born about 1561 in southern England, was a Puritan, a graduate of Oxford University, a pastor who became a non-conformist. In 1625, he fled England and spent some time in exile in Holland. Later, he returned to London to help organize the Plough Company in 1630. This was to be a colonizing company, and at age 70 he was to be their pastor. Just three days after their arrival at Boston, because of difficulties with the government there, he took a group to Saugus, Massachusetts, where he organized the fifth church to be established in the New England colonies.

Bachiler brought with him a daughter Deborah and her four young sons. She was the widow of Rev. John Wing, a priest of the Church of England. John Wing had worked in the old St. Nicholas parish in Yarmouth on the North Sea and in Sandwich in Kent. Later he was made chaplain to the Company of English Merchants at Hamburg in Germany, another Church of England appointment. Still later, he became a dissenter. His last pastorate was a long ministry to an English Presbyterian congregation at Flushing in Holland. He died while on a visit from there to London in 1630.

I descend from two of DeborahWing's sons--Daniel and Stephen. 25 years passed. Daniel and Stephen were young adults with families in 1657, when the visit to New England of the first Quaker missionaries caused something of a storm in their Puritan community. Anyone attending Quaker meetings was fined and anyone harboring the new preachers was punished. But Daniel and Stephen became Quakers and thus were among the members of the Spring Hill Meeting, the first formally organized Quaker congregation in North America. It is claimed that the organization of this first Friends' Meeting in America occurred on Daniel's farm. These young men became the local champions of the Quakers and for this suffered for a season the ostracism of their neighbors, fines, and imprisonments at the hands of the local courts. In court records at Plymouth are several items recording such fines paid by Daniel Wing. Both Daniel and Stephen Wing are buried in the shadow of the Spring Hill Meeting House.

My Thomas Benedict of England and Connecticut is identified with the founding of one of the first Presbyterian churches in America, at Jamaica, in 1662. Then at Norwalk, he was chosen Deacon, an office which he held for the remainder of his life. Sons John and Samuel also held that office. But along the way some of the Benedict descendants, including my ancestor Isaac Benedict, became Quaker. In Iowa, his daughter, Anna, married Thomas Jones, who was also a Quaker. Their son William married Ionia Thompson; she was Methodist. On Sundays, they often went to three different churches--to Sunday School at Lowell Baptist, to afternoon church at Woolen's Corner Methodist, and at night they went to still another Methodist church.

John Watton, born in Pittsburgh, PA, came to Iowa in 1858 to work as a blacksmith. John was a Methodist, but the village where he lived had only one church, which was Baptist. For many years, John led the singing for that church. His daughter Alpha married into the thoroughly Quaker Thornburg family, but the little Baptist church of her childhood became their church. Through the years, many members on both sides of my family attended this tiny little church, clear up until the 1980s when it closed its doors due to the town's diminished population.

My religious heritage consists of most of the denominations which were strong in pre-1900 America, with the exception of the Christian (or Disciples of Christ) Church, the Mormons, and the Roman Catholic Church. I mentioned about a dozen different denominations.

All my examples were white, northern European, Protestant, and pre-Civil War. Up until about 1880, immigrants to America came overwhelmingly from the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia, and were mostly Protestant. In the later 1840s and early 1850s, many Swedes migrated to America, seeking better land and broader religious freedom than the Lutheran State Church of Sweden was willing to allow. 19th century Germans were about equally divided between Lutherans and Catholics, depending upon their European roots. Between 1880 and 1920, more than four million Italians entered the United States, predominantly Catholic as were the Irish who had come in such large numbers in the 1840s and 1850s. By the end of the 19th century, most of America's immigrants were Slavs, Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, and east- European Jews. And from the Orient came the Chinese, followed by the Japanese.


What Is Contained In Church Records?

Obviously, we can't delve into the specifics of each denomination; moreover, within a denomination, there may be a wide difference in practices. But, we can generalize. Think of a person's life cycle as you search for church-related records for your ancestor.

Baptismal and Christening Records
Many churches baptize or christen infants shortly after birth. Some of those issue baptismal or christening certificates. The information contained in these documents will vary considerably from denomination to denomination and from church to church within a denomination.

Marriage records
A variety of marriage records existed before the marriage license as we know it today. These included declarations of intent such as banns in churches and the return--completed and "returned" after the ceremony was performed, also the marriage registers kept by those authorized to perform and/or record marriages.

Membership Records
There may be a communicant list. A membership list may only be a name list. But by the end of the 19th century, many Protestant churches began to keep fairly good membership records. Look for "removals" or "dismissals" to give you clues about the movement of members in and out of congregations.

Church Business Records
Seek minutes of the church council or vestry, pew rentals, family registers, disciplinary records, etc. You may find Sunday school personnel, lists of families in need, or perhaps a list of wayward members.

Obituaries are sometimes found in the denominational or diocesan newspaper. Many contain obituaries of lay members as well as clergymen and their wives.

The Church Burial Yard
Until about World War II, churches were constructed on lots large enough to provide their members with burial facilities. Even in large cities, old churches often had adjacent burial yards. Some of these still exist. However, cities grew, memberships increased, real estate values rose, needs for larger burial facilities developed, and burial yards were established in the suburbs while the old plots were used as building sites. Sometimes the graves were moved, but not always.
Churches which have affiliated burial grounds usually maintain records of interments in their burial registers, and these records sometimes include the names of other family members.

Sextons' Records
City cemeteries, many large denominational facilities, all commercially operated memorial parks, and a few large family burial grounds have offices or official caretakers where you can expect to find a registry of burials called the sexton's book. These will list the plots available and those occupied, and those owned or unowned. The sexton's record is an accurate record of cemetery deeds and plats, with associated names and dates.

Locating Cemeteries
Acquire a detailed county or city map with churches and cemeteries marked. County road maps are usually available through county or state highway departments, assessors' offices, or registrars of deeds. Get a U.S. Geodetic Survey quad map for any rural area you are researching, because some inactive cemeteries won't be indicated on a current county map. Mark the cemeteries nearest the land holdings or residences of your family members directly on your map. Keep in mind that If churches moved during the years of their existence, they most likely have more than one burial place. And because it is common for members of the same family to belong to different churches, you should plan to search all cemeteries close to the family home, regardless of religious affiliations.


How Do I Locate Church Records?

With the backdrop I painted of ethnic and migration patterns, I'm sure you recognize that these are clues to where to find church records. You can expect to find lots of Congregational records in historically Puritan New England. Virginia and the Carolinas and Georgia will have Anglican records. Maryland will have early Catholic records; --by the way, Spanish mission areas and Louisiana will have Catholic records, too, as will urban areas of heavy Irish and Italian populations. You will find Dutch Reformed records in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. But New Jersey and Delaware will also have early Lutheran records. Pennsylvania will be a source for many of the dissenting religions. Presbyterians are to be found along the paths of Scotch-Irish migration, Lutherans among the Scandinavians and many German communities. Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ permeated the South and Middle West as the nation grew. Mormons too moved from east to west, with very specific locations.

Be careful not to oversimplify, especially in view of the shifting populations of post-war 20th century America. You'll find every denomination in every state!

One of the best clues to help identify your ancestor's religious preference is to discover the name of the minister, priest, or rabbi who conducted a christening, confirmation, baptism, or bar mitzvah, a wedding service, or who presided at a burial. A gravestone in a church graveyard is a good indication of church membership. Obviously, letters of transfer, letter of admission, notices of dismissal, and certificates of membership are positive proof. Do not overlook personal diaries, journals, letters, and obituaries--any of which may contain references to religious affiliation.


Where to Find Clues!

Baptismal/Christening Certificates
Cemetery & Burial Records
Church Membership Rosters
Church Minutes
Commemorative Publications
Confirmation Records
County Histories
Diaries, Journals, Letters
Family Bibles
Funeral Notices & Obituaries
Marriage Records
Ministerial & Local Church Records
Newspaper Items
Parochial School Records
Public Records--wills, deeds, etc.
Published Family Histories

Questions to Ask When Seeking Church Records:

1. Do I know the ethnic heritage of this individual?
Especially in colonial times, there was a close relationship between the ethnic group and its religious ties. This is also a characteristic of the large immigrant groups, beginning in the late 18th century.

2. Do I know the migration pattern of the family?
Often families associated together within a church congregation also moved together. Be alert to the church affiliations of neighbors and relatives.

3. Do I know which churches were close to my ancestor's residence?
Transportation placed some limits upon an ancestor's choice of a place to worship and socialize. Study maps and local history material for details about the origins and locations of specific churches and cemeteries in the area of your ancestor's residence.

4. Do I know what repository might have resources to check?
Local Churches
Denominational Headquarters, Archives, and Colleges
Libraries and Archives (public and private)
LDS Family History Centers
Historical Societies

5. Are there any special indexes that might help me?
WPA Records
The Internet
The PERSI Index to articles and abstracted listings in publications
NUCMC to locate manuscript collections containing church records


Bibliography: American Church Records
Compiled in 1998 by Beverly DeLong Whitaker, MA

Carter, Fran. Searching American Church Records. Bountiful, Utah: AGLL, 1995.
This book is intended to help persons locate the church records of early Americans. The author suggests what might be found in these records as well as how to use them in genealogical research. A glossary is included.

Dougherty, Richard W. "Church Sources." In Printed Sources: A Guide to Published Genealogical Records. Kory L. Meyerink, editor. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Incorporated, 1998. This lengthy chapter is a comprehensive and current resource.

Gooldy, Ray. Researching Church Records in America. Indianapolis: Ye Olde Genealogie Shoppe, 1993. This book suggests ways to locate church records. Focus is on American church records after the Revolutionary War: tithing, births, deaths, marriages, cemetery, and christening records, excommunications, membership lists, proceedings.

Gaustad, Edwin S. Historical Atlas of Religions in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.
Its 72 maps and 62 charts and graphs make it an indispensable reference source for a study of any religious group in America.

Heisey, John W. Church and Tombstone Research. York, PA: J. W. Heisey, 1987.
The author outlines what records can be found from churches and from undertakers, death certificates, coroners’ records, and tombstones. Addresses of denomination archives and a list of church record inventories are provided.

Jacquet, Constant H. ed. Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, annual. It lists all major current denominations in the United States and Canada with the names and addresses of current officers. It provides a capsule history of each denomination, its distinctive doctrinal position, main depositories of church historical material, and church-related colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

Kirkham, E. Kay. A Survey of American Church Records. 4th Edition. Logan, UT: Everton Publishers, 1978. Several editions of this title have been published. The fourth edition, revised and enlarged, contains Volumes I and II. Kirkham dealt with both major and minor denominations before 1880-1890. He sketched the religious migrations of some of the major denominations. This book contains an excellent eight-page glossary of religious words and terms. It also provides a major survey of records by states (pp 59-320). However, many of the addresses are out of date since the book was copyrighted twenty years ago.

Mead, Frank S. Revised by Samuel S. Hill. Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 10th edition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995. Most libraries will have a copy of this or an earlier edition on their reference shelves. This book is widely recognized as an objective and reliable source of information about religious bodies in the United States, with more than 200 groups discussed. It outlines historical background, doctrines, and governmental organization. This volume contains an up-to-date list of addresses for denominational headquarters, bibliographies, and a glossary of terms.

Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992. The author provides an excellent historical overview of the evolution of Christianity in the United States and Canada from the early seventeenth century to the present. It includes five statistical tables which graphically show the denominational shares of religious adherents for various periods.

Whitaker, Beverly D. "Churches in Early America" Reference Cards. Kansas City, MO: Genealogy Tutor, 1998. Individual reference cards are presented for 18 of the denominations which dominated American religious life in the colonial period and on through the18th century. Themes: Chronology, Records and Resources, Bibliography. [Now out of print, soon to be published online as free downloadable PDF documents.]

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