Finding Church Records

Copyright May 2002 By Robert W. Scott


Researches often ask where they can find the records of the church that their ancestor attended. For many, the answer will be one of frustration because no record exists, or the kinds of records that do exist have little to do with members outside of the clergy. Or the records are not easily accessible to genealogical researchers.

The biggest problem in rural areas like Jefferson and Switzerland Counties is that so many churches that existed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century are extinct. I have found in Jefferson County that more than 70 congregations from the nineteenth century not only donít exist, but for many, their existence is shown by only one or two records, often only a deed. For the much smaller Switzerland County, I can come up with 21 extinct congregations easily, and probably more existed. If your ancestors were members at these extinct bodies, you are usually out of luck.

There are many reasons for this decline. One of the biggest is the depopulation of the rural areas. Just as an example, Switzerland Countyís population went from a peak of population of 13,336 in 1880 to 6,306 in 1970. Most of Jefferson County underwent a similar, although less severe, decline.

Another reason I can only describe as market conditions. Early settlers set up a church whenever they could, but these often ended up being too close to other churches. Casualties among Methodist bodies, founded in numbers in the 1830s and 1840s, were particularly high. Some churches were so small that the defection of one large extended family might kill an organization. For example, when the Graham family moved from Indian Creek to Bennington in 1847 that killed off the Mt. Pleasant Meeting House in Pleasant Township, while leading to the creation of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

In the twentieth century, improved transportation put an end to many country congregations, since what was a five-hour ride by horse-drawn transportation became a easy drive by motor vehicle. (Itís not just the country. There were a number of Methodist wards in Madison that no longer have churches.)

Where do you find church records? I have seen researchers blithely assert that Baptist Records are at the Franklin College, Methodist at Depauw University, and Presbyterian at Hanover College. This is misleading. Most local church records, if they exist, are in the hands of their congregations.

Hanover, the official depository for Presbyterians in Indiana, is an exception. It has both original books (those active churches still have their own) and microfilms of books at the college library. In fact, it has records of such extinct churches as the Pleasant Township Presbyterian Church of Switzerland County and the Monroe Presbyterian Church of Jefferson. Beyond that, though, the pickings are slimmer.

Franklin College does not have original Baptist church minutes books. What it does have is the yearly reports of the various Baptist Associations. Those covering (at different times), Switzerland and Jefferson counties include the Coffee Creek, Madison, Long Run, and Laughery associations. These records primarily give statistical reports (how many members each church had), and the names of the messengers (usually one to four) and the minister. Later in the nineteenth century, these reports included some member obituaries, but not on a regular basis.

I have not seen the Depauw records. But I know that the college has many fewer records than one would hope. I once sent a list of various Methodist Churches from the Indian-Kentuck Region to the universityís archives. The answering letter showed that there was no record of most of them. The records that are in the archives are spotty, and apparently include histories submitted by the churches, not necessarily minute books. Some membership information can be found in various lists printed annually for contributions to various Methodist funds.

Records of the Christian Church are likewise not held in a central repository as far as I can tell. Similarly, Catholic records are in the hands of the respective parishes.

The Madison Jefferson County Public Library has microfilms of a number of church records, particularly Baptist. These include the Wirt, Brushy Fork, Indian-Kentuck, and West Fork Baptist Churches, along with the Madison First Presbyterian Church. There is a microfilm for Rykerís Ridge Baptist Church, but it does not go far back in history. There are also typed membership records for the extinct Milton Baptist Church of Milton Township. I am unaware that the Switzerland County library has ever had microfilmed church records, unless that is a recent occurrence.

Whether church records survived at all is another question. The Caledonia Presbyterian Church records do not exist before 1856 nor the Jefferson Presbyterian Church records before 1848, both destroyed in fires. Those are just examples. Sometimes, what survives is spotty. The records of the Manville Christian Church, which I have transcribed on this site, are simply a listing on member namesí in the order they joined, occasionally with the date given. But minutes do not exist for the nineteenth century and most of the early twentieth.

Religious ferment also can skew the search. Southeastern Indiana is the kind of place where congregations formed because somebody didnít like the minister, or a neighbor, or got caught up in a reform movement. This was particularly notable with Christian Churches that were created from Baptist congregations (Iíll cover the religious landscape of the nineteenth century in another column.)

So what can you rely on as a substitute for a church record? Cemetery records for one, which hopefully show some of your family members buried in a church cemetery. In fact, it was research about church formation, which I then compared to transcribed cemetery records, which led me to realize many small cemeteries belonged to extinct churches. We have written introductions to many of the cemetery transcriptions on this Web site to point out which burying grounds were associated with vanished churches.

Another source is church elections. During the nineteenth century, many churches recorded elections of officers in county records. These can include names of trustees and other officers, along with the purpose for which they were elected, such as an annual election or an election for the purpose of buying a piece of property or constructing a building. Most Protestant churches filed these declarations, some with regularity. (But then thereís the Manville Christian Church which filed one election statement during the entire nineteenth century, and then under its original name, the Christian Church of Milton Township.)

Before the 1840s, these elections are recorded in deed books (Iím speaking from experience about Jefferson County. I assume itís true for Switzerland.) In the 1840s, these were recorded in mortgage books (you have to use the book ladder in the Jefferson County Recorderís Office to reach these.) Starting in the 1870s, elections were noted in what are called Miscellaneous Records (and at least in Madison, these are near the floor.) Usually, there are no more than three trustees. But once in a while there are more. In 1874, the Center Grove Baptist Church (an extinct church on Hicks Ridge in Shelby Township) recorded the names of 13 officers and candidates for church office. Itís the largest single list of members I have found for this body.

Marriage records are some help, if you know what denomination the minister belonged to. But these are tricky: most ministers were not assigned to a single church. Baptist ministers in the country often preached at a different church each week, hired for a one-year term. This appears to have been true also of the Christian Church. Methodist circuits are well known creatures and even Presbyterian ministers seem to have spread their services to smaller country bodies, as did Catholic priests.


Copyright by Robert W. Scott, 2002.

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