Growing up I went to Church every Sunday morning. My family attended Park Avenue Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Tucson AZ, the one my parents joined shortly after moving to Arizona when I was 11 months old. It wasn’t until I started school that I learned that there were other churches and religions in the world and that there were even some people who didn’t believe in God at all. It was also the time I discovered that our Church was a little unique. We had one of the two Drive-in Churches in the entire United States. In 1956 our pastor made a trip to Florida and saw a Church that had built one the previous year and he decided that he wanted one. So my Dad, along with a couple of other members built the small enclosed red brick building where the pastor would deliver his sermons each Sunday. They installed the poles and speakers and it was “open for business”. My parents loved going to the Drive-in Church because they didn’t have to get dressed up and they could smoke in the car during the service. My sister and I liked it because we could wear our pajamas and read or play in the back seat. I thought this was normal.
Now as an adult I attend a totally different denominational Church. I began to wonder how our family became the religion that we were. What religion or denomination did my Ancestors choose and why? I wondered if any of them had been Atheists. Did any of them flee to America so they could practice their faith, free from persecution? I wanted to search for this information but I wasn’t certain of where to begin. I started looking through the documents I had acquired for my Ancestors and as a result I was able to piece together a pretty good description of what religions my family had practiced.
Here are 9 of the places and document types where I found my “Religious Heritage”.
- Church records. This is one of those “duh” moments. Where else would you look? A lot of the older churches kept very precise records. Not of just who attended their church but of many different events. These records can have a person’s date of birth, the date they were baptized, their marriage and death date and place of burial. They also can list family names, their participation in church activities, and a confession of their “sins” and in some cases their testimony as to why they became Christians. If an Ancestor was a minister it would also include a list of the previous churches he had pastored and the places where he had preached. These records can be a treasure trove of information.
- Wills. You may find which religion a person was by reading through their Will. In some cases an Ancestor will leave a possession, money or land to a church. You can then conclude that this church was associated with their religion. Most Will’s begin with a Statement of Faith and by reading this you could possibly determine what they believed.
- Marriage Records. Listed on the marriage certificate is the name of the person who conducted the ceremony. If it was a priest or pastor you can do a search of that name to find out which religion they were associated with. In some cases, especially in the 1800’s they even listed the name of the church on the certificate. You can also check your Ancestors childrens marriage certificates as they may have this information on them, especially if you can’t find a marriage certificate for the parents.
- Death Certificates. In newer Death Certificates there is a place where you can state which religion a person is. This information is given by an informant and may not be correct but it is at least a place to start your search.
- Obituaries. Obituaries are an excellent place to look. Sometimes they even list the name of the church they were a member of or the name of the minister and I have found a few that give a short testimony of when a person decided to attend this church or convert to this religion.
- Newspapers. Newspaper clippings celebrating special events in a persons’ life can give you additional information. In an article covering one of my cousins 65th Wedding Anniversary it states the name of the Church they attended. I was able to contact the Church and found records of other Ancestors who also attended this Church
- Cemetery. This one sounds strange but you can sometimes determine religion by their place of burial. A non-Catholic would not be buried in a Catholic Cemetery. The same goes for the Jewish faith. Also a lot of cemeteries are attached to Churches and you can assume that if your Ancestor was buried there then they may have been members. At least it would be a place to start further research.
- Histories. If your Ancestor was a pioneer in an area they could be included in the History of that place. I have found several relatives who were founders of town or counties so a lot is written about them, including which church they attended. You can also find the names of Churches in the area that your Ancestor lived and then do a search of Church Records in those specific Churches for their names. You never know what you may find!
- Family Bibles. If you are lucky enough to have in your possession an old family Bible then it may shed some light on what your Ancestor believed and what religion they were. Hopefully it also includes a list of family members, births, marriages, deaths, baptisms etc. This indeed would be a treasure.
This is not an exhaustive list of places to look but it is a start. Unfortunately, unless your Ancestor was famous you may never know why they chose the Religion or beliefs that they held. It has been interesting to see the progression of my “Religious Heritage” beginning with my Ancestors being Catholic, to becoming Quakers, to converting to Presbyterian, then to Methodists, Baptist and ending with my parents being Disciples of Christ.
This is actually a 2 part endeavor. The first part is finding what religion if any, that your Ancestors practiced. The second part would be passing on your beliefs to the next generations. We have an opportunity to explain to our Great-Great Grandchildren what religion we are and why we chose this certain path. If you do not believe in God, this is the chance you have to let them know your reasoning for that. You can include your traditions, activities, favorite scripture or quote, give a testimony, or whatever you feel is the most important things you would want them to know.
How I wish my Ancestors would have left something in writing explaining to me the how’s and why’s of their choices when it came to religion. So I will write the story of how I came to believe as I believe so my future family will not have to guess at it.
I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, crafter, reader, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Amazon.com: Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter.