2018 July – Churches and Their Records

Churches and Their Records: Communities that Shaped Our Ancestors

Rev. David McDonald, D. Min., CG, Course Coordinator

Additional instructor: Peggy Clemens Lauritzen, AG

Held July 22-27, 2018, at La Roche College, Pittsburgh, PA. Registration Information.

The nature of Christian communities and churches through the centuries suggests that there is overlap in theological perspectives and outlook, with important similarities across denominational boundaries. There are, too, some very distinct differences even within particular sects or traditions. Accordingly, traditions will be considered on a stand-alone basis and also in comparison with and in contrast to other bodies.

Monday, 23 July

Session 1, Overview: Christian Churches & Perspectives (McDonald)

Theological mindset and point-of-view within western Christianity and the evolution of denominations up to the First World War. Understandings of the Church’s place in the lives of the families we research from the middle ages to the present age. Why were our people inclined in the way they were, religiously? How did the “where” of our family trees impact the “what” they believed?

Session 2, Religion in America from the Colonial Period to 1950 (McDonald)

America as a haven for religious refugees, separatists and non-conformists; identification of traditions as they develop or appear through the mid-20th Century. Church groups’ impact on our research targets can help explain, or at least help us better understand, how they came to be in their home communities, who they married (and who they could or would not), and how segments of the clan may have come to be forgotten for reasons otherwise unexplained.

Session 3, Catholicism: Ethnicities & Influences  (McDonald)

Catholicism appeared in North America before Western European Protestants landed at Plymouth Rock. A consideration of the cultures, ethnicities, and peoples whom Anglo-centric settlers and migrants encountered through the years as the United States expanded across the continent. Discussion of Catholics in the southwestern U.S. in the colonial period, as well as the major inbound migrations beginning in the early 19th Century in the modern northeastern states.

Session 4, Catholic Records  (McDonald)

The expansive system of record-keeping within the Catholic Church became the model for Protestant churches across the years. Parish registers were kept for a variety of reasons, but they are rooted (in part) in an effort to deter inbreeding among families in small isolated communities. Canon law, predating the First World War, and more modern methods of interpreting and understanding what is permissible according to later iterations. Baptismal registers, marriage registers, confirmation logs, and burial/memorial records are all a basic staple for researchers of Catholic forebears. Their utility to genealogical researchers cannot be underestimated both in parishes in the States and in overseas venues.

Homework assignment.

4 PM Resource Time: Worship space: The Sacred amidst the Profane

Symbolism and mystery are a core part of the religious experience in a Christian context. We will convene this session in the LaRoche College chapel for discussion of elements present, and compare them to other denominations’ contexts and spaces to gain a stronger understanding of religion as a part of the lives of our ancestors and their families.

Tuesday, 24 July

Review overnight homework assignment.

Session 1, Religion in Britain 1: The Church of England  (McDonald)

The reformation of the English church from Catholic to Protestant in the reign of Henry VIII, and the intellectual roots of the movement preceding the King’s convenience; the dissolution of the monasteries; record keeping through the 16th Century and beyond. Covenanters, the Civil War, and impacts on migration to North America. The place of the state church in the public sphere and the role of the church in an era before governmental assistance to the poor was the norm. Registers, parish chests and their utility to researchers will be considered.

Session 2, Religion in Britain 2: Non-conformity (McDonald)

For many, the Church of England was on the whole too “Popish” for the modern mindset. Accordingly, reforming, breakaway movements within Anglicanism sprouted. Separatists (Congregationalists) and followers of John Wesley (Methodists) These bodies ultimately came to be denominations in their own right and impacted on the American religious experience. Followers of George Fox, ultimately including the Penn family which established Penn’s Woods, or Pennsylvania, brought pacifist notions to North America through the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, who grew from this rooting too. Modern expressions of evangelical Christianity, as well as a look at the modern British religious landscape suggest that the availability and utility of records may no longer be the same moving forward.

Session 3, Calvinism and Calvinists  (McDonald)

Followers of John Calvin and John Knox developed a singular identity over time, often conflated with Presbyterianism. Despite seeming dominance by Presbyterians, Calvinist tendencies are present in a number of traditions, including Congregationalists, Baptists, and Huguenots. Consideration, too, must be given to the Reformed churches in the colonial period, especially Dutch and German Reformed bodies. The influence of the Calvinist mindset in the American political experience as part of colonial development and the ongoing issues related to a well-read laity and the impact on American genealogical research. Some consideration of the outbound Loyalists into Canada and their impact on Canadian Protestantism, too.

Session 4, The Pilgrims: Theocrats and the Earthly Kingdom (McDonald)

Religious forces moved the Separatists into modern New England beginning with the Mayflower’s crossing in 1620. Their presence dominated New England throughout the 1600s, both religiously and politically. By the early 19th Century, traditional views of religious expression were strongly questioned and a new movement, Unitarianism, took root amongst the Congregationalists, all the while Baptists were questioning the custom of infant baptism. To modern eyes, the disputes that rocked these traditions in the early 19th Century may seem insignificant but they were of high imperative in that era.

Homework assignment.

4 PM Resource Time, Jewish Customs  (McDonald)

Though not a Christian body, Jewish faith and tradition may seem so foreign to many researchers that some consideration of the Hebrew calendar, faith and practices could be useful for a genealogical researcher.  Paired with Wednesday’s session on Jewish Records.

Field Trip

After dinner, we will make a journey into downtown Pittsburgh to visit Smithfield United Church of Christ, one of the city’s oldest congregations. Jon Colburn, retired head groundskeeper for LaRoche College, will introduce us to the building and the church’s archive, which includes the original grant from the Penn family to the gathering community that became Smithfield Church.

Wednesday, 25 July

Review homework.

Session 1, Lutheranism (McDonald)

The work of lapsed Augustinian monk Martin Luther to reform the Catholic church in the early 16th Century failed. In a broader sense, though, it succeeded in ways unimaginable as the theses were posted at Wittenberg. Luther’s theological position took root and spread rapidly across areas of northern Europe, around the Baltic into Scandinavia. Luther’s efforts inspired, and in some ways, conflicted with the second generation of Christian reformers, including Ulrich Zwingli and others. 

Session 2, Plain Folk: The Amish & Mennonites (Lauritzen)

Modern literature and media often romanticize these dissenting communities. Often they are lumped together as the same body. They are theologically distinct groups and we will consider their similarities, overlaps and differences as well as the records created by these Germanic-heritaged bodies.


Session 3, The Great Awakening & the Second Great Awakening  (McDonald)

Religious practices and customs moved in a decidedly more individualistic fashion beginning in the mid-18th Century. Words and formulas that had borne consistent meaning in the first century of Anglo colonization in America were suddenly subject to question and debate. Following the American Revolution, the adherence to churches with European roots waned in many cases and traditional church homes were abandoned in favor of more evangelical movements, including the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the Seventh-Day Adventists.

Session 4, Latter-Day Saints (Lauritzen)

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, often referred to as Mormons, holds a unique place in the religious landscape both for its founding and tenets. Beyond its history, of course, is the amazing array of genealogical records the church has collected and maintains as part of its understandings and teachings related to the eternal nature of the family.

Homework assignment.

4 PM Resource Time: Jewish Records and Resources  (McDonald)

Congregational records of possible utility, and personal records of religious leaders; newspapers and other publications; repositories and groups fostering the study of Jewish history and genealogy.

Thursday, 26 July

Review overnight homework assignment.

Session 1, Modern Calvinism  (McDonald)

Calvinist worship ways are most clearly expressed in Baptist settings in the modern age. Evaluation of Baptist history in America, and the theological dichotomy of the current incarnations of northern and southern Baptists, along with consideration of historic Baptist groups, including the Seventh Day Baptists.

Session 2, Strategies and Clues for Determining Religious Affinity  (McDonald)

Many of us may have clear understandings of who our families were, religiously, by virtue of inherited affinity. Still, it can be challenging for us to unearth what churches our forebears belonged to or participated in when they are no longer known to us. This session will focus on attitudes, ideas, actions, and behaviors that can be reflective of long-forgotten religious impulses. Consideration, too, of naming customs and patterns which may be reflective of now-forgotten religious influences.

Session 3, The African-American Experience  (McDonald)

Religious expression among enslaved peoples is a complex and confusing notion. Used as a tool to suppress angst and soothe the angry downtrodden, religious expression in the form of traditional Christianity in this context is important for all to consider. For white churches and churchgoers, freed slaves were seen as part of a missionary field for educational and religious work. In many parts of the country, though, the communities and churches were segregated not only by building but also formal lines dividing denominations into “separate but equal” bodies.

Session 4, Holiness Traditions & Evangelical Christianity (McDonald)

Pentecostalism was the fastest growing form of Christian religious expression throughout the 20th Century in the United States. Yet another body established in response to a perceived “lack” in traditional Protestantism, Pentecostals and evangelicals and their practices will be covered.

4 PM Resource Time: Orthodoxy  (McDonald)

Monolithic Christianity ended in 1054 when the Eastern Roman Empire’s religious base around Constantinople broke away from a subordinate position to Roman Christianity. It evolved separate customs and rites, and to the present time is the dominant form of Christian expression in eastern and southeastern Europe. With later 19th Century immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, Christians to America brought Orthodox ways and worship to the States.

Friday, 27 July

Session 1, Quaker Movement to America (Lauritzen)

Quaker origins in England in the Seventeenth Century, and the migration of the community to the Atlantic seaboard. A pacifist community, they refused to bear arms for military purposes, and were often separate from their neighbors. We will discuss records and resources to help advance your research amongst these religious adherents.

Session 2, Sects and Smaller Churches (McDonald)

Brief consideration of some smaller Christian bodies present in the United States, whose presence here may be derived from a migration of believers from the old country into a specific community or location. Groups such as the Shakers, Schwenkfelders, Dunkards, German Baptist Brethren and the Salvation Army, among others, will be discussed.

11:30 a.m. Wrap-up and presentation of course certificates before lunch.

Dr. McDonald holds an undergraduate degree in history and political science from Beloit College (Wisconsin); and a Master of Divinity in pastoral studies from Eden Seminary (Missouri). His doctorate was earned at Christian Seminary, Indianapolis. “D.Min.” is the abbreviation for doctor of ministry, the terminal professional degree for ordained clergy. He is “Reverend” by virtue of ordination in the United Church of Christ. The UCC is the mainline Protestant church in which he serves as a local church pastor, and has since 1991. He currently serves Windsor United Church of Christ, Windsor, Wisconsin, as its senior pastor and teacher.