Research Your Scottish Ancestry

Robert WilbanksChurch Records

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Chief Genealogist & Historian, C.S.A.

History has shown, for good and for bad, that religion is a significant part of the human experience. Since ancient times, people have always sought to understand their existence, the purpose of life, their relationship to the universe, and/or the idea of a greater being that created all that is known or understood. As people grew into communities, these communities grew to develop a common belief system that would grow into an entity of its own. Later, communities would separate and sub-communities would develop based upon varying viewpoints of religion. And wherever people created communities, bureaucracy would follow. This bureaucracy would create records that would become the basis of genealogy research.

Church records are among the very best genealogical sources available. Most significantly, church records date back well before the creation of civil registration of vital statistics and other records frequently used by genealogists, ie. birth, death and marriage records, etc. Unfortunately, church records are the most under-used sources in genealogy. Mostly, this is because it can be difficult to positively know what religion an ancestor followed, made more complicated by the existence of so many different denominations. Identifying and locating the many various church records can appear to be a daunting task to the average genealogist, but it can be well worth the effort.

Church records can vary significantly in types of information they provide. This is generally determined by the basic theology and social role of each denomination. In addition, church records will vary in existence and content from country to country depending on whether the church was the state-church or a “free” church. In a state-church, the clergy was a semi-public official who not only kept records for the church, but also specifically kept vital records for the government. In a “free” church, the clergy only kept records as necessitated by the theology of the church, which may not include vital records. Thus, church record-keeping systems transcended national and religious boundaries.

The histories and establishment of churches in Europe would have a great effect on the establishment and record-keeping of churches in America. The variety of immigrant groups and religious preferences made the early establishment of a state-church in America difficult. Based on this fact, America’s “Founding Fathers” later created the separation of church and state in the Constitution. In America, not only would there be a greater number of different denominations, and creation of new denominations during the “Great Awakening” after the American Revolution, but there would also be a great separation within denominations according to ethnicity; the Irish Catholics attended a different church than the German and French Catholics in the same community.

Generally, most church records are not unlike civil records, though with some differences. Especially in the case of birth, marriage and death records. For example, churches would record the infant baptism or christening with the date of the event, but may include the date of birth as well as the names of parents, grandparents and other key information. Instead of deaths, the church recorded the burial, though possibly including the actual date of death, as well as other information.

Though christenings, marriages and burials are the most important and widely used of church records, they are by no means the only types of records kept by the churches. They also kept membership lists, including admissions, dismissals, transfers, and other records tracking the movements of members. There are also church minutes, vestry books, ministers returns, registers, records of church social groups, the church cemetery records, and a wide variety of other church business records.

As mentioned earlier, the only difficulty with church records are the great numbers of denominations and churches, leaving an over-abundance of records. To help narrow the research in church records, it is important to determine what denomination that a family belonged to, and identify a specific church in the community the family lived. Then, determine whether the church still exists and has its records, or where the records are currently kept and whether available for research. Books such as The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy, available at any public library as well as genealogy library, or now available full-text openly on, has more detailed information regarding church records and research, and can identify the many denominations, their archives and records repositories including addresses and contact information. Many denominations have archives and repositories in each state as well as a national archives, and they can help provide information as to the existence and availability of churches and records, and sometimes research assistance.

Christianity came to Scotland in the 6th century. The church in Scotland was intermixed between Rome and England until 1192 when it became an independently recognized Church, separated from York and Canterbury, answerable directly to Rome and the Pope. Administration of the church in Scotland was run by a council until 1472 when St. Andrews became the first Archdiocese of Scotland, followed by Glasgow. Then, the Reformation came to Scotland in 1559 with the leader John Knox. By August of 1560, after a series of conflicts that included English and French forces, the Scottish Parliament met and approved a Reformed Confession of Faith, abolishing the old faith and leading to the establishment of The Kirk, the Presbyterian, Church of Scotland.

Other denominations of historical significance in Scotland, though rare, include the Baptists, Congregationalists, Huguenot Protestants, Jews, Methodists, Moravians, Mormons, Palatine Protestants, and Quakers. These churches as a group were often referred to as “nonconformists”.

However, no matter what religion an ancestor was, it is suggested to always look into the records of the Church of Scotland denoted as the “Old Parochial Registers (OPR)” and also the “Kirk Sessions” Records. The FamilySearch wiki page “Scotland Church Records” will help explain what records are available and where to find them.

Meanwhile, many records are slowly being indexed, abstracted, transcribed and published by historical and genealogical societies. A wealth of information is constantly being made available. Also, churches often publish anniversary histories, and many of their records have been microfilmed and are available from the Family History Library in Salt Lake City through its local branch centers. Meanwhile, now with the Internet, information is becoming more easily accessible and available faster.

This is another of a series of articles in which I show you the basics of searching for your family history, discussing the use of family records, public records, and online resources nationally and internationally, etc. The previous articles are now available on the Genealogy Section of this website.   See “Genealogy” in the menu options at the top of the web page.