Finding Old Church Records
By Jeannette Holland Austin
The early churches were the foundation of religious and social life in America, especially in rural developing areas. Elder B. M. Camp of Dallas, Georgia baptized his members under a waterfall on old High Shoals Road. The grave yard was nearby and a little one-room church building. This is typical. So what kind of records does the researcher expect to find in such a setting? Minutes, membership lists, baptisms, births, deaths and excommunications. Camp preached at High Shoals Primitive Baptist Church for more than 40 years and like so many other rural churches when he died the records disappeared. That does not necessarily mean that the old records do not exist today. While out in the field we have to ask local people for such things and follow the clues where they send us. It may not be as good as a church record, however, is the cemetery itself because it provides specific dates. Too, the layout of the plots is revealing. Families frequently shared the same plot of land, or were buried nearby. Sometimes it is easy to find unmarked graves within the same plot or to notice a depression in the soil. Look for broken tombstones. Slate was a popular medium which breaks easily and is sometimes found under the dirt within the grave plot. I always tour the surrounding area to see if any stones were taken somewhere else, like into the woods. The landscape was not as we see it. Some of the oldest graveyards were thoroughly vandalized. An example of this is colonial cemeteries where unpopular clerics or British subjects lay. All in all very few church records survived and are published. Ministers kept records of performed marriages but did not always take them to the county court house to be recorded there. That is why there is such a gap in the first marriage records. Sometimes marriage dates are recorded on tombstones or obelisks such as those found in Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. However, the alternate source is the family bible.
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