For the Record (Or Not)

Some of the keepers of information we seek had us in mind from the very beginning — the hardy souls who tromped through backwoods cemeteries and compiled tombstone inscriptions, for example. Others, however, did not necessarily set out with the idea that they were helping us.

For instance, churches.

It’s interesting to think about why churches keep records. Some likely reasons: (A) to verify and facilitate religious rituals; (B) as a faith-based imperative, as with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; (C) when the church was a socially dominant entity whose records played a role tantamount to civil registration – like Congregationalist records in New England, Quaker meeting notes in southern New Jersey, Church of England registers, etc. (In some countries, churches were required by the state to keep family records.)

But in other contexts, it’s sort of odd that sacramental records exist beyond a person’s actual lifetime. One day I got to thinking: As a Roman Catholic, when did I need to have my personal sacramental records around? How long would it be necessary to preserve them – from a purely religious standpoint?

Let’s see: When I married, it was in a parish several states away from my hometown, so I had to produce a baptismal certificate to formally register there. And when my oldest daughter began religious instruction in New Jersey in preparation for her First Communion, I had to produce her Illinois baptismal certificate, to show she had completed that prerequisite.

At present, my baptismal and marriage certificates are nice to have, but it’s unlikely I’ll need them for any more church procedures. And when I’m gone altogether, and certainly after my children’s lifetimes, it’s hard to see how they’d be needed – for church purposes. (I do remember my mother retrieving her parents’ Catholic marriage record after both of them had passed on, but that was for a legal procedure.)

So it’s interesting to me that some church records endure as long as they do. This fall I traveled to the Capital District of New York State and was rewarded with a copy of my gg-grandparents’ 1857 church marriage record and baptismal entries for their eight children, born between 1859 and 1874. These records don’t serve a sacramental imperative. But they serve a human imperative to remember the past, and one that works to my benefit as a family researcher.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that requesting a church record takes place in a completely different context from requesting a vitals certificate from a government entity. It’s always a pleasant surprise when an old church record turns up, and it’s humbling  to know that generations of (often) amateur archivists have been keeping it safe.


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