Genealogy Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q: Can I look for my family name on a centralized list that you have?
A: No, there is no centralized list of surnames, nor is there a comprehensive index to the thousands of family names included in the individual church records in our holdings. Presbyterians do not keep centralized records of baptisms, marriages, or church memberships. All records are currently, and were historically, kept only by the individual congregation where your relatives worshipped.
Q: What information do I need to search for genealogical records at PHS?
A: To begin a search for records, you need to know both the location (city and state) and the full name of the congregation associated with the individual you are researching. We do not have lists of churches by county. Once you determine the location and name of the church, you will then be able to search our catalog to determine if we hold records of that particular congregation. Alternately, if you know the name of the minister who performed a baptism or marriage, and the year, we can sometimes find a church name that way. Please note that the deposit of records is voluntary and not all churches have transferred records to our custody. There are also very few pastoral records deposited at the society.
Q: I don't know what church my relatives attended. How do I find that out?
A: The society has several resources which are helpful, including Hall's Database of American Presbyterian Congregations. Hall's Database is available on our website at http://www.history.pcusa.org/collections/online-catalogs/halls-database-american-presbyterian-congregations. Hall's Database allows you to identify Presbyterian congregations located in a particular state or city over time.
There are many sources of genealogical information that may be helpful, including local historical societies, vital records, historical maps, city directories, and more. Also, internet resources such as www.familysearch.org and www.rootsweb.ancestry.com have useful genealogical information, and you can search by surname. For additional listings of family history Internet resources, see Internet Resources for Genealogists below.
If you are concentrating on the Philadelphia area, Historical Directory of Presbyterian Churches and Presbyteries of Greater Philadelphia: Related to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Its Antecedents, 1690-1990, by Kenneth A. Hammonds, has a cross street index of churches. This item is available for purchase through the society, as well as for use in our reading room. The title may also be available via interlibrary loan (ILL) from another institution that owns it. We also have an historical Philadelphia map with church locations here at PHS.
Q: How do I search your catalog for church records?
A: To begin a search for church records such as registers and session minutes, you can check CALVIN, our online catalog: http://www.history.pcusa.org/collections/online-catalogs/calvin. When you search for records in CALVIN, if you misspell a word, the catalog will not correct it automatically. To locate official church records, use the “Author” search field, as the church is the author of its own records. For example, in the author search box, type “First Presbyterian Church, Wilmington.” Notice that it is not advisable to include the state or state abbreviations (as professional catalogers use prescribed abbreviations that may differ from Standard English).
We also have compiled Church Records Surveys for select churches, which list some of the records deposited in our holdings. The Church Records Surveys are available here.
Q: Can you search the records of a particular church for my ancestor’s name?
A: Yes. The Presbyterian Historical Society offers a Genealogy Research Service for a fee. Information about the service and a request form are available below.
Q: Do you have cemetery or burial records?
A: We have a limited number of cemetery and burial records. If you are searching specifically for burial or cemetery records, please note that by the mid-nineteenth century, many church burial grounds were maintained by private cemetery associations whose activities were rarely documented as part of the church record. As a result, these types of records are usually deposited at other archival repositories.
Q: The Society holds records of a church my relatives attended, but I cannot come to Philadelphia. What should I do?
A: There are several options available to you.
You may use our Genealogy Research Service. Please see the information below about this service.
We have microfilmed some congregations’ records which you may be able to borrow through interlibrary loan.
In other cases, FamilySearch may have microfilm copies of a particular church's records. Visit their website to search their catalog of microfilm holdings, https://familysearch.org/catalog-search, and to locate a Family History Center near you, https://familysearch.org/locations/centerlocator.
If the only copy of a record is here at PHS, and you do not wish to use our Genealogy Research Service, the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania, http://genpa.org, and the Association of Professional Genealogists, http://www.apgen.org/directory/index.html, have members who are available to hire for research. You may be able to make arrangements for one of the individuals on these lists to assist you. The society does not specifically endorse any one researcher or service.
Q: Is there information on my ancestor, who was a Presbyterian minister or missionary?
A: We can search our catalogs if you provide your relative's name and dates of birth and death, if known. Typically the biographical information in our holdings is related to an individual's service to the church and does not include information about family members. We offer a fee-based service to researchers providing photocopies of published information about ministers or photocopies of select information about missionaries from missionary personnel files, such as applications, letters, and obituaries. A description of the service and a request form are available at: http://www.history.pcusa.org/services/reference/biographical-sketches.
Q: I still can't find what I'm looking for.
A: Contact the reference desk by phone at (215) 627-1852 or by email at email@example.com. You may also send us a reference inquiry by completing our online form: http://www.history.pcusa.org/content/reference-inquiry-form.