Genealogy Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Q: Can I look for my family name on a centralized list that you have?
A: 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. However, Ancestry.com has recently digitized and created a name index to most of the congregation records in our holdings that contain genealogy information up to 1970.
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 township, county, or street name. Once you determine the location and name of the church, you will then be able to search our catalogs to determine if we hold records of that particular congregation. 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 which church my relatives attended. How do I find that out?
A: The society has several resources which may be helpful, including Hall's Index of American Presbyterian Congregations. Hall's Index allows you to identify Presbyterian congregations located in a particular state or city over time. 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. If you are concentrating on the Philadelphia area, Historical Directory of Presbyterian Churches and Presbyteries of Greater Philadelphia, by Kenneth A. Hammonds, has a cross street index of churches. This book is available for use in our reading room. The title may also be available via interlibrary loan (ILL) from another institution that owns it.
Q: How do I search your catalogs for church records?
A: To begin a search for church records, check both CALVIN and the Archives Database. We also have compiled Church Records Surveys for select churches, which list records deposited in our holdings that are useful for genealogical research.
For tips on searching CALVIN for church records, please view our brief instructional video. You can also watch this PHS Live webinar on Researching Your Presbyterian Roots for a more in-depth demonstration of how to search our catalogs, identify genealogical materials, and see your options for gaining access to records at the society.
Q: The society holds records for 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.
- We have microfilmed some congregations’ records, which you may be able to borrow via interlibrary loan.
- In other cases, FamilySearch may have copies of a particular church's records. Visit their website to search their catalog and to locate a Family History Center near you.
- You may check Ancestry.com to see if the records are digitized and indexed there.
- If the only copy of a record is at PHS, and you do not want to use our Genealogy Research Service, the Association of Professional Genealogists lists members who are available to hire for research. You may be able to arrange with one of the individuals on this list to assist you. The society does not specifically endorse any one researcher or service.
Q: Do you have cemetery or burial records?
A: We have a limited amount 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: 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 here.
Q: I still can't find what I'm looking for.
A: 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, click here.
To contact the PHS reference desk: phone 215-627-1852; email firstname.lastname@example.org; or use the reference inquiry online form.