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I get a lot of questions here about church records.  And probably nothing in Rhode Island is more complicated and interesting than church history.

The first thing I think people have trouble realizing is that the church your ancestor belonged to prior to 1850 probably doesn’t exist anymore.  And if it does, it is focusing on its mission today and not necessarily devoted to looking up old records, or even in possession of old records.  I’ll bet there are some exceptions to that, but then again, I wouldn’t know, I’m embarrassed to say my New England ancestors barely darkened the door of a church between about 1700-1900 so I don’t have much to look for.

Location of the first Sunday School in America. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 577

Location of the first Sunday School in America. Pawtucket.  The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 577

The other thing that’s important to understand is that since many of these churches were, in their time, new and unique, it’s important to do more than race around looking for vital records.  It’s important to understand what the church philosophy and principles were.  For instance, your ancestor from one part of the state may have found a bride from a completely different area of the state, or into Massachusetts, because marrying within the church was required.  Other rules may have impacted your ancestors’ lives:  refusal of military service, baptism of infants (or Baptism of adults), or consequences of non-attendance.  Knowing the story of the church will tell you something significant about your ancestors’ story.

I am no expert on this, so feel free to add, in the comments, your own favorite sources for church records.

First Congregational Meeting House, Providence. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 564.

First Congregational Meeting House, Providence. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 564.

Some published guides to churches

During the Depression, the Work Projects Administration (WPA) put some people to work compiling the locations of old church records as part of The Historical Records Survey.  These books will guide you to the LOCATION of church records in the 1930’s.  They do not contain the records themselves.  In many cases a name and address will be given for a person who was holding the old record volumes (around 1940).  Those would be useless today.  In some cases, a repository or association is mentioned as holding the records.  That might be something you could follow up on.

Inventory of the Church Archives of Rhode Island. Society of Friends.  Providence: Historical Records Survey, 1939.

Inventory of the Church Archives of Rhode Island. Baptist.   Providence: Historical Records Survey, 1941.

Other general works:

A view in 1827 of all the Six Principle Baptist Churches in Rhode Island is contained in History of the General or Six Principle Baptists in Europe and America by Richard Knight, p. 254-301, specifically.

Weis, Frederick Lewis.  Colonial Clergy of New England. Lancaster, Mass.: Society of the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy, 1936.

Jackson, Henry.  An Account of the Churches in Rhode Island (Baptist State Convention) (1853)

First Baptist Meeting House, Providence. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 564.

First Baptist Meeting House, Providence. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 564.

Some volumes that contain actual records

Updike, Wilkins.  A History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island (1907):  Volume 1.   Volume 2Volume 3.

Centennial sermon preached before the Beneficent Congregational Church and Society in Providence, R.I. March 19, 1843 : together with the articles of faith, covenant, & c. and a list of members of said church (1845)

Historical manual of the Central Congregational Church, Providence, R.I. 1852-1902 (1902)

Manual of the Union Congregational Church, in Providence, R.I (1894)

Members of the Coventry Church of Christ 1824-1897 transcr. by Margery I. Matthews.  Rhode Island Roots 27:3 (Sep 2001 – note page displays 2000 in error) p. 93-130.

Arnold, James N.  Vital Records of the State of Rhode Island  v.7    (opens the pdf link to the Internet Archive download, or, browse book online and download from this page).

Volume 7 contains:

  • KINGSTOWN  Kings Towne Friends, p. 202
  • MARRIAGES, MISCELLANEOUS RECORDS. p. 330
  • NARRAGANSETT  Narragansett friends, p. 131
  • RHODE ISLAND FRIENDS records, p. 1
  • SMITHFIELD  Smithfield Friends, p. 160
  • SWANSEE  Swansey Friends record p. 277
Central Congregational Church. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 586.

Central Congregational Church. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 586.

Arnold, James N.  Vital Records of the State of Rhode Island  v.8   (opens the pdf link to the Google Books download, or, browse book online and download from this page).

Volume 8 contains:

  • BARRINGTON  Congregational Church records, p. 69
  • BRISTOL  Baptist Church records, p. 515
  • BRISTOL  Congregational Church records, p. 239
  • BRISTOL  Episcopal Church records, p. 145
  • BRISTOL  Methodist Church records, p. 565
  • BRISTOL  Dr. Shepard’s record of deaths, 1834-1857, p. 481
  • LITTLE COMPTON  Congregational Church records, p. 1
  • MARRIAGES, MISCELLANEOUS RECORDS.  p. 1, 270
  • NEWPORT  First Congregational Church records, p. 400
  • NEWPORT  Second Congregational Church records, p. 439
  • NORTH KINGSTOWN  Baptist Church records, p. 598
  • SOUTH KINGSTOWN  Baptist Church records, p. 616
  • TIVERTON  Baptist Church record, p. 495
  • TIVERTON  Congregational Church records, p. 49
  • WAKEFIELD  Records of the Church of the Ascension, p. 577
  • WARREN  Baptist Church records, p. 521
  • WARREN  Episcopal Church records, p. 95
  • WARREN  Methodist Church records, p. 559

Arnold, James N.  Vital Records of the State of Rhode Island  v.10   (opens the pdf link to Family History Books (familysearch.org) for immediate download download).

Volume 10 contains:

  • BARRINGTON  First Congregational Church records, 1728-1740, p. 231
  • COVENTRY  Maple Root Baptist Church record, p.  245
  • CRANSTON  Marriages performed by Rev. Otis W. Potter, 1833-1852, p. 299
  • EAST GREENWICH  Baptist Church records, p. 291
  • EAST PROVIDENCE  Baptist Church records, p. 117
  • EXETER  Baptist Church records, p. 399
  • HOPKINTON  First Sabbatarian Church to 1785. p. 93
  • MARRIAGES, MISCELLANEOUS RECORDS.  p. 299, 305, 310
  • NARRAGANSETT  St. Paul’s Church records, 1718-1075, p. 333
  • NEWPORT  Trinity Church records, p. 427
  • PAWTUCKET  Births, p. 61
  • PAWTUCKET  Marriages and intentions p. 1, 43
  • PAWTUCKET  Marriages performed by Rev. David Benedict, p. 310
  • PROVIDENCE  Congregational Church, west side, records, p. 197
  • PROVIDENCE  First Congregational Church records, p. 155
  • PROVIDENCE  King Church (now St. John’s) records, p. 135
  • PROVIDENCE  Westminster Congregational Church records, p. 185
  • RICHMOND  Marriages performed by Edward Perry-Justice of Peace, p. 305
  • SMITHFIELD  Second Freewill Baptist Church records, p. 297
  • SOUTH KINGSTOWN  Narragansett Baptist Church records, p. 545
  • SOUTH KINGSTOWN  Queen’s River Baptist Church records, p. 387
  • WEST GREENWICH  West Greenwich and Exeter Union Church, Baptist, p. 279
  • WESTPORT  Record of Friend3 Births and Deaths, p. 75
  • WESTPORT  Record of Friends Marriages, p. 63
  • WICKFORD  First Baptist Church records, p. 553

Arnold, James N.  Vital Records of the State of Rhode Island  v.11    (opens the pdf link to the Internet Archive download, or, browse book online and download from this page).

Volume 11 contains:

  • CROSS MILLS  First Baptist Church records, p. 261
  • EAST GREENWICH  Baptist Church records, p. 437
  • EAST GREENWICH  Methodist-Episcopal Church records, p. 457
  • EAST GREENWICH  St. Lake’s Church records, p. 517
  • HOPKINTON  Rookville Seventh Day Baptist Church records, p. 373
  • MARRIAGES, MISCELLANEOUS RECORDS. p. 339
  • NEWPORT  Sabbatarian Baptist Church records, p. 297
  • NORTH KINGSTOWN  Quidnessett Baptist Church records, p. 419
  • NORTH KINGSTOWN  Marriages performed by Joshua Babcock, Justice, p, 339
  • RICHMOND  First General Baptist Church records, p. 387
  • RICHMOND  Second Baptist Church records, p. 239
  • SOUTH KINGSTOWN  Second Baptist Church records, p. 265
  • STONINGTON  Pawcatuck Congregational Church records, p. 347
  • WESTERLY  Christ Church records, p. 1
  • WESTERLY  First Baptist Church records, p. 205
  • WESTERLY  First Christian Church records, p. 309
  • WESTERLY  Grace Church marriages, p, 145
  • WESTERLY  Pawcatuck Congregational Church records, p. 347
  • WESTERLY  Pawcatuck Sabbatarian Baptist Church records, p. 273
St. Peter's and St. Paul's Cathedral, Cathedral Square, Providence. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 616.

St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Cathedral, Cathedral Square, Providence. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 616.

Other sources

The Rhode Island Historical Society does have some holdings of church records (not always member data, though) so check their card catalog as well as contacting them with questions.  I suspect the same is true for the Newport Historical Society Library.

Of special note at the Rhode Island Historical Society:

Probably the best sources of any new research that might come along on this topic from time to time would be Rhode Island Roots from the Rhode Island Genealogical Society and Rhode Island History from the Rhode Island Historical Society.  I enjoy belonging to both those organizations and receiving the subscriptions.

Also try:

Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association Notes, photo by Diane Boumenot at the Family History Library

Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association Notes, photo by Diane Boumenot at the Family History Library, Salt Lake City.

  • Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online (RIAMCO) Advanced Search may yield some results.  Despite the name, only the search screen is online, the results usually point you to paper archives at various locations in Rhode Island.

Some other sources of Rhode Island information:

  • The Narragansett Historical Register seems to have articles about a few churches.
  • The Rhode Island Genealogical Register has a few church cemeteries, but a quick perusal shows no church records, which is just as well since this 20 volume periodical is hard to find.  Under copyright, so not online, but no longer for sale in print.  Available used and in libraries only.
  • Rhode Island: Volume 5 of Bibliographies of New England History shows church materials in just about every town list; often an anniversary souvenir booklet, not, usually, materials with member lists.  This book (University Press of New England, 1983) could be consulted in large genealogy libraries or at local libraries in Rhode Island.
  • Many of Rhode Island’s town histories will include the history of many of the local churches, for instance, Oliver P. Fuller’s 1875 History of Warwick, Rhode Island.
  • Likewise, the larger statewide histories like Thomas W. Bicknell’s History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations include overviews of various churches and religious bodies (particularly Volume 2, p. 565-637).  Volume 1    Volume 2Volume 3Volume 4:BiographicalVolume 5: Biographical.
Academy of the Sacred Heart, Elmhurst, Providence. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 621.

Academy of the Sacred Heart, Elmhurst, Providence. The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Volume 2, p. 621.

Some more recent books cannot be found online but can be found for sale and in genealogy libraries:

  • Bamberg, Cherry Fletcher.  Elder John Gorton and the Six Principle Baptist Church of East Greenwich, Rhode Island.  Greenville, Rhode Island: Rhode Island Genealogical Society (Special Publication No. 6), 2001.
  • For many years Rhode Island has had a large Catholic population.  Some Catholic Church records have been transcribed and published in book form.  Check out the American French Genealogical Society website (including the book sale and the library catalog) for many of these volumes.  The state Catholic Diocese is located at 1 Cathedral Square, Providence.
  • Rhode Island Quakers in American Revolution 1775-1790. Providence Meeting of Friends; 1976. With fold-out map.
  • Two books have been released in the new series “Baptists in Early North America” – a volume on Swansea, Massachusetts, by William Brackney and Charles K. Hartman, and a volume on the First Baptist Church in Providence by J. Stanley Lemons.  Both contain some early records, some wonderful footnotes, and a complete index.
I spotted these recently at the New England Historic Genealogical Society Library.

I spotted these recently at the New England Historic Genealogical Society Library.

More sources will be added here from time to time.

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