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.
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.
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. 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)
Some volumes that contain actual records
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
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
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:
- The New England Yearly Meeting of Friends archive.
- Significant holdings of Congregational and Baptist church records are at the Rhode Island Historical Society, including:
- General Six Principle Baptist Archives
- records of the First Universalist Church of Providence
- Congdon Street Baptist Church
- First Congregational Church of Providence
- archives of the First Baptist Church in America (permission from church historian needed, see web link above).
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.
- To search back issues of Rhode Island Roots see the instructions on the RI Genealogical Society website.
- You can search Rhode Island History here.
- A list by noted genealogist Jane Fletcher Fiske found on the Rhode Island section of Rootsweb: Bibliography of Abstracted Church Records.
- Some Episcopal (Anglican) Church records in Rhode Island are housed at the University of Rhode Island Library.
- The Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association Notes. Older issues can be found on the association’s web site. The association has a library in Providence with some useful holdings.
- 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 2. Volume 3. Volume 4:Biographical. Volume 5: Biographical.
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.
More sources will be added here from time to time.
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