The general interest newspaper as we know it is not the only possible source of biographical and genealogical information. Many religious denominations have sponsored newspapers. In addition to religious and doctrinal news and features, these papers often give considerable attention to the activities of the denomination’s members—not only the clergy, but also many of its other members. If you know an ancestor’s religious affiliation, the effort to find copies of the religious newspaper is often worthwhile because they offer details not found in other sources. A respected member of a religious group will often command more attention within that community than elsewhere.
Newspapers can be particularly important for those denominations that otherwise have rather poor genealogical records, such as the various Methodist and Baptist groups. Also, religious papers were among the first to give significant attention to obituaries. It is not uncommon to find a denominational paper in the 1830s with a full page of obituaries, when the typical secular paper ran two or three brief death notices at best. Sometimes the obituary dwelt more on the religious history of the deceased than the genealogical history, but even then significant clues often appear.
In one case, a search was made of all existing daily papers printed in Chicago at the time of a person’s death. Each paper noted his death, age, and last known address. Only a few of the papers provided funeral information. However, the weekly Catholic diocesan newspaper included his town of origin in Europe, the year he immigrated to the United States, the year he arrived in Chicago, the year he became a member of the parish, the date of his marriage, the maiden name of his wife, the names of their children, and those of their children’s spouses. The flowery eulogy that one expects to find in a turn-of-the-century publication was also provided, along with the names of the clergy in attendance at the funeral service.
Religious newspapers will most often be found in institutions connected with the denomination—archives, historical societies, seminary or denominational college/university libraries—but don’t overlook the more traditional sources, such as state historical libraries and archives or the libraries of public colleges and universities with significant newspaper collections. Also, because the distinction between a denominational newspaper and a denominational journal was often a fine one, a search of periodical bibliographies is often necessary. The vagaries of bibliographical description often place what, by format, are clearly newspapers among the periodicals. For example, the various editions of the Christian Advocate, an important Methodist newspaper, are listed in the Union List of Serials, not in Gregory’s American Newspapers.
Because religious papers include only a segment of an area’s population, they are spread more thinly than secular papers. There may well be only a single newspaper for a particular denomination covering an entire state or region, or for smaller denominations, covering the entire United States. Like secular papers, religious papers have come and gone. A particular state in the 1830s may have been covered only by a distant regional paper; by the 1870s it may have had its own publication. While at a slower rate, some religious newspapers are being digitized and posted online. An example is a project of the Cleveland Jewish Genealogy Society that provides an index of Jewish obituaries, 1902 to 1974.
The University of Notre Dame’s Catholic newspaper collection has long been regarded by American Catholic historians as one of the finest in the United States. The formation of the collection dates back to the late nineteenth century, when James F. Edwards (1850 to 1911), one of Notre Dame’s first and foremost librarians, obtained extended runs of the United States Catholic Miscellany, the Truth Teller, the Catholic Mirror, and a number of other Catholic newspapers published in the nineteenth century.
A fairly comprehensive list of denominational websites can be found at Hartford Seminary’s Institute for religious organizations (under links to denominations). Visiting the links for the various denominations is a good way to discover what newspaper publications may be available for each.
While more limited in scope, Religious Newspapers in the Old Northwest to 1861: A History, Bibliography, and Record of Opinion provides insights that would be helpful to anyone looking for information in that area and time.