Tennessee Church Records
This entry was originally written by Wendy Bebout Elliott, Ph.D. FUGA for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
Although few histories for Tennessee churches have been published, there are church records for almost every county in the state. Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist were the principal religions of early settlers in the state, and documents from these groups make up the largest number of records available. Other representative religions include Lutheran, Church of Christ, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Jewish. Most early Tennessee churches only kept minutes and membership records.
Church records could, however, include records of baptism, marriage, burial, membership, or removal, but it is rare to find all or several of these categories maintained by one church. Some Presbyterian churches kept registers with some genealogical information in the session minutes or in a separate register. Each Baptist congregation is usually self-governing, and there is no set procedure for recording data for its members. Methodist ministers were charged with maintenance of permanent records of marriages, baptisms, and dismissals. The Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches maintain registers that contain genealogical data for all members.
A published guide is Historical Records Survey, Guide to Church Vital Statistics in Tennessee (Nashville: War Services Section, Service Division, WPA, 1943). Thirty-nine counties compose this historical records survey of Tennessee church records. This reference details records for certain churches, varying from 3 to 349 per county. Beverly West Hathaway, Genealogy Research Sources in Tennessee (West Jordan, Utah: Allstates Research Co., 1972), contains a denominationally arranged guide to church records in Tennessee. This data includes dates and places of numerous churches as well as names of organizers.
As with cemetery records, the DAR has collected church records for Tennessee, available at the DAR Library in Washington, D.C., and through the FHL. Many compilations of church records have been compiled and/or published for the state. The TSLA has records of over one hundred churches that pre-date 1900. Byron Sistler and Barbara Sistler compiled an index to these records in Vital Statistics from 19th Century Tennessee Church Records, 2 vols. (Nashville: Byron Sistler and Assoc., 1979), which contains births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials from 104 churches and/or church associations in Tennessee.
Individual groups may have published records, for instance: Grime, H. J. History of Middle Tennessee Baptists: With References to Salem, New Salem, Enon, and Wiseman Associations. (1902, reprint. Nashville: Byron Sistler and Associates, 2000).
Microfilmed records and manuscripts of several churches in the state are described in the card catalog and published by the Tennessee State Library and Archives’ Guide to the Microfilm Holdings (see Tennessee Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections).
The McClung Collection of the Lawson McGhee Library in Knoxville holds microfilm of Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian church records. The Burrow Library in Memphis also has Presbyterian church records. The Historical Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Catholic Diocese of Nashville Archives, and Archives of the Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, all located in Nashville, hold representative collections. An example is by Steve Phillips, trans., Buffalo/Grassy Valley Congregation of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (Humphreys County, Tennessee): General History and Membership Roll, 1840–1884 (Centerville, Tenn.: the author, 2000).