Church records of baptism, marriage and burial are an important source of genealogical information, particularly for years prior to the beginning of civil registration. The religious affiliation of individuals is usually indicated in census records.
Locating Canadian church records is very challenging. Over time, people living in Canada have belonged to a large number of church denominations, which have often re-organized, merged, split or disappeared.
Record-keeping practices have also varied considerably, and many records have been destroyed by fire, flood, mould, mice and other catastrophes. Surviving records may be in the custody of individual churches, church archives, or public archives.
The organization and holdings of church archives vary greatly. Hierarchical denominations, such as Roman Catholic and Anglican, recognize the Pope or Crown as the ultimate authority, and have a structured organization, in which authority carries down to archbishops, bishops, and the individual parish priest. Hierarchical denominations keep excellent and continuous records.
Congregational denominations generally take responsibility for their own activities, and join together in co-operative arrangements (e.g. conferences, synods, councils) to manage affairs that go beyond the small unit. These denominations sometimes split over theological differences. The quality of their records depends on the individual sect, minister or congregation.
While churches generate many kinds of records, those of interest to genealogists are primarily registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials.
For a general guide to researching Canadian church records, see Ryan Taylor's Researching Canadian Religious Records.
Upper Canada District Marriage Registers
Beginning in 1831, clergy who performed marriages in churches that were neither Anglican nor Roman Catholic (also known as "non-conformist") were required to send copies of the records to the Clerks of the Peace in district towns. In some cases, clergy submitted earlier records, with the result that marriage records survive from as early as 1799. The records were transcribed into registers, microfilm copies of which are available from the Archives of Ontario through inter-library loan.
The district marriage records have been transcribed into the following series: The Marriage Registers of Upper Canada/Canada West.
Canada West County Marriage Registers
In 1849, Ontario's districts were replaced by counties, and in 1857, new legislation required that copies of all records of marriages performed by clergy in Canada West (Anglican, Roman Catholic and non-conformist) were to be sent to county authorities.
Transcriptions derived from original county registers are available in a series of 32 volumes. For a full listing of transcribed county marriage registers in the Vancouver Public Library collection, see county marriage registers Ontario. Microfilm copies of original county marriage records are available from the Archives of Ontario through inter-library loan.
Vital Records of Upper Canada/Canada West
The Vital Records of Upper Canada/Canada West is a multi-volume series that complements the Upper Canada district marriage registers (above). While the Upper Canada district marriage registers transcribes and indexes marriage records created by clergymen who were neither Anglican nor Roman Catholic, the Vital Records of Upper Canada/Canada West series transcribes and indexes birth, marriage and death information from a variety of sources, including many church registers. The series currently covers three districts:
Wesleyan Methodist Baptismal Registers
Methodism was a very large Protestant denomination in 19th- century Ontario. There were several types of Methodism, including Wesleyan, Episcopal, Primitive, New Connexion and Bible Christian.
In 1843, Wesleyan Methodists decided to keep a centralized General Registry of Births and Baptisms. Ministers kept an annual register of births, which was submitted yearly to the General Registrar, who copied the records into a General Registry Book. These have been microfilmed and are available from the United Church Archives. Transcriptions of many of the registers have been transcribed and published. Please see the Wesleyan Methodist Baptismal Registers keword search for a list of publications in the Vancouver Public Library collection. Some counties are represented by more than one title. These are different editions or, in some cases, may only cover part of the county.
An online database of Wesleyan Methodist Baptismal records is also available.
Church archives vary greatly in the services offered to genealogists. Most have some information about their holdings on their websites, but although a few online finding aids are available, denominational archival websites do not provide online databases of nominal information. In most cases, it is necessary to visit the archives or hire a researcher. Some archives provide a fee-based genealogical research service. Others do not provide service to genealogists. Links to Church archives are included in the Websites of Interest section of this page (box on right side, above).
Anglican records are held by diocesan archives. The Anglican Church of Canada website provides links to diocesan websites. Contact information for diocesan archives is provided in the Anglican Archives Directory.
The following published guides to Anglican Church of Canada records are available at the Vancouver Public Library:
- A Guide to the Genealogical Records Held in the Archives of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia
- Guide to the Holdings of the Archives of the Ecclesiastical Province of British Columbia and Yukon
- Guide to the Holdings of the Archives of the Ecclesiastical Province of Ontario
There have been several Baptist denominations in Canada, including the Regular Baptists and Particular Dependent Closed Communion Baptists.
Records of interest to genealogists relate mainly to marriages, because Baptists do not practise infant baptism. The Canadian Baptist Archives are at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton.
Atlantic Canada Baptist records are in the Atlantic Baptist Archives at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
There are two Lutheran churches in Canada - the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Lutheran Church-Canada. The main archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada are at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.
Records of the Lutheran Church-Canada are in several repositories. More information is available on the LCC Archives Network page.
There are three major Mennonite archival repositories in Canada:
- Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies
- Mennonite Archives of Ontario
- Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives
See also United Church of Canada
Local and regional Presbyterian churches joined together to form the Presbyterian Church in Canada in 1867. In 1925, about half of the Presbyterian churches amalgamated with the Methodist Church of Canada to create the United Church.
Archival holdings of Presbyterian churches which did not enter the United Church union in 1925 are held by the Archives and Records Office of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. An online Guide to Genealogical Resources at the Presbyterian Archives is available. Records in which an individual's religion is labeled C. of S. or Kirk refer to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Archival records are held by the Quaker Archives and Library of Canada.
Roman Catholic archives operate at the diocesan level. Services for genealogists vary considerably. Contact information and web addresses for Canadian Catholic dioceses is available on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops website.
Several Methodist denominations - the Wesleyan Methodists, Methodist Episcopal Churches (Canada and America), Primitive Methodists, Bible Christians and New Connexion Methodists - had merged into the Methodist Church of Canada by 1884.
In 1925, the Methodist Church of Canada joined with the Congregationalists and about half of the Presbyterian churches in Canada to form the United Church. Later, the Evangelical United Brethren joined as well.
A centralized United Church Archives holds records created after the union, as well as those of the earlier churches which amalgamated into the union. Detailed holdings information is available on the website and through the Archives database and the Graphics database. Microfilm copies of records in the United Church Archives are available through interlibrary loan.
Some United Church archival materials are held by regional repositories. See the United Church of Canada: Archives Directory for more information.
The Vancouver Public Library collection includes the following published guides to United Church archival holdings:
British Columbia Baptismal Records
A Baptisms Index on the B.C. Archives website contains information derived from microfilm copies of baptismal registers submitted to the B.C. Vital Statistics agency for the years 1836-1888.
Library and Archives Canada
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in Ottawa owns a small number of parish registers. These are listed in three publications, available at the Vancouver Public Library:
- Checklist of Parish Registers, 1986
- Guide to Birth, Marriage and Death Records at the National Archives of Canada
- List of Parish Registers Held at the Public Archives of Canada
Access to some of the nominal indexes held by LAC is available through the Births, Marriages and Deaths Recorded in Canada database. This database contains the information found in the baptismal, marriage and burial records available at Library and Archives Canada and is expected to expand over the next few years.
Some church records are available in provincial and territorial archives and libraries.
FamilySearch has a number of collections for Canadian church records online, and more records are being added all the time.
National Genealogical Society (U.S.A.)
The National Genealogical Society in St. Louis, Missouri has over 20,000 books in their collection, some of which can be borrowed through interlibrary loan. The collection includes more than 6,000 family histories, abstracts of cemetery, church, court, deed, marriage, wills and other probate records, and state, county, and local histories. For details on this collection, including how to search their catalogue, please visit the NGS Book Loan Collection web page.
Explore more resources available in print at the Library and online using one of our topical booklists: