Often we find the church records we need were destroyed, never kept, or begin late. There are ways around this difficulty, but you have to think in terms of documenting and reconstructing membership from other sources. It is not that much different than creating a “census substitute” for an area, knowing the first complete census was 1901.
I recently did this with a small congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon) which met from 1850 to 1854 in Gorteen Townland, Geashill Civil Parish, County Offaly (King’s County). In 1854 they all emigrated. Here was my approach:
- In early Mormonism, converts were expected to gather with the main body of the Saints to help build the Kingdom of God; known as Zion. From 1847 Zion was the Mormon colonies in the Rocky Mountain with Salt Lake City as its capitol. By understanding the historical context, this further opens up other records to help you. It also explains why all the Gorteen Townland Mormons were gone by 1854.
- The Dublin Conference of the LDS British Mission has membership records 1850-57, and these provide the residence of the member; when they were baptized (adult baptism is practiced); removed elsewhere or emigrated. From these chronological records, I could identify all members from my targeted geographic area around Tullamore, County Offaly.
- I then utilized records at the Family History Library, Church History Library and the Daughters of Utah Pioneer Library, all within walking distance of the other in Salt Lake City. I looked for journals, histories, newspaper accounts and acquired originals from references I found online.
In the end, I could reconstruct the membership and what happened to them upon immigrating, crossing the Great Plains and what they found upon entering the Mormon Zion.
I have used similar approaches with the Plymouth Brethren (Christian Brethren) to reconstruct membership for particular congregations in Ulster. I utilized the 1901 and 1911 censuses as my foundation as these do ask religious affiliation. Then I could compare my reconstructed congregation with Brethren directories and other sources.
The rule of thumb here is to not give up. When your records are scarce, be very creative and definitely “think outside the box.” You may be surprised what you discover!
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