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Researching and Writing a Church History

Guide to researching and writing a church history - Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church

Researching and Writing a Church History

Types of Records

There are many types of historical documents to consult.  These include church records, individual conference records, records held by the General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH), legal and municipal records, newspaper and periodical articles, published books, etc.

Church Records

Review your church records first. Individual churches are responsible for keeping their own records. Keep in mind that over time, records have been removed from churches for safekeeping during moves and renovations, or simply because those in charge of the records did not place value on retaining them. In some cases they may have been destroyed, or possibly kept in poor conditions that have made them unusable. Some records may have been given away or abandoned, but don't despair - they may be available elsewhere, and there are numerous other potential sources of information.

Your District Office may hold some pertinent records.

Your Conference Archives (See information box below).

Send a call out to current and former (if possible) church members or clergy for documentation or information they may have.

Check the holdings of local, regional, and state libraries and historical societies. Sometimes the records may have been left behind when a church was closed, or kept at the home of a church member or minister. Those who eventually had possession of these records, often descendants or new property owners, may have given or sold them to one of these organizations.

Check local or regional college and university libraries and archives These are often an excellent source for publications on local history, personal papers, or local and regional newspapers.

  • Local history: Churches have always played an important role in their communities. Many well-researched local histories will include information on the prominent churches in their area of coverage.
  • Personal papers: Papers including diaries, letters, receipts, deeds, wills, and other items can shed light on people, events, and any aspect of an individual's life. Depending on the extent of the records kept by the church, minister's papers may hold the only record for baptisms and marriages.
  • Historic newspapers: These are an excellent source of church happenings. Denominational newspapers were prevalent from the 1800s until the mid-1900s. Also, through much of the 19th and 20th centuries, even small communities often had a local newspaper. Church events were frequently covered at length.


Conference Archives

Check your Conference Archives for holdings. Historical materials may have been sent to them. The Conference Archives are likely to also have many other items of interest for your use in your church history, including:

  • Conference journals
  • Conference newspapers
  • Books about your conference or local/regional histories that may include your church
  • Papers or documents concerning individuals prominent in your church's history
  • Minister's papers

If the boundaries of your Conference have changed over time and your church was in a different Conference, there may be materials in the archives of another Conference. This list details the various Conference changes over time.


See under the Virginia Resources tab for specific archives of interest for researching churches in the Virginia Conference.

Methodist Archives

The General Commission on Archives and History is responsible for preserving UMC history.  Search the materials at the UM Archives and History Center, housed at Drew University, to locate additional items. Also review Drew's Methodist Collections page.

The American Methodism Project, part of the Internet Archive, is "a digitized collection of interdisciplinary and historical materials related to American Methodism" and includes several thousand items.



Legal Records

Check the records for your county or city and the court records.

The clerk of the circuit court's office, as well as the county or city clerk's office, may have records relevant to your church.

Legal records such as property records, marriage records, wills and probate records, and criminal and civil cases can be useful. County and city records such as permits for zoning, building, celebratory events, etc. can be helpful as well.



Newspapers, Periodicals, and Books


Check all publications from your Conference. Relevant articles may also appear in a newsletter or publication by a local or regional historical society. Check the organization's web site, your local public library, or your state library for any indexes and for holdings.


Try Chronicling America (1789--1943; dates vary for selected papers), based at the Library of Congress. This is a free online newspaper collection of over a million pages from several states. It also includes listings for all known newspapers in U.S., so even if the paper you seek is not digitized yet, you can determine which papers were published in your community and when they existed.  Many of these newspapers may have issues available on microfilm at your local public library, a college library, or your state library.,

Other newspapers may be available in subscription (paid) databases. Due to the strong interest in genealogy and family history, several companies have digitized local and regional newspapers and sell access to individuals. Check your local public library first to see if they provide access before paying for a service! And also keep in mind that some of these papers may be in Chronicling America or may be on microfilm at a library. The databases below charge either a monthly or annual fee for access, and each may include newspapers not available in one of the other services, so check carefully to see if the newspapers you want are there before subscribing: includes over 5000 newspapers. This may be an add-on to an subscription or may be a separate subscription.

GenealogyBank includes over 7000 newspapers.

NewspaperArchive includes over 8000 newspapers.


Check your local public library, college libraries, and your state library. Holdings for many of these libraries can be searched in,