Thursday, January 9, 2020

Researching Ancestors Who Were Religious Leaders

Rev. Ingraham Ebenezer Bill
My 3rd great grandfather

I've found quite a few ministers in my family tree.  Are there clergy, rabbis, or any other religious leaders in your family?

When tracing the protestant ministers in my family, I came to the conclusion that in early colonial New England the ministers' children married mostly the children of other ministers.  This pattern was quite common in the 1600s and 1700s, but I can see it also in the 1800s.  Perhaps it was a social class distinction.  Ministers were well educated, but often very poor, so their children tended to marry teachers and other ministers instead of lawyers and other businessmen?  Perhaps it was due to the fact that they led a strict upbringing?  This is just my theory. What do you think?

Most religious leaders had some sort of formal education, but not all.  Take advantage of this education to find where they attended schools, colleges and universities.  Some of the Puritan ministers who came over with John Winthrop's fleet in the 1630s went to Cambridge and Oxford Universities in England, and that is a great place to look for personal family information.  Harvard was founded as a place to instruct these ministers in the New World.  You can contact the colleges, universities, and religious institutions in the areas where your family lived to find out if they attended, and what records might be available.  Even if the school is no longer in existence, the records were often moved to another school's archives or library.

Sometimes someone in your family tree will just "see the light" or have a calling to the ministry.  This is what happened to my ancestor Ingraham Ebenezer Bill, who was the son of Asahel Bill, a Connecticut farmer who relocated to Nova Scotia during the planter movement in the 1760s.  Ingraham Ebenezer Bill was the youngest of eleven children, born in 1805 in "Billtown", Nova Scotia.  During his youth he experienced a religious conversion to the Baptist faith.  He was uneducated beyond grade school, yet went on to be one of the founders of the Baptist school Acadia College in 1831, and was later granted an honorary Doctorate of Theology.

Once I found Rev. Bill's connection to Acadia College (now Acadia University), I contacted their archive and received a large envelope with copies and newsclippings of his activities, photographs, sermons, and travels through Canada, all the eastern USA, and England.  The college also had a copy of his personal journal, and a biography written by one of his sons!  You can be sure that I wrote a nice donation to the Acadia library in lieu of regular copy charges.  You can read about the Bill family at this link: 

Finding a religious figure in your family tree can open up lots of information.  Just Google all the variations of your ancestor's name and see all the results.  Try "Rev. John * Smith"  or "Reverend *Smith" or "Rev. Smith DD", etc.   Each denomination and religion has it's own variations. Google can bring up sermons, weddings, funerals, newspaper articles, and obituaries this way.

Make a time line to see where your religious leader may have lived.  Some led one congregation for their entire life, and others moved from town to town, state to state, or even from country to country.  Timelines can be invaluable for genealogy research.

If your family was Roman Catholic, often there were siblings (great aunts and uncles) who entered religious service as nuns, priests, and or monks.  These family members didn't leave descendants (unless they were widows or widowers, and even rarer, divorced), and often changed their names, making them difficult to trace  (census records will use their religious name, not their birth name).  However, there are patterns in some families about which religious orders they preferred, which can help you to find the convent or monastery, and often the catholic schools other family members attended.  Once you find the religious order this relative entered, you can write to the order, or visit your own parish priest for help.  Once you find the religious order, you will find they kept very good records on their members, including birth place, parents names, burials, and more.

For the truly curious:

Is a Rabbi Hiding in Your Family Tree?  Lessons from Genetic Genealogy for Traditional Genealogists 

Rabbinical Genealogy: Sources at the Center for Jewish History 

Finding Family in Religous Service, by Juliana Smith 

Researching Irish Catholic Priests, Nuns and Religious Brothers, by Kyle J. Betit 

Colonial American Ministers Project at 

The Colonial Clergy and the Colonial Churches of New England, by Frederick Lewis Weiss, reprinted by the Genealogical Publishing Company of Baltimore, Maryland, 1936  (there are similar books by Weiss for Maryland, Delaware, Georgia, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina).  Some of these are available online - check Google books.

Society of the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy  

The Society of the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy has sponsored a book Pedigrees of the Descendants of the Colonial Clergy, by Robert Glenn Thurtle, 1976 available online at the Hathi Trust website:

A handy list of the New England Puritan ministers and their approximate time of arrival from England (1630 - 1641): 


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Researching Ancestors Who Were Religious Leaders", Nutfield Genealogy, posted January 9, 2020, ( accessed [access date]).


  1. Heather, I am always learning something new when I read your posts! And this is no exception! I have a couple of Methodist preachers in my family tree. One was a circuit-riding preacher. Thank you for all of this wonderful info! And, I am glad that you found a such a gold mine of info from Acadia University!


  2. Hi Heather, I have another source you might want to try: has ministerial records for over 350,000 posts and plenty more. If you don't want to test out an unfamiliar site with your own research, try Abraham PIERSON 1613-1678 and you should come up with a relative of mine, and his son, also Abraham, was a minister as well (1646-1707). The also have lists for civic involvement,teachers,etc. I would be interested to know what you think.