Hunting for a church

First Presbyterian Church of Chester NY
The First Presbyterian Church of Chester, New York.

While working in the Ask-a-Genealogist questions last week, I found myself looking at questions on where to turn for records to prove the baptisms or residences of ancestors, which are actually rather typical. However, in offering guidance to these individuals, I realized how little the hunt was for the ancestor and how important the hunt for the church or town would be.

Most recent was a question about the South Salem Church of Christ, a Presbyterian church in South Salem, New York, founded in 1752. The problem was that the ancestor sought was born in 1750, so where would he have been baptized?

The first recommendation is often to turn attention to the published county histories for the area. I stress that researchers should not be overly reliant on these volumes for their biographical material, which is sometimes inaccurate, but county histories can be a treasure trove in the chapters devoted to the towns of the county. These histories usually offer great information with regard to when a church was founded and, sometimes, even details about where the parishioners were going before that church existed. In the case of South Salem, in the initial search of the unindexed volumes we had here at the NEHGS Research Center, what,I found was already known: the church was founded in 1752, with an obscure notation that it was a member of the Bedford Presbytery.

This got me to thinking – like most religions there was a hierarchy, and as such information about earlier churches might be available through the Presbytery. And, because I like a good challenge, I set about seeing what information could be found about the Presbytery to offer the questioner.

Usually all that is needed is a search for the “Diocese of Boston” or some similar term. However, when I looked for the Bedford Presbytery at first, I got items about the Presbyterian Church in Bedford. I then used the quotation marks to search for just Bedford Presbytery and uncovered a volume published in the late 1800s, The Presbytery of New York, 1738 to 1888, by S.D. Alexander. This volume gave a lot of insight into the Presbyterian Church in New York and mentioned a thirteen-year “schism” from 1745 to 1758, but more importantly for Bedford, a town that sits right next door to South Salem (which is a village in Lewisboro), Alexander’s book included the name of a possible minister at the time in question.

Googling this minister led me to another published history of Westchester County, The History of Several Towns, Manors, and Patents of the County of Westchester from Its Settlement to the Present Time by the Rev. Robert Bolton, published in 1881, that had greater detail about the Bedford church and talked about when the Rev. Robert Sturgeon was appointed in Bedford. It went on to talk about his being from Scotland and that Cotton Mather was against his licensing because of the minister’s conduct.

However, Sturgeon was appointed in 1740 to the church in Bedford. Bolton’s book went on to tell me that the Presbytery of New Brunswick (see above for mention of a schism) installed another minister in Bedford in 1743, a Rev. Samuel Sacket. A quote from a Mr. Webster, identified in the Westchester County history as “the historian,” offered a sense of the emotions in the area at the time: “When so many other ties were sundered rudely, even this unbrotherly act may have been committed.”

In seeking information about a church for a family to attend prior to the founding of the church in their area, what opened before me was not only a history of the area, but resources on the religion in question and avenues for additional records (though they may not be online). As genealogists, we get so consumed with adding a generation to our tree that we sometimes forget to step back and look at the lives our ancestors were leading. The history of the county led me to a search of the hierarchy of the Presbyterian Church, one offering a great deal of information with which genealogists can move toward a better understanding of the context of the times.

About Rhonda McClure

Rhonda R. McClure, Senior Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer. Before joining American Ancestors/NEHGS in 2006, she ran her own genealogical business for 18 years. She was a contributing editor for Heritage Quest Magazine, Biography magazine and was a contributor to The History Channel Magazine and American History Magazine. In addition to numerous articles, she is the author of twelve books including the award-winning The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Online Genealogy, Finding your Famous and Infamous Ancestors and Digitizing Your Family History. She is the editor of the 6th edition of the Genealogist’s Handbook for New England Research, available in our bookstore. When she isn’t researching and writing about family history, she spends her time writing about ice hockey, covering collegiate to NHL teams and a couple of international teams. Her work has allowed her the privilege of attending and covering the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

12 thoughts on “Hunting for a church

  1. Ok, I was looking 4 possible church records for record of birth since my grandither was born b4 1907. Di’dn’t put the quotation marks in. I ‘ll try that. Thanks, good information.

  2. A useful contribution to thinking about how to find NY data. South Salem is a hamlet of Lewisboro, however, rather than a village. In NY, a hamlet lacks government structure; a village usually has a mayor and village council. Both are a part of an established town with elected government officials, a town supervisor and town board … in this case Lewisboro. Vital records are commonly maintained at the town government level.

  3. Researching churches in NY lead to the destruction of a major brick wall in my Shaw family line and firmly linked my St Lawrence County family to Washington County and from there back to Ireland. Actually getting to see the session book for the St Lawrence church (founded in 1802 with my 3-great-grandfather as a trustee) revealed the names of six of his children. Previously I had only known two, my 2-greatgrandfather and one brother.

  4. ” As genealogists, we get so consumed with adding a generation to our tree that we sometimes forget to step back and look at the lives our ancestors were leading. ” Well Said!!!!

  5. When official records don’t exist, sometimes church records & land records are the only way. Thank you!

  6. Searching for Irish immigrant ancestors to New York City in 1850s, I discovered many Irish men went to Westchester County to work as laborers on the Croton aqueduct, railroads, etc. A useful book was Henry M. Dunkak, “Freedom, culture, labor: the Irish of early Westchester County, NY, pub 1994 by Iona College Press, New Rochelle, NY.

  7. There is/was a Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. (Presbyterians are a dwindling number so not sure it’s still active.) Believe it might have records from some closed churches. Also, consider university archives: the records of Number Nine Presbyterian Church in Stanley, NY were sent to Cornell University.

    1. To the best of my knowledge, the Presbyterian Historical Society is still quite active I think one has to visit personally or hire a researcher as they do not provide research services. They are supposed to be the repository for records of all Presbyterian churches nationwide that have closed.

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