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.

Rhonda McClure

About Rhonda McClure

Rhonda R. McClure, Genealogist, is a nationally recognized professional genealogist and lecturer specializing in New England and celebrity research as well as computerized genealogy; is compiler of more than 120 celebrity family trees; has been 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 ten books, including the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition, Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors, and Digitizing Your Family History.View all posts by Rhonda McClure