Genealogy, Church Records, and God’s Larger Story

Things will be discovered that were either not known or were pushed to the side


The following is an interview with Paul Daniels, the Archivist for Region 3 of the ELCA. We wanted to hear from with him about his work, congregational history, and how church archive questions and genealogical inquiry can turn from utilitarian church questions to wider God questions.

Edited for length and clarity.

Faith+Lead: When people contact churches and church-affiliated institutions for records, what are they usually looking for? And why?

Paul Daniels: The biggest group is looking for things like proof of baptism, proof of marriage, and proof of confirmation, which they may be needing for legal reasons. Proof of baptism is second or third down in importance for Social Security and passports, as proof of one’s identity needed by the federal government. So it can be that, that basic need or desire, then others are, and this is a smaller group, but it’s a group that is, frankly, for me, a bit more compelling to work with. There are people who are building out or creating their family story, their family history, true genealogy work, not just going after the framework of dates and names and filling it in. I had a friend in the profession recently, who compared that to doing one’s bracket during March Madness, and it really is that when you see family history charts. But these are people who want to know what made their ancestors tick, what was important to them, what was compelling, and particularly, since this church body (Region 3 of the ELCA)  is very predominantly a product of fairly recent immigration, mid 19th-century immigration for many. So they’re looking at stories of leave-taking from wherever they came from with hopes and dreams of a better life here. It’s very much the immigrant story. Mixed with the story around what does it mean to be an American? And specifically what does it mean to be an American Lutheran Christian, when this setting was very different from the mostly European backgrounds that they came from.

For me personally, those are compelling and fun elements to work with, because you help people in many cases discover things they didn’t know about their ancestors. And for some, you can see the light bulb go on, it’s kind of like, “oh, that’s why those are the stories that have been passed on to me, that’s why they did what they did, or behaved the way they did,” or, in some cases, why my family system still works the way that it does. It’s the ripple effect of successive generations.

F+L: A little further down that same line of questioning, are there any unusual requests you remember?

PD: In the realm of genealogy not so much. People who sort of already wondered about their connections to prominent leaders in the church, for instance, typically already knew who they were, and, and, in a sense, come in for confirmation.

I know colleagues of mine in other parts of the country who have confronted issues around slavery because the Lutheran Churches in the southern Middle West, and further down, not that there were very many of them, were implicated in that life. That’s certainly not easy.

And then others, you know, I guess there were some positive surprises. A couple are coming to mind now. Some folks already knew about relatives who had been active in the mission field with far-flung partner churches, way back when. And some of those stories are absolutely remarkable, particularly of single women who went to places like mainland China in the 1890s. And you think about what bravery that took, heading out in that way, at that time. Having heard the message to bring the gospel to the world so clearly.

In the collection, we have found actual diary or journal material for people, that in some cases they’d heard about, but didn’t know where it was, and we had it! Allowing them to hear in those people’s own voices, what their experiences were like.

F+L: Going back to the identity piece of genealogical research, how do you think congregations could help host the potentially awkward conversations that sometimes get prompted by this research? Who am I? Where did that come from? What have I inherited? Like you were saying, the family systems, the idea that maybe I’m doomed to repeat this? Or is there something in this being filtered through a faith-based lens, that we can see this but know that our ultimate identity isn’t about what our great great grandparents did?

PD: That’s a great question. I think one way of getting at it is for the congregation to function as a help there. For individuals, I could imagine that happening. But I think it’s effectively what happens in a corporate way, in a faith community way, when things like anniversaries are celebrated. What I see over and over again, and this is another side of what I do with the Region Three archives, is working on site with congregations, on issues of writing their congregational history. Gathering oral history, interviews, and the like. But that exercise of putting it to paper or putting it to digital formats. Things will be discovered that were either not known or were sort of put down, pushed to the side, whatever happened, that are not always easy.

In my home congregation, for instance, (a suburban church in Golden Valley), the writing of our congregational history showed that we’d had an opportunity to partner with “an inner city church,” which was all of a mile and a half away in North Minneapolis. And we chose not to do that. Leaving us grappling with the road not taken, and not taken for not great reasons. In the writing of that story, we wrestled with it because some of the people who had been a part of that decision were still around, and no one wanted to shame and blame those folks. But we did want to talk about and even dream a little bit about well, I wonder what it would have been like had we gone there.

And what did it say about us then, as compared to what it might say about us now, and taking it further, what are those areas that we’re still afraid of? Because, you know, it isn’t time-bound. We all, individually and as a group, sometimes lack the courage to step out in faith and embrace the things that God may be bringing to us. It can be a really helpful and important exercise.

This is where I see it happening. You don’t have to wait for an anniversary, but an anniversary is sort of the big nudge to look at those things. Conversely, there are some great stories of faithfulness that can be very reassuring. We raised our kids at two different churches, Central Lutheran, downtown Minneapolis, and Valley of Peace in Golden Valley. When we were members of Central Lutheran, I served on the heritage committee, the archives committee. And it was fascinating to see in the material, how the church had always seen itself as compared to how it actually was. Sort of like the records being the mirror we held up to ourselves.

One of the stories as Central was going through a particularly challenging time, this was probably 20 years ago or so, was their very formation, back in the 1920s, when the mortgage was for the big new building, this fabulous new Cathedral Church, and we were at risk of defaulting on it. And members got into their Model Ts and Model A cars and drove all over the Midwest saying when you come to the Twin Cities, for your doctor visits, for visiting your kids, to sell your grain at the grain exchange, we are your church. And they ended up sort of forming a subscription/giving setup so that they didn’t in fact, default. It’s this amazing story of resilience and resourcefulness and being forced to say why are we here in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, and who are we here for.

That was tremendously helpful to us. It was sort of like, oh, my gosh, we’ve been through worse than this. And God was faithful. And we came through it. And again, not just because of what we did, but ultimately, of course, what God was up to.

I think story and memory can function that way. Back to the point of your original question, it takes some deftness and care to put those difficult discoveries out there in a setting where they can be discussed without judgment.

We can certainly talk about preferred outcomes or, you know, preferred stances. And the example of my church not having taken the challenging road. We can talk about how that probably wasn’t the preferred way, now that we look back on it. But that is what happens. So where do we go? What do we learn from that?

Obviously, I’m in this work, and I’ve been in this work for so long, because I think there’s tremendous value to it. And not just the legal, financial, evidentiary values. We can learn a tremendous amount from stories.

F+L:  When people are only contacting churches for specific information and they don’t seem interested in anything about the church or about faith, are there specific questions, or a way of presenting things that could open them up to further curiosity about history? About faith?

PD: I have to confess I don’t always do this. But when I do, I’ll say, you know, you have a really interesting family story here. Would you like to know more about these folks and what they did for God’s Church? And people have said, yeah, I should know more. And a few have just said, not right now, maybe later. Maybe when we actually write something. Right now we’re just chasing, we’re just building a framework.

I have offered to help with that. And most people are open to it. Especially if it’s clear that I’m not proselytizing. That’s not my role. But it is my role to share the resources we have, we’re not keeping them just to fill out people’s bracket, it really is to tell a story.

Especially this time of year, when it’s becoming wedding season, proof of baptism gets to be quite a deal for people who are raised and baptized in a Lutheran church and (probably) marrying a Roman Catholic. 

It’s almost always the mother of the bride who’s calling, and it’s a fraught, potentially tense situation, because we’ve got to find the baptism record. And it’s got to get to Father so-and-so in time.

However, it’s an opportunity to say a bit about the Lutheran church because this is a time where people will come to us for genealogical research, knowing next to nothing about the ELCA, and expect it to be just like their whichever other denomination they had experience with. We’re in a post-denominational world. These labels don’t mean much to the average person. So in some ways, it’s gotten to be kind of a fun way for me to do a little bit of short one-on-one Lutheran history lesson.

And most people are open to that. Learning a little bit about this denomination and what makes it like other Protestant denominations, what makes it different. It brings out the church history nerd in me.

F+L: When people ask these very practical questions do you ever sense that maybe there’s some sort of spiritual hunger somewhere beneath it all? 

PD: Sometimes there is a sort of amazement or appreciation, or a sense of being moved by faithfulness that is evidenced in what I’m able to share about a great-grandparent or other relative. People say, “Wow, think of what that took, they really must have had strong faith.” That kind of response. There’s sort of an awe expressed, an appreciation, maybe a joy even.

F+L: Do you think that could be an entry point?

PD: I think it maybe could be. I think there’s a sense of, envy is not the best word, but sort of like, “gee, I wish I had that kind of courage based in faith, as expressed in that story.” Some of that. I work on this stuff all the time. And I have that feeling quite often. And these are strangers to me!

But I am amazed that people did what they did on behalf of the gospel. And it’s a little bit convicting, actually you know, more than a little.

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