Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Middle Tennessee Baptismal Record - Lessons Learned

Nestled in the family search catalog is something called the Record of Members. It is a location specific, hand written record of people who joined the LDS Church. To find it you have to know where you want to look. In my case it is Tennessee.

There are a few of them for Tennessee, which are the only ones I have looked up. There is an East Tennessee one and a Southwest Tennessee one. But the big one is for Middle Tennessee from (1877) to 1920. The groupings correspond to the conferences within each mission. Each conference, and later districts, was responsible for keeping the record. As conference were created, divided, and sometimes closed, records would be kept, people would be transferred between them.

In about 1902 the boundary between East and Middle Tennessee was moved westward and 302 people who were previously in the Middle Tennessee conference were transferred to the East Tennessee Conference. That's bigger than most ward boundary changes today.

Sometimes a conference is closed.The short lived Southwest Tennessee Conference lasted from 1884 until 1889. Those records were kept in a separate book which has been microfilmed and can be found in the Record of Members collection.

But my recent work has been with the Middle Tennessee Conference. The handwritten nature of the record has made any comprehensive approach to working in this record difficult. It is only quasi-alphabetical., meaning all the B's are together, but within that section there is little to order to how the names are listed. Some of the names are entered in date order, but that is neither consistent nor reliable. Names were entered as they were received which was usually in date order, but sometime completely out of place.

The reason has to do with how the records were assembled. It was begun in about 1900. The first step was to enter the existing members and back date them. Many members records were entered for the years going back to 1894. But if a member had moved west, died, or had left the church there didn't seem to be a compelling reason to add them to the record. For this reason only a tiny handful of members baptized prior to 1894 were included. Some of those were even missing key details like a full baptism date, who performed the ordinances, or their parents' names.

 To make the record useful I took on the task of transcribing it. To be honest I am not a fast typist. Actually, I'm not a typist at all. I started this project nine years ago. Yes, I know that is a long time. But I had many other things going on. I was working on a book about the Cane Creek Massacre, and I was doing a blog, and then Twitter and so on. I guess you could say I was distracted by other projects. I'd type a little here and there as I found something I needed I would transcribe just that portion. I wasn't in a rush or anything.

About six months ago I decided I needed to finish it up, and voila it is finally complete. I still have East Tennessee to work on, but that too will come soon.

What did I find?

1411 total records
   14 records are blank
   22 appear to be duplicates within the record
    9 had names that were indecipherable (poor handwriting)
   67 had a partial or no baptismal date
 302 were transferred from the Middle Tenn Conf to the East Tenn Conf
 262 emigrated out of the mission. Most went west, though a few went to neighboring states
   22 of those who went west returned to Tennessee, at least according to the record.

I can now see how many people individual missionaries baptized, how many people were baptized at the same time and place, how many people joined the church in one location over time helping me identify local branches that were formed, and later faded away as people moved, died, or left the Church.

I plan on bumping these names up again LDS records in Family Search to add elements that weren't in the record; Death date and place, marriage info, some of which is listed in the notes field but for most is not included.

Can I tease out of the data whether they remained in the Church? Maybe. I suspect some will be obvious since their children were baptized or the record will say they left the church. But most will not be clear either way.

The most frustrating part is that for many of these people, a later proxy baptism date is listed on Family Search. So while these people sacrificed much to become members, many losing family, friends, and many times property and livelihood, the official record does not recognize them as having joined the Church in their lifetime.



Ardis said...

Your database must be as useful and important as it was tedious to create, Bruce! I looked briefly at that very record a couple of weeks ago, and my hat is off to you for what you've done.

And yeah, Family Search's practice of obliterating original data with the dates of unnecessary repetition of ordinances does a disservice to those people by distorting their lives. If I could be granted one wish relative to Family Search, restoring the original data would be it.

Bruce said...

Thanks Ardis. With as useful as this kind of record could be I'm surprised it hasn't been done before. Of course as you know it is nearly illegible in many places so perhaps that alone scares off any would be transcriptionist.

Ardis said...

Supposedly the Church has keyed in all the old membership records, sometimes said to have been added to Family Search. Very often I see incomplete FS records that seem to have come directly from membership records because they include the kinds of data you'd expect such a record to have and none of the data you wouldn't expect such a record to have (like death information for someone who lost touch with the church). But other times, records that seem like they OUGHT to be there just aren't, so I wonder how thorough was the project to key in old membership books. With a record like the one you've done, it's easy to understand how it might have been overlooked.

J. Stapley said...

Solid work, Bruce.

Bruce said...

Thank you. It means a great deal coming from you.

Tod Robbins said...

Fascinating! What are the names of the record set?

Bruce said...

Internally the record refers to itself as the "Middle Tennessee Baptismal Record" which is the name I use.

In the Familysearch catalog it is called "Record of members, [1877]-1920" and lists the author as "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Middle Tennessee District"