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Find Your Ancestors in Church Publications Part 1

Family historians often don’t look for published information on their ancestors, especially in church newspapers and histories. These publications, however, can contain a wealth of information that may not be recorded anywhere else. Some examples from my own family history highlight their value and in future articles I will look at what sources are available and where.

Thomas and Elizabeth Price
My great grandfather Thomas Price and his wife Elizabeth (nee Judge) were involved with the Charters Towers Ryan Street Baptist Church in Queensland. The Year Book of the Baptist Association in Queensland chronicles their involvement between 1907 and 1913. Thomas was a Deacon and Treasurer while Elizabeth was a Deaconess and on the Committee. Their address was given as Hodgkinson Street, Charters Towers. Between 1910 and 1913 Thomas was listed as the Superintendent of the Ryan Street Sunday School. While this isn’t a lot of information, it does indicate that they were actively involved with their local church community.

Another example is my great great grandfather’s brother Thomas Johnston who was the first of the family to emigrate to Queensland in 1859 with his wife Eliza and son James. His brother and my direct ancestor Adam Johnston arrived in Brisbane in 1861. Between 1859 and 1863 a number of the Johnston family from Knockbride, County Cavan, Ireland emigrated to Queensland and settled in the Sherwood and South Pine districts. While my Adam was a rather colourful character, his brother Thomas was a pillar of society in Brisbane. Thomas died in 1909 and his obituary in the Brisbane Courier mentions his move to Sherwood in 1864. It also mentions that he was closely identified with the Church acting as local preacher, Sunday school superintendent and teacher.

Given Thomas’ active involvement with the Methodist Church, a visit to the John Oxley Library in Brisbane was necessary as the Library has a very good collection of Methodist Church records, both published and original records. Fortunately there was a special Sherwood issue celebrating the Church’s golden jubilee in 1936. The issue quotes from the original minutes:

On Friday evening, October 8, 1886, and within the house of Mr Thomas Johnston, a meeting was held according to appointment at 7.30 o’clock, the object for which it was held was to ascertain what steps be taken if possible to start a new place of worship in the district, the same to be immediately connected with the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and attached to the south Brisbane Circuit of that Church.

A working committee was formed which included Thomas, his brother James Johnston, his son Thomas George Johnston, his son in law Walter Warnes plus A E Appleton, W Wood, Thomas Payne, Oliver Judd and James Shanks. The committee resolved to ‘meet in Mr Johnston’s house every Monday evening until our object is gained’. Only two of those men were still alive at the time of the jubilee – A E Appleton and Walter Warnes and there is a photograph of the two men in the article.

In May 1887 a contract to build the church for £120 was given to Mr T Johnston which included a pulpit and seats, these to be ‘plain made but substantial and comfortable to sit on’. The dimensions of the Church were to be 22 feet long and 20 feet wide and it is little wonder that it was often referred to as ‘the sweat box’.

In October 1886 a Sunday school opened with James Shank as superintendent and Oliver Judd, and Thomas’ daughters Maggie and Mary Johnston assisting with the Sunday school. At the end of 1886 A E Appleton became superintendent and Thomas Johnston, Mrs McDiarmid and Miss Pattinson were appointed as teachers. This kind of detail can not easily be found elsewhere.

Yet another example is provided by The Queensland Freeman which was the monthly journal of the Baptist Association in Queensland between January 1881 and November 1888. This has been digitised and is available either for sale as a publication or through the World Vital Records Australasia (WVR) website www.worldvitalrecords.com.au which has a mix of free and subscription databases. According to WVR there are over 72,000 names in the eight years of The Queensland Freeman. The advantage of digitisation is that this publication can now be searched very quickly and easily either at home or at your local society or library if they have a subscription.

In the 15 March 1887 issue of The Queensland Freeman, it gives an account of the establishment of the Baptist church at Newtown described as ‘a new and rising suburb just beyond the western boundary of Toowoomba’. The new church was opened on 22 February 1887 and it was described as ‘a neat and comfortable structure, 28 feet by 16 feet, the exterior of weatherboards and interior lined throughout with pine’. The Rev W Higlett provided a brief account of the history and one of my partner’s ancestors was present at the meeting. Mr T S Burstow (Thomas Stephen) provided the information that the land and building had cost about £160. This brief snapshot illustrates that more information on a family’s involvement with their local community can be found in church publications.

In 2002 it was reported that the National Library of Australia held over 2000 religious newspapers and magazines and almost one half of these were Australian publications. The various State Libraries and church archives also hold extensive collections and in the next instalment of this article, I will start to outline what church publications are available and where.

References: Brisbane Courier, 4 June 1909; The Queensland Methodist Times, Vol X No 22, 3 Sep 1936; The Queensland Freeman, 15 March 1887; The Year Book of the Baptist Association of Queensland, 1907-1913; Jennifer Clark ‘The Soul of Australia: Using Church Newspapers to open up Australian History’ in National Library of Australia News, March 2002.

© Shauna Hicks, 2009 www.shaunahicks.com.au

First published in Australian Family Tree Connections December 2009