This morning’s Questions from the Grass Roots post included the question “How often does the Church take a census of its members?” Possibly readers are not familiar with the census or know that it is available for searching, or know why it might be useful.
The Church took a census of its members in 1914, in 1920, and each five years thereafter (with the exception of 1945 — the war must have made manpower to take the census scarce, or else members’ locations were too often in flux) through 1960, and in 1962. As the answer to the 1948 question states, the census was chiefly used for verifying ward membership records, and it became redundant in the 1960s as record keeping systems changed. But just as family historians use civil census records for purposes far beyond governmental purpose, there are reasons why you might find the church census just as useful for purposes never contemplated by the Church in 1914.
The census asked different questions each year. Generally, each census asked for the full name of each member of the family living at a given address, and identified the family’s ward and stake. Most years asked for each person’s birth date and place, and give an indication of church activity: some years include the priesthood office held by men, and ask which auxiliaries each family member belonged to (members weren’t routinely considered members of the Relief Society or Sunday School until relatively late in the 20th century). Some census years also recorded a family’s previous ward and gave an indication of how long they had lived at their current address.
The census was intended to cover all members in the United States (I’m unaware of any census enumeration of non-U.S. locations, except perhaps in Alberta, Canada), and coverage is pretty complete for the Mormon Corridor; it is spottier for other parts of the country, understandably, but is still thorough enough to make searching worthwhile for families in the East, South, and in California.
Unlike the federal census, which is recorded on large sheets of paper and is arranged by neighborhood, the Church census was recorded on cards, one card for each family. Those cards were sorted alphabetically, so it’s easy to find a family even if you don’t know where they were living in a given year. As an added bonus, all census cards from 1914 through 1935 were sorted into a single file, with an effort made to group all cards for a given family together (that is, while there may be dozens of families headed by men named John Christensen, each individual family’s cards from 1914 through 1935 are filed together).
But while you can find all the entries for a family from 1914 to 1935 with a single search, the later censuses are sorted and microfilmed individually, divided in some years into two files (one for stakes, one for missions). Still, because it’s alphabetical, it’s still fairly convenient to use. Each census also has a group of cards that were somehow overlooked in the first filing and filming, but of course you don’t have to check there unless you don’t find your family where and when you expect to find them.
These census files have been microfilmed and are available to researchers at both the Church History Library and the Family History Library. (When I was using the BYU microform collection regularly a few years ago, they had a mostly complete set on site, too.) The Church History Library has a paper catalog that a librarian can help you use to identify which films you need. To access the films in the Family History Library, you have to know this fact: Regardless of where your family lived, their church census records are cataloged under UTAH. Do a place search in the catalog for “Utah,” then select “Church Records,” then select “Church Census Records,” then choose from the listing of 641 films according to your family name and the year you want to search. Here’s a link to the online catalog record.
And why would you want to use these census records?
Chiefly because most family historians like to look at every record created concerning their families. It’s another opportunity to be sure you have the birth dates right, and to be sure you have identified every member of the family. You can track the movements of your family through much of the 20th century and pin down when they moved from one place to another.
You might find something unexpected – maybe you didn’t know that Grandma lived with your parents for a while, or that your Uncle Fred and his wife raised some nieces and nephews after their parents died. Sometimes census takers wrote explanatory notes on the cards about who was who or why a certain family member was omitted.
If your family lived in a place like Salt Lake or Cedar City or Ogden, where there were multiple wards, the census is the quickest way to identify which ward they lived in so that you can search for membership records or read the minute books of the various auxiliarie. (and we’ve seen before the detailed treasures you might find in the minutes).
When so many 20th century records are still not available to searchers, this census can help you track people in an otherwise hard-to-work-on period. For example, perhaps you want to compile a record of the descendants of your pioneer ancestors: the church census will help you identify generations of your second and third cousins, and brings you up to the point where you can find living descendants to contact.
Like all records, the church census is only of value if your ancestors met the criteria for inclusion (i.e., it’s only useful if you have Mormon ancestors, and most useful if they lived in organized stakes in the western U.S.), and it’s only as good as the clerks and enumerators who conducted the census. Still, I’ve had some wonderful success using it, and wanted to be sure Keepaninnies who could benefit from this source were aware it exists.