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Genealogy Gazette

Volume 3, Number 6
Mountain Press, P.O. Box 400, Signal Mountain, Tennessee 37377, 1-423-886-6369
April 13, 2011


Publisher's Notes

In this article we discuss the Minister's Returns. These records of marriages can provide you with valuable information in your search for your ancestors.

If you have any comments or suggestions, please email me at jimd@mountainpress.com.

Thank you,
James L. Douthat
Mountain Press


MInister's Returns


Frequently when you are researching some of the older marriages, you find that these are labeled Minister’s Returns. This may cause some confusion as to the fact if this is a “proper” record of that marriage. The short answer is “Yes”. The background as to why this is a correct record, one has to understand the reason behind the record itself.

Minister Returns are found primarily in the older records of those states called commonwealths instead of states. There are only a few of the states that go by this designation such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and Massachusetts. This is the result of these being formed early in the development of the United States prior to the American Revolution. These took their political basis from the British government. As such, some of their early regulations were soon discarded by most of the states. In 1538, the English crown separated from the church in Rome and established its own system. In the Catholic Church, the priest was required to keep a record of the births, marriages and deaths of persons in their parish. When England broke with the Catholic Church, the ministers of the local congregations were therefore required to maintain these records. The beginning of the system was seventy years before there was a permanent settlement in the New World. Since Virginia, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts were among the first areas of settlement in the New World, they maintained the system then commonly established in the mother country. Kentucky was a part of Virginia until 1792, so it was expected they followed their mother state.

In 1632, Virginia passed one of the first known laws of the colonies when the Grand Assembly of Virginia required the minister of warden from each parish to appear in court once a year on the first of June and present a record of their christenings, marriages and burials for the preceding year. These became the basis of our system of maintaining the vital records of each area. Most of the areas dropped this system except for Virginia. In the county system, each ordained minister was required to secure a bond and become a member of the county court system. This concept lasted as a law up until the early 1980s when this requirement was dropped from the rules. As it stood, only an ordained minister was empowered to perform a marriage. When I served in southwestern Virginia in the late 1970s, I was bonded and allowed to perform marriages. A fellow minister in another county was the only ordained minister in three counties and so from Friday afternoon until Sunday night he would sometimes perform as many as 75 to 100 weddings on a weekend. If he left town, it had to be between Monday and Friday morning.

This system was in effect throughout most of the history of Virginia. About midway through the eighteen century, their system began to change and weddings were handled in a different manner, but overlapped with the older one. By the late eighteen century, to get married there had to first be a bond posted by the groom. It would usually state “...there is suddenly about to be a marriage...”. Don’t take the word “suddenly” too seriously. The couple may have been planning this for a long time. Then the guardian of the bride most generally would give their consent to the marriage. Normally, this was given by the mother of the bride. Here are two records of the marriage, but there is more. The clerk grants a certificate in the name of the bride and groom. The minister performs the wedding and then returns the certificate. This gives five pieces of evidence of each of the marriages. These records are kept, or they are supposed to be kept, by the clerk in a “marriage packet” and filed.

It is at this point that the overlapping occurs. The minister is a free agent to perform the marriage by law and under the law. The minister returns the certificate and also makes notes that are returned to the county court.

Now to the importance of this overlap. If for some reason the clerk’s records are lost or burned, then the county court records have a copy of the births, deaths and marriages which are Minister Returns. The two different records are filed in different places and the court minutes are generally not lost. By the turn of the twentieth century, minister’s returns have faded into the dim past.

Minister’s Returns and the marriage packet can provide very useful information. My fifth great grandfather was orphaned at a young age as were his two sisters when the father was killed mysteriously. The mother allowed the church wardens to bind the three out. I have their orders and the orders from the County Court concurring with the wardens. Nowhere is the name of the father mentioned whereas the mother is called by name in all of the documents. I was in the Shenandoah Valley researching the family long ago and found one of the sister’s marriages recorded in the clerk’s records. Going to the courthouse, I asked to see the marriage packet. The clerk showed me where the records were filed in the basement of the courthouse. I found her marriage packet and when this was opened out fluttered a small piece of paper on which her guardian wrote, “She will come of age on ‘such and such a date’ and does not need my consent for her marriage but I give this readily. I have known her since birth to be the daughter of John and Margaret - - - ”. This is the only record found with the name of the father and mother. There were no deeds, marriages, etc or anything else with his name on it. Years later I found out that he was part of a name change and I had to go back and research in another county.

If you find yourself with a “Minister’s Return” you have a valid piece of information so cherish it. As the minister returns began to fade in the distance, you will find that some areas began to allow the Justice of the Peace to perform marriages. However, this is another article in the future.

Our next article will be “Inventories and Settlements” for wills. Happy Hunting!

First Settlers of Republic of Texas

First Settlers of Republic of Texas, Volume 1

292 pages, Soft Cover, Full Name Index, TX-0020, $50.00

Headright land grants which were reported as genuine and legal by the traveling commissioners in January 1840. Contains records for Austin, Bastrop, Bexar, Brazoria, Colorado, Fannin, Fayette, Fort Bend, Galveston, Goliad, Gonzales, Harris, Harrison, Houston, Jackson and Jasper Counties.

First Settlers of Republic of Texas, Volume 2

281 pages, Soft Cover, Full Name Index, TX-0021, $50.00

Headright land grants which were reported as genuine and legal by the traveling commissioners in January 1840. Contains records for Jefferson, Liberty, Matagorda, Milam, Montgomery, Nacogdoches, Red River, Refugio, Robertson, Sabine, San Augustine, Shelby, Victoria and Washington Counties.


Roster of the Continental Line from NC - 1783


220 Pages, 8.5 x 11, Soft Cover, Full Name Index, NC-0200, $46.00

During the American Revolution, the State of North Carolina had ten Regiments of Volunteer Militia involved in the fighting. This is an alphabetical listing of those soldiers in 1783 who were fighting for their State’s Freedom. Each of the ten regiments are listed by a letter of the alphabet such as “As” for Regiment 1 and Regiment 2, etc. The full name index is given to help straddle the line between the divisions as given. Shown are the name and rank, companies, dates of Commission and enlistments, Periods of Service and occurrences. A very good record for libraries and individuals who are deep into North Carolina research.

Complete Details and Surname Index



Historical Collection of Virginia: Southside


85 Pages, Illustrations, Soft Cover, VA-0646, $8.50

Includes the following counties: Albemarle, Amelia, Amherst, Bedford, Brunswick, Buckingham, Campbell, Charlotte, Chesterfield, Cumberland, Dinwiddie, Fluvanna, Halifax, Hanover, Henrico Louisa, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nelson, Nottoway, Pittsylvania, Powhatan, Prince Edward

Packed with information, this reprint begins with a table showing the relative agricultural, manufacturing, and mercantile weath of the various counties. There are columns for cattle, sheep, swine, wheat, rye, Indian corn, oats, potatoes, etc. It continues with a brief synopsis of each county and sketches on early pioneers.  


If you have any questions or suggestions for future editions, please email us at jimd@mountainpress.com.