Because of the importance that many Christians place on the sacrament of baptism, baptismal records are very often found in the collections of records maintained by churches, and subsequently, genealogical society libraries. It is not uncommon to find the date of baptism, but not the date of birth. The date of birth into this corporeal world is of little significance in terms of one’s spiritual life. On the other hand, the date on which an individual is born into the heavenly realm (through the sacrament of baptism) is of immediate and profound importance.
The date of birth may be assumed if only the baptismal date is available, but that assumed date should always be just that - assumed. A general rule of thumb would be that the child was born just prior to the date he or she was baptised in the church. So if the baptismal date was 15 October, 1759, it might be assumed that the child was born within a week or two prior to that date. But that is not always the case. If the family resided a great distance from the nearest church, and was unable to attend as a member of the congregation regularly, the newborn child might not be baptised for some time after its birth. Likewise, if the people of a region were served by an itinerant preacher, it might be weeks or months before he would pass their way after the birth of their child.
Sometimes families simply were not members of the congregation of a nearby church, and did not practice their faith according to the practices of that nearby church, but nonetheless made use of that nearby church for the accomplishment of certain of the sacraments, including baptism of their children. In such a case, they might not have been too concerned about the timing of receiving that sacrament. For an example, the author’s Schmitt ancestors resided in the region of Bedford County that would later become Freedom Township in Blair County. The family was German, and as noted by a descendant, "leaned toward the Reformed church." As a result, the family did not regularly attend, nor were they members of the congregation of, the only nearby church, the Newry Lutheran Church. But if the family wanted to receive a sacrament, such as baptism, they had to avail themselves of the hospitality of the Lutheran Church in Newry. And so it can be found in the records of that church that Samuel and Mary Schmitt took six of their all at the same time, on 21 August, 1852, to the Newry Lutheran Church to be baptised. Of course, the oldest child was not newly born; in fact she was about the age of eleven. The other children were separated by about two or three years.
Church baptismal records are useful in regard to the information they supply. In many cases, not only do they provide the researcher the name of the child, his/her birthdate and parents names, but they also provide the names of witnesses to the event. Those witnesses’ names may provide clues to the mother’s maiden surname, because they were often (though, of course, not always) relatives of the mother. Sometimes neighbors stood in as witnesses to the baptism. While the latter instance might not supply a clue to the relatives of either the mother or father, it would at least help to identify where the new parents resided. Also, church records tended to give the child’s given and surnames in the language of the family. In other words, if the family was German, the names as recorded in the church records, were not necessarily changed into their English equivalents; they were recorded in German.
The christening of the child was the act of naming the child during the sacrament of baptism. Christening records, usually, but not always, simply a part of the baptismal record, may be valuable to indicate the complete Christian (or given) name of the child.
Without going to far into a study of the naming conventions used through the centuries, a few thoughts might be included here to note the importance and use of christening records. It can’t simply be assumed that every German boy had the name of Johannes prefixed to his name (e.g. Johannes Heinrich, or Johann Jacob). It likewise can’t be assumed, on the other hand, that a child by the name of ‘Heinrich’ had only that single name given to him at his baptism. Sometimes family records are found in which there are two or more children by the same name. Christening records may be used to clear up such a mystery, with the result showing that one or the other, or both, had a second name ‘given’ to them at the baptism and christening. Due to the fact that the mortality rate of children was fairly high prior to the Twentieth Century, the father who desired his name to be perpetuated through his own sons, would include it as a second name given to a son at his christening.
For example, this book’s author had an ancestor by the name of Jacob Schmitt. Jacob and his wife Rosanna gave birth to two sons and a daughter. The first son was named directly after the father, and received the name of Jacob Schmitt, Jr. The second son was given the name of Jacob Peter Schmitt. The second son went through his life by the name of Peter Schmitt. Peter Schmitt died prior to his older brother, Jacob Jr., so he never was known by any name other than Peter. If the eldest son had died young, there is little doubt that the youngest would have been known as Jacob rather than as Peter. In fact, in his will, the father simply referred to the one as his "eldest son Jacob" and his "youngest son Jacob".
Christening records may also direct the researcher in the right direction to discover the family’s ethnic origins. A man named James might have been christened as Sean, indicative of the fact that he may have been born in Ireland.