When you consider the vast holdings of federal records at the National Archives, what usually jumps to mind are such mainstay documents as Civil War pensions and service records, immigration passenger manifests, Congressional petitions and memorials, or homestead applications. Certainly, the Charters of Freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—figure prominently in public awareness. Most researchers likely would not expect to find documents of an openly religious nature, especially considering the American political tradition that separates Church and State. It may surprise you to learn that such records indeed exist. The 1926 Census of Religious Bodies (ARC ID 2791163), part of Record Group 29, Records of the Bureau of the Census, offers an interesting look at local Catholic and Protestant congregations from the early twentieth century, many of which no longer exist. (Jewish communities were also surveyed in 1926, but no Jewish schedules are in the accessioned records.)
The Census of Religious Bodies came about as a result of the Act of of March 6, 1902, which established the Bureau of the Census as a permanent federal agency under the Department of the Interior (soon after transferred to the newly-created Department of Commerce and Labor). The legislation authorized off-year statistical surveys relating to special classes, including religious bodies. The Bureau of the Census conducted such enumerations in 1906, 1916, 1926, and 1936. Congress eventually authorized the disposal of the 1906 and 1916 schedules, but the 1926 census remains available. (The fate of the 1936 census is currently undetermined; presumably Congress disposed of the records as well.)
The Population Division of the Census Bureau, which supervised the decennial population schedules, also held responsibility for the 1926 Census of Religious Bodies as well as a few other special enumerations (such as marriage and divorce statistics for 1916 and 1933–39.) For the purpose of collecting statistics, the Census Bureau defined a church as “any organization for religious worship which has a separate membership, whether called a church, congregation, meeting, society, mission, station, or chapel.” Information was collected by direct mail on questionnaires sent to the churches, representatives of denominations appointed as agents, or from the central church organization if individual congregations did not respond. The surveys, which in effect served as the census schedules, posed a wide range of questions relating to church membership, facilities, expenditures, schools and mission programs, and the educational background of clergy.
Each schedule in the 1926 Census of Religious Bodies identified the denomination of the church, the name of the congregation, and the location, including city or township, county, and state. Higher organizational affiliations were noted as well, including regional ministeriums, conferences, and synods. Concerning membership, the census asked for population numbers that reflected how each denomination defined its members, whether by enrolled, baptized, or communing persons. Membership figures were further categorized by gender, and children in each congregation were also classified by age, including those under and above 13. Information regarding church facilities focused primarily on the “edifice” or the principal building utilized for religious services and activities, including the number of buildings, current market value of the real estate, including land and all interior furnishings owned by the church. Questions about general expenditures included routine operational and staff expenses as well as contributions to benevolence, missions, and governing church bodies. The final section of the census form outlined personal information about rostered clergy and lay leaders, including the name of the pastor or other designated assistants and the institutions where he attended college and seminary (societal conventions of the day generally assumed the pastoral leadership would be male.)
For anyone interested in a historical snapshot of your congregation in the 1920s, the Census of Religious Bodies is a useful resource. Statistical analyses of the information captured in the census were also published by the Census Bureau and are now available on their web site at http://www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/13949806v1_TOC.pdf. Significantly, published statistical reports are also available for the 1906, 1916, and 1936 religious censuses that no longer exist.