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Church records (Kirchenbücher) are excellent sources for reasonably accurate information on names, dates and places of birth/baptism, marriage, and death/burial. They are the most significant source of genealogical information for Germany before 1876. Most people who lived in Germany were recorded in a church record.
Church records are often called parish registers or church books. They include records of births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials. In addition, church records may include financial account books (which record fees for tolling bells, fees for masses for the dead, and so forth), lists of confirmations, penance register, communion lists, lists of members, and family registers.
Church records are crucial for pre-1876 German research. Since civil authorities in several areas of Germany did not begin registering vital statistics until 1876, church records are often the only sources of family information before this date. Church records continued to be kept after the introduction of civil registration, but the Family History Library has not microfilmed many post-1875 church records. See Germany Civil Registration for more information about post-1875 sources.
General Historical Background
The practice of keeping parish registers evolved slowly. The first surviving German Protestant records are from 1524 at St. Sebald in Nürnberg. Lutheran churches in general began requiring baptism, marriage, and burial records around 1540; Catholics began in 1563. By 1650 most Reformed parishes began keeping records.
Many church records were destroyed in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). In addition, records for some parishes in the Pfalz and Rheinland were interrupted for several years when the French controlled those areas of Germany from 1792 to 1815 and introduced civil registration.
Generally, the earliest church records are in western Germany. The farther east you go, the later the church records begin.
German church records are usually written in Latin or German. Records in German were written in Gothic script as late as the 1930s.
Note the following points about German church records:
- Large cities have many churches, each serving part of the city. Rural churches often serve several villages and hamlets. Parish boundaries often changed, which affected where church records were kept.
- Military churches in garrison towns and cities often kept their own records separate from other parishes.
- In some parts of Germany, the death registers began later than the baptism and marriage registers, especially in Catholic records.
- The registers of baptisms, marriages, and deaths from different geographic areas vary considerably in the amount of information they provide. Each jurisdiction had its own record-keeping rules, and each recorder had his own style.
- In some areas, the records of people of other faiths were kept by the predominant church. The principal churches in Germany were the Catholic and Evangelical-Lutheran churches. For example, Jewish or Mennonite births were occasionally recorded at Catholic parishes, especially in areas where the church was used as the civil registration office.
- Parishes occasionally indexed their records. Indexes are usually found at the beginning or end of the record. Moreover, archives sometimes compile indexes of church records. For example, the Lübeck Stadtarchiv has an alphabetical card index of all names in church records of several parishes at their archive. This index is at the Family History Library on 152 reels of microfilm (FHL films 450,475-626). Occasionally private researchers create large indexes of church records. An example is the 764-microfilm Brenner collection described on page 38.
Each day of the year had several patron saints and was a feast day to honor those saints. Some vital events are recorded in church records only by the holy day (feast day) on the church calendar. For example, the feast day called “All Saints Day” [Allerheiligentag] is “1 November.” To convert feast dates to days of the month for either the Julian (old style) or Gregorian (new style) calendar, use the following book:
Bukke, Inger M., et al. The Comprehensive Genealogical Feast Day Calendar. Bountiful, Utah, USA: Thomson's Genealogical Center, 1983. (FHL book 529.44 C738; fiche 6,054,630.)
An online feast date calculator may be found at the Albion College website. Simply enter the year and click "Calculate."
Duplicate Church Records
Unfortunately, some of Germany's church records were destroyed in wars or when parsonages burned. Concerns about such destruction led authorities in some areas to require copies of church books, mostly beginning in the late 18th century. Copies were either stored separately or sent to a central archive each year.
After civil registration was discontinued in many parts of Germany, local governments often found it helpful to have access to the births, marriages, and deaths recorded by the clergy. Soon local pastors were required to provide the town administration with a yearly copy of these records. These copies are called transcripts or duplicates [Kirchenbuchduplikate], and most are housed in central church archives or state archives. For example, the parish register duplicates of 62 parishes in the Sondershausen Evangelical diocese from 1813 to 1846 were all gathered into the diocese's central archive.
Use duplicates, where available, to supplement parish registers that are missing or illegible. Keep in mind that duplicates often differ slightly from the originals.
Parish register duplicates often differ from the originals in their arrangement. Baptisms, marriages, deaths, and sometimes confirmations for each year are grouped together year by year.
A parish may have kept separate books for affiliated villages, both in the original and as duplicates. Sometimes only part of the record set has survived and is available in an archive or on microfilm. This is especially important to understand in regard to records filmed by the Family History Department. Descriptions in the Family History Library Catalog may only list the name of the parish and thus give the impression that the complete book has been filmed. If the ancestor is not found, the researcher needs to check the film carefully to determine which parts of the church records it contains.
Information Recorded in Church Records
The information recorded in church records varied over time. Later records usually give more complete information than earlier ones. The most important church records for genealogical research are baptism, marriage, and burial registers. Other helpful church records may include confirmation lists, family registers, lists of pastors, lists of members, account books, receipt books, and communion records.
Most Catholic records were written in Latin until the 1800s. Protestant records were usually written in German. Local dialects may have affected the spelling of some names and other words in the church records. In German areas under French domination during the early nineteenth century, many church records were kept in French. Sometimes the records combine two languages.
There was no specific record-keeping style for church records. Early records were usually written in paragraph form. As record keeping improved, columns were often used in the entries. However, some places (especially Catholic parishes) used the paragraph format for a long time.
Some areas, such as Bayern and Preußen, often used preprinted forms that required specific information. This format is usually easier to read because the vital information is in the same place in each entry.
Children were usually baptized a few days after birth. Baptism registers usually give the infant's name, parents' names, status of legitimacy, names of witnesses or godparents, and baptism date. You may also find the child's birth date, the father's occupation, and the family's place of residence. Death information was sometimes added as a note or signified by a cross.
Earlier registers typically gave less information, sometimes including only the child's and father's names and the baptism date. A few records did not even give the child's name. This problem can sometimes be resolved if the godparents are mentioned in the entry. Boys were often named for the godfather and girls for the godmother. Until the end of the 1700s, pastors in some communities did not name the mother in the birth records, or they included only her given name. Sometimes only the baptism date was recorded, but in later years the birth date was given as well.
Because of social conditions in Germany, the birth of illegitimate children was not uncommon. Illegitimacy is usually noted in baptism records, sometimes by a note in the margin or an upside-down entry.
In German, godparents are known as “Taufzeugen”, “Gevattern” or “Paten”, but also have other names such as “Gotte”, “Dete”, “Godel” etc. depending from what area in Germany they are. No matter what their names, godparents have the obligation to accompany the child to the baptism, and to make sure the child is raised in the faith and lives it. Furthermore, the godmother/-father will support the parents morally, i.e. make presents until the child’s confirmation or graduation from school. They would also look after the child in case the parents should die. Godparents can be friends, relatives, neighbors or a person in authority such as the manor lord or his administrator, since it was his role to look after the welfare of his subjects.
To read more about the role and responsibilities of godparents click here
Marriage registers give the marriage date and the names of the bride and groom. The registers may also indicate whether they were single or widowed and give the names of witnesses. Other information about the bride and groom is often included, such as their ages, residences, occupations, birthplaces, and parents' names. In cases of second and subsequent marriages, the registers may include the names of previous partners and their death dates. A note was often made if a parent or other party gave permission for the marriage.
The earliest marriage records may give only the names of the bride and groom and have little or no information about the couple's parents. In some cases, only the names of the bride's parents or the spouses' fathers are recorded. The groom's parents are commonly recorded after 1800. Later marriage records usually give at least the age of the bride and groom. Some even give the couple's birth dates and places.
Couples were often married in the bride's home parish. If there were no marriage restrictions, girls typically married for the first time between ages 18 and 25. Men typically married for the first time in their mid-twenties.
In some areas, such as Hessen-Nassau, Wuerttemberg, and the Kingdom of Bavaria, marriage restrictions were in place by the late 18th century or earlier. These regulations, called "Eheordnungen or Heiratsordnungen" specified who could marry and included specific requirements that had to be met before a couple could be married by the minister. For instance, in 1722 the Duke of Wuerttemberg decreed that the minimum marriage age was 22 for young women and 25 for young men.
Marriage Banns or Proclamations [Aufgebote]
For two or three weeks before the marriage, marriage banns (announcements of the intention to marry) were read and/or posted in church. This gave community members a chance to object to the marriage. Most proclamations took place on consecutive Sundays. If the future spouses were from different parishes, the banns were read in each church. Before the marriage ceremony could take place, the non-local party was required to present the officiating pastor with a paper stating that the proclamations had been read and there were no objections. A note stating that this person had been "dismissed" to marry elsewhere may be found in the marriage register.
The marriage registers of some churches give the dates on which the marriage banns were announced. The marriage banns themselves may exist in a separate record. Some parishes kept the marriage banns and other marriage information instead of marriage registers.
If a couple needed to get married quicky, permission to skip the proclamations could be obtained for a fee. This special permission is called a dispensation. Common reasons for a hasty marriage include pregnancy and imminent emigration.
Formal engagements were often associated with a celebration that required the families to purchase a certain amount of alcoholic beverages from the local pub. This custom was known as the "Weinkauf". Engagement dates may be given in the parish register as " der Weinkauf" or "weinkaeuflich ".
Burials were recorded in the parish where the person was buried. The burial usually took place within a few days of death.
Burial registers give the name of the deceased and the date and place of death or burial. Often the deceased's age, place of residence, and cause of death and the names of survivors are also given. Occasionally the deceased's birth date and place and parents' names are given. However, information about parents, birth dates, and birthplaces may be inaccurate, depending on the informant's knowledge.
If the burial record mentions a sermon, you may be able to find a printed copy at a local library or archive. Funeral sermons often mentioned several generations of ancestors. See Germany Obituaries for more details.
Some areas began recording burials before births and marriages. Other areas recorded baptisms and marriages for several years before beginning to record burials.
Stillbirths were not recorded the same way in all churches. The pastor or priest often determined how to record stillbirths in his parish. In some areas, stillbirths were recorded in birth records. In other areas, stillbirths were recorded in death records. Some parishes listed stillbirths in both birth and death records. You should check both birth and death records if you suspect that a child was stillborn. List of old German causes of death
Protestants were usually confirmed around age 14, Catholics about age 12. Some confirmation registers merely list the names of those being confirmed and the confirmation date. Other confirmation registers give additional information about those being confirmed, including their ages or birth dates, birthplaces, and fathers' names.
Family Registers [Familienbücher]
Some parishes kept family registers that give information about each family group in the parish. Family registers are more common in southern Germany, especially in Württemberg and Baden after 1808. These registers list the names of the husband and wife and their birth dates and places, marriage date and place, parents' names, occupations, and residence. If a second marriage is listed, details about the parents of the new marriage partner are often included.
Children are usually listed in chronological order. Names, birth dates, confirmation dates, marriage dates, and death dates may be listed. In some registers, when a child married and remained in the same parish, the register gives a “see” reference and a page number where that particular child appears as the head of a household.
Some family registers indicate whether the family moved to another village or emigrated to another country.
The information in family registers was compiled from other church books or obtained from the head of the household, and it is subject to error. Whenever possible, you should confirm all information found in family registers with baptism, marriage, and burial records.
Use the following Guides to help locate Family Registers specific to the area where your ancestors lived:
Parish Genealogy [Ortssippenbuch]. Pastors or genealogists sometimes compiled a village lineage book [Ortssippenbuch], which included each family in a parish. For details see Germany Genealogy.
Locating Church Records
Church records were kept in the local parish of the church. The term parish refers to the jurisdiction of a church minister. Parishes are local congregations that may have included many neighboring villages in their boundaries.
To use church records, you must know both your ancestor's religion and the town where he or she lived. You must also determine in which parish the town was located.
Some gazetteers indicate parish jurisdictions. For more information, see Germany Gazetteers and the section below that discusses church record inventories.
A small village that did not have its own church was usually assigned to a parish in a nearby larger town. Consequently, your ancestor may have lived in one village but belonged to a parish in another town. Some parishes had branch churches in neighboring towns. Over time, some villages may have belonged to several parishes as jurisdictions changed. In Schleswig-Holstein, each local district parish office [Kreis Pfarramt] has custody of Protestant records.
The Family History Library Catalog refers to parishes by the town in which the parish church was located, unless there was more than one church in the town. In large cities, there may be many parishes for each religion. Church buildings were often named for saints, so the catalog uses the church name (such as Sankt Pauli Bremen) to distinguish between different parishes in the same city.
Church Record Inventories
Church record inventories are essential tools for finding German records. They identify what records should be available for a specified parish and where to write for information on these records. They list the church records, their location, and the years they cover. Sometimes inventories explain which parishes served which towns at different periods of time. For example, an inventory may state that the village of Schönberg belonged to the parish in Prinzbach before 1696 and to the parish in Schönberg after that date. For more information, see Germany Church Directories.
The following source contains a helpful list of German church record inventories with Family History Library call numbers and English annotations:
Blodgett, Steven W. Germany: Genealogical Research Guide. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1989. (FHL book 943 D27bs; film 1,573,115 item 2; fiche 6,001,630.)
Church record inventories are available for most areas in Germany. They are listed in the Place Search of the Family History Library Catalog under:
- GERMANY - CHURCH RECORDS - INVENTORIES, REGISTERS, CATALOGS
- GERMANY, [STATE] - CHURCH RECORDS - INVENTORIES, REGISTERS, CATALOGS
Church Records on the Internet
The new Kirchenbuchportal (church book portal) has been created by the Association of Church Archives, ecumenical orgnization, to facilitate access to German-language church records. As of July 2010 several archives have posted detailed inventories of the parish registers in their collections. Details about the participating archives, including links to posted inventories, are found here. A database of all inventoried records, arranged by archive, is found here.
As of July 2010 digitized records are not accessible from this site. The immediate goal is to facilitate access to parish registers by making it easier to see which records are available at a given archive and what years they cover. This is accomplished through online inventories and church records database. Longer term, however, the participating archives intend to make digital images of their church records available on the Internet. Access will be fee-based to help defray the cost of the neccessary equipment. A pilot project can be viewed at Matricula.eu, where church books for several Catholic parishes from the Passau, Bavaria area and Evangelical church books from the Gelnhausen, Hessen-Nassau area are already available without charge.
Archiv der Evangelischen Kirche im Rheinland contains information regarding the Lutheran church in Rheinland
Katholische Kirchenarchive in NRW contains information regarding the Catholic church and its records for Rheinland.
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has many German church records on microfilm. Most are from the southwestern states of Germany, including Baden, Westfalen, Rheinland, the Pfalz, Hessen, and Württemberg. The library has fewer church records from the states farther east and north, though this collection continues to grow as new records are microfilmed.
The Family History Library has mostly pre-1875 church records. Use the catalog to determine whether the library has records for the place your ancestor came from. The library does not have records that were not available in the archive at the time of microfilming, were not microfilmed, or were restricted from public access by the laws of the country.
On FamilySearch™ at www.familysearch.org , search for the name of the town where the parish was located (not necessarily the town where your ancestor lived).
Locating Records Not at the Family History Library
If the records you need are not at the Family History Library, you may find baptism, marriage, and burial records by contacting or visiting German parishes or archives.
Germany has no single repository of church records. The present location of a church record depends on several factors, including national borders, religion, and local history. Records may be located in one or more or the following places:
- Local parishes. Most church registers are still maintained by the parish. You might obtain information by writing to the parish. Parish employees will usually answer correspondence written in German. Your request may be forwarded if the records have been sent to a central repository.
- State archives. Duplicate records from some parishes are in the state archives. Many of these records have been microfilmed and are available at the Family History Library. However, for records that are not microfilmed, you can sometimes write to the state archives to request searches of the duplicates. For more information, see Germany Archives and Libraries.
- Central church archives. In a few parts of Germany, church records or duplicates have been gathered from the local parishes into central archives. Some gaps in the church records of local parishes could be filled using these records. Church archives are often unable to handle genealogical requests, but they can determine whether they have specific records you need, or they may recommend a researcher who can search the records for you.
Suggestions about how to write to local parishes for genealogical information are given in the Family History Library publication German Letter-Writing Guide. The postal code book is cited in Germany Gazetteers.
If your request is unsuccessful, search for duplicate records that may have been filed in other archives, church registers, or in civil registration offices.
Effective use of church records includes the following strategies:
- Search for the relative or ancestor. When you find his or her birth record, search for the births of brothers and sisters.
- Next search for the parents' marriage date and place. The marriage record will often lead to the parents' birth records.
- You can estimate the ages of the parents and search for their birth records. If more than one possible candidate is found, search confirmation, marriage, and burial records to determine the correct individual. If available, census-type records or family books can be used as well.
- Try to find the parents death/burial entries, since these records may give their age at death.
- Use the above strategies for both the father and the mother.
- If earlier generations are not in the record you are using, search neighboring parishes and other denominations.
- Search the burial registers for all family members.
Using "Left side-right side" films
A Family History Library Catalog entry may indicate that a German record was filmed "l.s.-r.s.", meaning "left-side- right side". This method was used in the early days of microfilming to speed up the process. It means that the left- and right sides of an open book were filmed separately. Sometimes all the left-hand pages are followed by the right-hand pages in reverse order or vice versa. These were done during the Nazi regime when they collected the books and filmed this way with an objective of creating book copy of original books.
Sometimes each side of a book is found on a separate microfilm. In that case, it may be helpful to load both films on adjacent readers. More often, however, both sides are on the same roll of microfilm. Each page is clearly marked with a page number and the designation 'links' [left] or "rechts' [right] above the picture.
When the entries on each page are self-contained, searching them is not that difficult. However, the researcher must be aware that two sets of records [odd and even pages] must be searched. If the entries go across both pages in the book, the side that identifies the key individuals [such as child and parents] must be searched first. Often the child and parents are listed on the left side of the page, and the year and birth/baptism date on the right. Thus it is very important to note the sheet numbers on the tag and identify the relevant entry with its position on the page [for example:third entry from the bottom up]. Also note any other clues that can help you positively identify the correct other half of the entry.
Wiki articles describing online collections are found at:
- Germany, Baden Church Book Duplicates (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Brandenburg and Posen Church Book Duplicates (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Brandenburg, Angermunde, Miscellaneous City Records, 1706-1922 (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Brandenburg, Heegermuhle Church Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Ludwigshafen Church Family Registers Extraction (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Bavarian Archive Miscellaneous Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany Bavaria, Nordlingen Miscellaneous City Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Bavaria, Mindelheim Miscellaneous City Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Bavaria, Neumarkt Miacellaneous City Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Bavaria, Passau, Miscellaneous City Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany Church Book Duplicates and Indexes (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Pomerania Church Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Rhineland-Palatinate Church Record Extractions and Family Registers (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Saxony, Bautzen Lutheran Church Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Saxony, Dresden Miscellaneous City Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Germany, Saxony, Meissen, Miscerllaneous City Records (FamilySearch Histoical Records)
- Germany, Wurttemberg, Albstadt Miscellaneous City Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)
- Switzerland Church Book Extracts (FamilySearch Historical Records)