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The original word in Swedish for parish was socken but in later times the word församling came into use. The socken is a geographical area with fixed boundaries and responsibility for all the people living within the parish. The parish was the basic unit for record keeping of vital information (birth, marriages, and deaths) for the people of Sweden until 1991. At this time the responsibility was transferred to a civil authority. Knowing what parish your ancestor lived in is vital to your Swedish family history research.
The parishes were formed in early medieval times when people would come together to build a church in a certain area. Many of these medieval parishes with their medieval churches still exist in the oldest populated areas of Sweden. As forests were cleared, new land cultivated, and population grew, new parishes were created or old ones divided. When a place grew to become a bigger town the work load for the minister increased necessitating a division of the parish. In rural areas the minister would keep track of the residents of the parish by organizing the parish into villages (by) and/or farms (gård or hemman). Each village and farm had a name and sometimes also a number (especially in the southern Sweden). In northern Sweden, parishes were larger geographically than in the south where there was a higher population density.
The boundaries for the parishes were mostly set (especially in the southern part of Sweden) before the era of recorded history began. Many have remained virtually unchanged until 1952. At this time in the interest of government efficiency, a uniting of certain small civil parishes (kommun) took place. The ecclesiastical parishes (socken, or församling) were left unchanged.
At the end of the nineteenth century there were about 2,000 parishes in Sweden with the majority of the population living in rural parishes. The clergy of the rural parishes played a major role in the lives of their parishioners. They knew those living in their parish, officiated in major life events (christenings, marriages, and burials), kept a record of these events, taught them the word of God, and each year held the household examination with them. When a person wanted to move from a parish, he was supposed to obtain a moving certificate from his minister before leaving the parish. After arriving at the new parish, the person would give the moving certificate to the local minister.
Cities and towns had their own parishes. Small towns would have one parish for the community. Larger cities would have multiple parishes within the same city. With urbanization the number and size of city parishes grew. The clergy in the city had difficulty keeping track of all those living within their boundaries and were unable to maintain a close relationship with all their parishioners. In the city some ethnic groups formed their own parish (congregation) such as the German merchants in Stockholm. Military garrisons in some cities had their own parish. Depending on the city, sometimes there is a main parish for the residents of a city (stadsförsamling) with a “rural” parish (landsförsamling) for the residents living in rural areas around the city.
Kommun and församling
In 1862 the old “socken” was turned into two separate entities – one civil and the other ecclesiastical. The church community was known as the “församling” and the civil jurisdiction or rural municipality was known as “kommun or landskommun”. During the twentieth century a merging of the original 2,000 municipalities (plus towns and cities) into larger local units has taken place. Typically several old parishes were combined so that today there are 289 municipalities. The population of a municipality can vary from around 5,000 to 100,000 or more. Today most people identify themselves as living in a kommun but those living in the country still use the parish in which they reside.
Officials of the Parish
Clergy in the Parish:
- Präst, Prost, Kyrkoherde: minister and was the main official in the parish.
- Komminister: curate, an assistant to the minister
- Kaplan, cappelan: Chaplain, an assistant to the minister.
Offices held by laity:
- Klockare: the parish clerk. He assisted in the actual keeping of the records, rang the bell(s) in the steeple, and assisted in teaching the three R’s to the children.
- Kyrkovärd: The church warden. He took care of the property of the church. Every parish had two church wardens. They took up collection for the maintenance of the church and headed the responsibility of caring for the poor. They assisted with other duties such as carrying the wafers and wine to communion. They were considered men of trust and confidence, as they handled the money and had to give an account of it.
- Kyrkoföreståndare: the church warden in a city (see Kyrkovärd for their duties).
- Sexman: The prefect or monitor. He was in charge of church displine. He had several civil and ecclesiastical tasks to perform. He was a witness when the inventory of the church property was taken. He assisted nobility, the clergy and church warden with the maintenance of the infirm in the parish. He (along with the clergy and the most prominent people in the parish) had the right to sentence offenders to sit in stock. If needed he assisted the sheriff in putting the offender in the stock. He collected the fine charged by the minister to those who held weddings and other family feasts more than two days. He and the minister investigated mothers who accidently suffocated their infants in bed. Often he sat in the balcony or organ loft of the church to keep track of the youth during Sunday services. He was the doorkeeper at the church and prevented the people from leaving out of order. He collected fines from those who didn’t keep their part of the cemetery wall in good order, from those who rang the church bells carelessly, and from those who mistreated paupers. He collected fees for wills and biercloth.
- Rotemästare: the ward master: He mainly collected tithing within the parish. He performed some of the duties of listed for the perfect (sexman) but the offices were kept apart.
- Sometimes adjoining parishes were linked together as mother parish (moderförsamling) and annex parish or parishes (annexförsamling). The vicar or minister (kyrkoherde) lived in the mother parish and there might be a chaplain (komminister) in the annex parish. The church records of the mother parish and its annex parish/parishes were often kept in common with separate sections for the different parishes. If you don't find a birth, marriage, or death entry in the records of a mother parish, check the records of the annex parish.
For a list of the parishes of Sweden see:
- Johansson, Carl-Erik. Cradled In Sweden (Revised Edition). The Everton Publishers, inc. Logan, Uah. 1995.
- Clemensson, Per & Andersson, Kjell. Your Swedish Roots – A Step by Step Handbook. Ancestry, Provo, Utah. 2004.
- Socken i Sverige, Swedish Wikipedia 2009. http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socken_i_Sverige.