Sweden: The Parish (Socken)

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The original word in Swedish for parish was socken. The socken had fixed boundaries and included all the people living within the boundaries and had both civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction for that area. The parish was the basic unit for record keeping of the vital statistics in Sweden until 1991 when this responsibility was transferred to a civil authority. Each parish was subdivided 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).

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 the northern part of 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 (församling) were left unchanged.
At the end of the nineteenth century there were around 2,000 parishes in Sweden and a majority of the population lived in countryside parishes. The parish clergy of the countryside parishes played a major role in the lives of their parishioners. They knew those living in their parish, officiated in major life events (ordinances), kept a record of their ordinances, taught them the word of God, and yearly held the household examination with them. When a person desired to move he obtained a certificate from his minister and then as he moved into the new parish, the new minister was the first person to whom he reported.

Cities and towns had their own parishes. Small towns would have only one parish but larger cities would have multiple parishes. 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) as German merchants in Stockholm. Military garrisons in some cities had their own parish.

In some cities the people farming the countryside around the city had their own parish (landsförsamling) and the burgers, merchants, artisans, and others living in the city had their own parish (stadsförsamling).
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.

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 ecclesiastical parish

In 1686 Sweden passed a law stating that the parish clergy were to keep a record of the ordinances they performed. This was the beginning of vital records in Sweden although some ministers had already begun keeping records prior to 1686. After more than 300 years of recording by the clergy for the State, this was changed 1 July 1991. The Riksskatteverket (Internal Revenue Service) was given the responsibility at this time. The clergy still keep a record of the ordinances they perform in their 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 perfect 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.

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 – Wikipedia. http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socken_i_Sverige