The oldest instructions to keep written records about sacraments stem from the midth of the 14th century. However there was no set form about details yet. The oldest known church registers in German speaking Europe were begun in 1490.
But registers seem to have had a hard time to make their way into each and every parish. More than half a century later, in 1563, the Council of Trent officially decreed to keep registers of marriages and – as a result – of baptisms as well.
And yet it still took another half a century (1614) until official – yet not obligatory – forms for baptism, marriage and burial registers were introduced. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) got in the way as well. Therefore the majority of church registers stems from the time after that.
Priests often also kept those records as official non-clerical records for their particular sovereign for administrational purposes. At that time church registers were the only official source for personal data.
When things changed
During the French period (1794-1815) the French introduced the “code civil des Français”, part of the “Code Napoleon“, in the European areas they conquered. They influenced most of the European civil codes in the following decades and introduced civil registers for birth, marriage and death.
From 1871 until 1876 the German Empire developed and introduced a universal system of registration based on the French Code Civil which replaced the parish registers as official records. Religious ceremonies still took place of course but stopped having legal effects. While civil marriages were a compulsory pre-condition for a church wedding until 2008, church marriages nowadays don’t have any legal binding at all.
Consequences for genealogy
Until the introduction of the French civil registers the parish records for baptisms, marriages and burials were the only official records available. Even though they actually documented church rites, they had a binding effect for many aspects of social life.
Just two examples: Before the wedding bride and groom had to bring proof of their (infant) baptism. Medieval guilds usually demanded a proof from a future member that he was of legal birth and not an illegitimate child.
In the first decades those parish records didn’t even contain a lot of details. An entry in a baptism register would contain the father’s full name, the child’s given name and the godfather’s or godmother’s name as well as the date of baptism.
Often there was no mention of the mother’s name at all, because she probably was not present due to childbed. The place of birth or the family’s domicile rarely appeared in the documents since they weren’t relevant for the baptism. Neither were bride’s and groom’s birthdates or parents’ names mentioned in a marriage entry. Researching those times is more tedious than in more recent centuries.
Over time the records became more detailled. Date and place of birth became part of the baptism entries. Witnesses’ names now often included their domicile, profession or relationship to the baptized child or the married couple. Burial records now had the names of surviving spouses or children that were left behind. All this makes searching for a certain person much easier.
When the French introduced the civil registers in Germany, those contained the official dates for birth and death which until then were just a side info in the church registers.
Current German church registers
- If you are looking for church archives you’ll have to search on the websites of the catholic church archives (usually the archiepiscopal archive / “Diözesanarchive”) and the protestant church archives in Germany.
- Contact them and ask about your desired church registers. At least the archivists should know whether that book still exists at all, and if yes where you can view it. They can also tell you where you can find possible church register copies if there are any.
- Keep in mind that there are blocking periods for church registers, similar to those for civil registers and other official documents.
- If you don’t choose the economic option of emailing the archives but opt to give them a call instead, don’t forget to replace the phone number’s leading zero with the international area code for Germany.
- Some of those archives allow you to work with the original church registers, others only provide copies, some offer both options.
The “Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland” (abbr. EKD, evangelical church) in Germany nowadays consists of formerly independant “Lutheraner”, “Reformierte/Calvinisten” as well as their united forms. Their website offers an interactive map as well as a search box to find the most current contact information for each of its sections.
In 2013 the EKD together with eleven regional evangelical churches decided to make church registers and other related resources available online through the paid service platform “Archion“. This website is available in German and English.
Archion does not yet cover the whole of Germany and is still a work in progress but already offers hundreds of digitized church books. Those aren’t indexed so you will have to search yourself 😉 More fun for you!
The “Katholische Kirche” (catholic church) in Germany is organized in “Erzbistümer” (archdioceses), led by an “Erzbischof” (arch bishop), and “Bistümer” (dioceses), led by a “Bischof” (bishop). The local unit is a “Pfarre” or “Pfarrei” (parish), usually led by a “Pfarrer” or “Pastor”.
The church registers are either still in the local parishes or in the appropriate diocese’s archive. You’ll find the archives’ most current contact information with the help of the map of catholic church archives.
Some of the dioceses’ archives already have digitized their church registers, other archives still are in the digitizing process. The archives will let you know whether you’ll be able to work with the original church books or with microfilmed/digitized copies.
Time will tell if, when and how those digitized copies of catholic church books will become available online. Maybe that will be similar to the evangelical church book portal Archion. We’ll see…
Visiting German archives
- If you plan to visit German archives you ought to make an appointment with the respective archive to book a reading desk well in advance! Otherwise you run the risk of being rejected and losing precious time! Only very few archives have sufficient reading desks or staff members to provide help and advice for unanticipated guests!
- It is possible that your desired documents and/or books aren’t available in the particular archive, due to various reasons. Church registers might be still in the parish or documents are in high need for restauration resp. in a current digitization process for example. If the documents or books have been microfilmed or digitized already and the archive has microfilm readers or computers you will then probably get access to the copies.
- Check with the archive whether they’ll hand you the originals or the copies. If it’s the latter you might have online access to those from the States as well. Contact the archive before your visit and ask about this possibility.
Which sources did use so far to locate the whereabouts of church registers? Do you have any helpful tips for your fellow researchers?