Church Books and their Significance for Family Research

Source genre church book

Church books are the most important source of information for researching one's own family history. Learn more about this source.

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German script

Since church records are written in old German script, you will find some information about paleography on this page.

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Reading exercises

Would you like to practice? For this you will find below four reading exercises from different centuries.

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Church books - the handwritten sources of family research

Church books are written documents of all official acts such as baptisms, marriages and funerals in the respective parish. Until today, they constitute a significant type of historical sources, as apart from their primary contents they provide valuable information on demography, social history and further historically and politically relevant events. For genealogists they are the most important source.


An important source

Why are church books so valuable?

Up to the foundation of the German empire and the official introduction of registry offices in 1876, a uniform and nationwide registration of the population by the state had not been in effect. Over centuries, churches recorded the life events of families - such as births, baptisms, marriages and deaths - in their documents. And that frequently in great detail. As church books included both church members and all residents within a certain parish, they are now considered as invaluable assets for genealogical research. As central data collections, these church registers not only provide an almost comprehensive overview of the most important life data of individuals but also contain further relevant information such as profession, social status, or special merits.
Quite frequently, the findings to be found in church books are the only data that have been handed down from the lives of a great multitude of people.


From then to now

The genre church books - a historic digression

In Germany, the oldest known church book date back to the 15th century. Then as now, they have been categorized as baptism, marriage, and death registers. However, the engagement books (proclamations), communicant and soul registers (later: family registers) that were also kept in former times are no longer common these days. It was the purpose of the registers to record the life events of every single church member. This fell into the remit of the respective parish priest. At times, the inception of the recordings or the completeness of the church books vary strongly from region to region. The local historical developments play a major role in this respect.
In the middle of the 18th century, church records also gained importance for the state as public civil status documents. The respective data were gathered for registration, military, financial, medical, and statistical purposes. After 1876, church records were exclusively used for the church administration and the pastoral accompaniment of parish members. Even today, the parishes keep baptism, marriage, and death registers.
In the past two decades and within the context of digitization, catholic and protestant churches in Germany have begun to convert the occasionally more than 400-year-old books into digital formats in order to archive their valuable contents and secure them for future generations.


What else you should know

Important notes for the general handling of church books

For the research in church books, it is essential to know the place where the person sought lived (or died). In this way, it is possible to seek out the respective church parish and identify the proper church book. Each protestant regional church resp. catholic diocese keeps its own central church archive. If the desired church books are not yet digitally available, researchers may contact the competent archive.
Church books are written in old-German script. To read and understand the older hand-written sources it is thus important to acquire the necessary paleographic knowledge.


Genealogy made easy

Church books with ARCHION

In order to allow for a targeted search of information and data in church books, it is necessary to know the place of birth and death of the sought relative. Via search function you can check whether church books of the respective place of origin are already digitally available on the portal. In this case, registered users with an active access pass can consult the records. Alternatively, researchers may approach the competent archive as the contact data will be on file.

On ARCHION, the church books and materials are sorted according to the respective federal states and responsible church administration areas. For the search based on church books it is recommended to combine the "Location Search" with a structured search under "All Archives".

  1. Useful Tips

    When dealing with the different types of registers, it may help to know procedures in the church routines of the past. The oldest baptism registers often recorded the day of baptism rather than the day of birth. In marriage registers, the oldest church book entries often just include the dates of the (first) marriage announcement made in the church service, also called proclamation, or notice of intended marriage. This date is not the day of the actual marriage (copulatio) that usually took place no sooner than three weeks upon expiry of the notice, i.e. three Sundays later. With respect to death registers it should also be noted that the dates often refer to the funeral rather than the actual death.

Old-German script

Church books are written in old-German script. This represents an initial hurdle for those who want to read them, but with practice one can make rapid progress. Here you can find general information about old German script, and the alphabet table and our reading exercises can provide you with an initial look at the form of writing itself.


German script

Gothic script

Starting the 16th century, old-German script could be found in two forms: the more regularly shaped, squat, and “subdued” ‘chancellery script’ (Kanzleischrift), and the more fluid, sweeping Kurrent script, which was based on gothic cursive (kurrent = rapid, flowing).

After the turn of the 16th century, the common script (Kurrent script) became more differentiated over time. Depending on the intended application, the following forms were developed: calligraphic scripts for official documents (e.g. certificates, rescripts, documents for third parties), more informal script forms for every day working documents (reports, protocols, transcripts, invoices), and extremely informal  draft notes and handwriting used for personal and private purposes.

Church books also contain a mixture of Latin script forms and Gothic cursive: Latin and French words were written in Latin style (Antiqua cursive); Names were written in a stressed (display) script, in which upper and lower case characters cannot be distinguished from one another.

In the 17th century, swashes, squiggles, arches, and trunk-like flourishes began to appear on capital letters and on the v and the w, promoted above all by the use of goose quills as writing tools. In the 18th century, the letters began to be connected more closely together than in the 17th century, and they were often written slanted at an angle to the right.

The writing chart and the reading exercises below will give you a first insight into the German script.


Please pay attention to the following differences to today’s spelling:

  • ck instead of –k: kranckheit instead of Krankheit (also note the lack of an upper case letter at the beginning of the word!)
  • A double consonant instead of a single consonant: auff instead of auf
  • Irregular use of upper and lower case letters throughout the same text
  • Upper case letters in the middle of a word: StattKirche instead of Stadtkirche
  • The use of hyphens: Löchels-gaß instead of Löchelsgaß


Many linguistic phrases from earlier centuries may not make sense at first. Latin phrases were also often used. In such cases, specialized dictionaries (such as Grimm’s German Dictionary and regional dialect dictionaries) can help you understand the text. Some words also had different meanings in the past. The length of some of the sentences in the church books may also seem confusing today, and the structure of a sentence may not make any sense at first glance. Many abbreviations are also to be expected, and special manuals are indispensable in resolving them.


Kirchenbuch Nr. 6 Trippstadt (Pfalz), 1831

Reading exercise 1

01         Pro Memoria
02 Am 8. Jänner laufenden Jahres sahe man hier, von Abends 7 Uhr an ein, in
03 diesen Gegenden nicht nur äußerst ungewöhnliches und seltenes, sondern auch
04 ein ungemein starkes und prächtiges Nordlicht, das erst gegen zwölf
05 Uhr des Nachts sich am nördlichen Horizont in schwachen Schimmern
06 endigte. Der Aberglaube ermangelte nicht, dieses Nordlicht als
07 Vorbote grausenhafter Weltgeschicke zu verschreyen, und dessen glühende
08 feyerliche Pracht als den ersten Widerschein des baldigen Blutvergießens
09 zu deuten!

10 Am 7. Mai fiel außergewöhnlich, nachdem es einige Tage vorher
11 empfindlich kalt gewesen, ein großer Schnee! Die Flocken fielen
12 in der Größe einer Kinderhand, und der zugleich wehende Westwind
13 vermochte nicht, den gefallenen Schnee aufzulösen, so dicht und
14 gedrängt stürzte er sich herab. Doch scheint es dem in Ähren aufschießenden
15 Korne nicht geschadet zu haben.

Kirchenbuch Nr. 1 Albisheim (Pfalz), 1720

Reading exercise 2

01 ANNO 1720.
02 Den 1sten Martii des Nachts gegen 9 vnd 10 Uhren ist durch
03 Verführung des Gottlosen vnd Versoffenen Schneiders Johann Adam
04 Stielgebaures1, Engelberth Ermerth2, welchen der heillose3 Mann mitt sich nach Marnheim ge-
05 locket, vnd Ihn im stockfinstern Verlaßen, im Heimgehen bey dem
06 Hauer Hoff in den Neugemachten Graben unter dem waßer ge-
07 wehr gestürtzt vnd ohne einiges Menschen wißen vnd Hülffe erbärm-
08 lich ertrunck[en] vnd ist dieser elendig ertruncken.
09 Engelberth Ermerth, des Gerichts, vnd ein gegen iederman ehrlich vnd gutthä-
10 tiger Mann4, mitt Christlichen ceremonien5, ge-
11 sang vnd Klang auch Leichenpredigt über den text Eccl[esiasticus]6 9. V[ers] 12
12 begraben worden, den 4[ten] gedachten Monaths Martii.



Anm.: Groß- und Kleinschreibung uneindeutig; v wird fast regelmäßig im Anlaut für u verwendet.

1 Schreibung uneindeutig, evtl. auch Stielgebauers.
2 Name am Rand nachgetragen.
3 Über der Zeile nachgetragen.
3 Folgt Streichung: Vnd ist den4[ten] ej[us]dem.
Endung analog zu vergleichbarem Eintrag auf dieser Seite ergänzt.
5 =Sirach: „Hab keinen Gefallen am Erfolg der Frevler; bedenke, dass sie bis in den Tod nicht gerecht gesprochen werden.“

Taufbuch Band 1 Niederkirchen (Pfalz), 1684

Reading exercise 3

01                         Anno 1684


02    Hannß   Adam. Hanß Adam Baltheß Vndt Margretham
03                seiner Ehlichen Haußfrawen, Söhnlein Zum Hoff
04                ist den 1. tag Jannuary S[tilo] N[ovo] 1684 getaufft.
05                Tauff Zeugen seindt geweßen, Hanß Adam Seyler, Hanß Jac[ob]
06                Seyler des gericht schöffen Ehlicher Ehlicher Sohn Vom Sohl.
07                Vndt Hanß Müller. It[em] Jacob Kellers Ehliche Haußfraw
08                Agnes, bede Vom Hoff.

09 Elisabetha Catherina, Hanß Adam Müller von Leyterschweyler
10                vnd Catharina, seiner eh[lichen] Haußfrawe[n] eh[liche] tochter ist
11                Zu Leyterschweyler, den 3./13.t[en] Hornung 1684, ge-
12                taufft worden, tauffZeugen seyn gewesen Peter Gerett
13                von Leyterschweyler, vndt Elisabetha Hanß Lawr
14                Zu Leyterschweyler eh[liche] tochter Catherina, Hanß Müller
15                von Leyterschweyler eh[liche] tochter.

Ehebuch Band 70 Ulm (Württemberg), 1561

Reading exercise 4


                          01       1  5  6 1
                          02       Jenner
                          03      Am anndern Sontag
Der Hoch=        04      nach Epiphaniæ
 zeyter               05       domini
                          06       welcher gewesen ist den 19. Tag Jenners


                         07 Ist zum ersten mhal verkündiget wordenn der ersam vnnd
                         08 wolgelert Michael Herman, des erbarn Michael Hermans
Michael Her=  09 zu Memmingenn ehelicher Son, vnnd Jungfraw Concordia
     man            10 Drießlerin, des würdigen vnnd wolgelerten Herrn Wendelin
        9              11 Drießlins eheliche Tochter.
                        12 Dise sinndt nach Ordnung drey Sontag verkündiget vnnd
                        13 den 5. Tag Hornungs zu Kirchen gangen vnnd von M[agister] Caspar
                        14 Kirchner eingesegnet wordenn.

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