Church Books and Their Significance for 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.

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.

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.

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 a free text or place search with a structured search in the archive lists. A list of all archive materials published on the church book portal is available here.

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.