Church books

Church books – designated in official language as directories of official acts – are books in which official administrative acts of the church are recorded. Other commonly known records, such as baptism, confirmation, marriage, and death records are also still kept by individual parishes.  Family registers that emerged in southwest Germany in the 19th century are also commonly referred to as church books, even if these did not count as records of official church activities.

 

Other types of church books that are not commonly in use today include engagement books (proclamations), communicant registries, which recorded those who took communion, as well as ‘lists of souls’, which were precursors to family registers that began to be kept in the middle of the 18th century.

Rules mandating the recording of baptisms, marriages, and deaths were issued in Germany in the second half of the 16th century, and government interest in church books began to emerge in the second half of the 18th century. For the state, these church books were considered official records for civil status cases (public documents indicating civil status). They were used for issues such as resident registration, military, financial, and health services, or for statistical purposes. In 1876, the Personal Statute Act was passed in Germany, introducing civil records requirements across the country. After that point, church books began losing their relevance for the government, and were (again) used only for the purposes of church administration and pastoral care of congregation members.

Church books were normally divided into three categories based on their content: baptism records, marriage records, and death registers. These books were usually kept parallel to one another, and in the beginning the records were kept together in so-called ‘mixed books’. The records were normally recorded by the pastors or the deacons themselves.

Entries were made in chronological order. Some registries were organized schematically from the very beginning, which made them more organized and easier to review. Baptism records recorded the name of the child, the names of the parents, normally the name of the godparents (Gevattern), and the date of baptism. Marriages were recorded with the names of the couple, their fathers, the places each spouse was from, and the date of the wedding. Finally, death registries recorded the name of the deceased and the day of their burial, and often also recorded their age at the time of death and the cause of death.

When church records began to be kept, women were often only recorded with their first name and not with their maiden names. For a long period of time, they only recorded the date of baptism and not the date of birth.

Church books represent important historical resources (e.g. for historical demographic studies, social history) and the most important genealogical sources because they served both as records of official acts and as civil registries until the introduction of official state records in the 1870s.