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About Church Records
The best source I have found for genealogical information and family research in Germany is the church records. Church records, or Kirchenbücher, are particularly valuable because the civil authorities did not begin registering births, marriages, and deaths until the late 1800s. Parish records contain births, baptisms, marriages, confirmations and deaths generally recorded at the time of the event.
In 1602 the Evangelical Lutheran Church issued a proclamation requiring every parish to maintain a church book. Prior to that proclamation only a very few churches kept records. At first the proclamation only required churches to keep baptisms, marriages, and confessions. Later the proclamation was revised to include death registers and confirmations. Unfortunately, a great number of the early church records were destroyed in wars or fires. In the early 1700's some churches began making copies of their church books because they were worried about this destruction. Later, these copies were placed in central locations and during World War II., they were moved for safe-keeping.
CONDITION OF THE RECORDS: As you will see in the examples below, interpreting these old church records can be extremely difficult. Not only are you dealing with a foreign language, but an old form of handwriting, unfamiliar abbreviations, ink blots, water stains, faded print, missing years, and numerous other challenges. But if with dilligence, one can glean an enormous amount of information from them.
BIRTH AND BAPTISMAL RECORDS (Geburt und Taufe): Children were usually baptized within a few days of birth. The pastor recorded the birth and christening dates, the child's name, the names of the parents, and the names of the godparents. Prior to the late 1700s, many pastors did not record the name of the mother. (View an example)
ILLEGITIMATE BIRTHS (Unehelich): Originally, when a child was born out of wedlock, it would receive the surname of the father if the father was known. In Mecklenburg-Schwerin after 1838, by law, an illegitimate child received the surname of the mother if the birth was not followed by the marriage of the parents. The name of the child was recorded as "angeblich" (alleged) in the church books, if relying on the mother's word. Even if the parents eventually married, the child would still be listed with the mother's surname in most cases because the pastor usually did not go back and change the birth record. In general, the name of the father was recorded up to the year 1860 after which the practice gradually came to a stop. (View an example)
STILLBIRTHS (Totgeboren): were not recorded the same way in all churches. The pastor or priest often decided how to record stillbirths in his parish. In some areas, stillbirths were recorded in birth records. In other areas, stillbirths were recorded in death records. Some parishes listed stillbirths in both birth and death records. One should check both birth and death records if you suspect that a child was stillborn.
MARRIAGES [Heiraten or Copulirte]: Marriage registers give the marriage date and the names of the bride and groom. The registers may also indicate whether they were single or widowed and give the names of witnesses. Other information about the bride and groom is often included, such as their ages, residences, occupations, birthplaces, and parents' names. In cases of second and subsequent marriages, the registers may include the names of previous partners and their death dates. A note was often made if a parent or other party gave permission for the marriage.
The earliest marriage records may give only the names of the bride and groom and have little or no information about the couple's parents. In some cases, only the names of the bride's parents are recorded. The groom's parents are commonly recorded after 1800. Later marriage records usually give at least the age of the bride and groom. Some even give the couple's birth dates and places.
Couples were often married in the bride's home parish. Typically, girls married for the first time between ages 18 and 25. Men typically married for the first time in their mid-twenties. (View an example)
MARRIAGE BANNS [Aufgebote], from an Old English word meaning "to summon", are the public announcements that a marriage was going to take place and community members were given a chance to object. For three weeks before the marriage the announcements were read or posted in church. In modern times, we still ask the question "If anyone knows of any reason why this couple should not be joined in marriage let him speak now or forever hold his peace?" but only at the wedding. The parish records included a column titled Sonntage der Proklamatien oder Datum der Dispensation (Sundays of Proclamation or Date of Dispensation) listing the three dates on which the marriage banns were announced.
Closely related, underage and widowed people required special permission to marry [dispensation]. Widowed people were required to undergo a year-long mourning period. This was shortened in times of war when there was a shortage of available men. If a close relationship was discovered after marriage, a rehabilitation was required which granted the couple permission to stay married. These were recorded like a marriage but sometimes twenty or thirty years after a marriage. Sometimes a chart showing the relationship can be found in the parish registers.
DEATH RECORDS (Gestorbene): Burials were recorded in the parish where the person was buried. The burial usually took place within a few days of death. Burial registers give the name of the place and the date and place of death or burial. Often the deceased's age, place of residence, and cause of death and the names of survivors are given. Occasionally the deceased's birth date and place and parents' names are given. However, information about parents, birth dates, and birthplaces may be inaccurate, depending on the informant's knowledge. (View an example)
CONFIRMATION RECORDS (Konfirmation): Children were confirmed at the age of 14. This was always done on Palm Sunday. Church records listed the child’s name, birth date and place, and sometimes the child’s father. (View an example)