The third session of my Newberry class “Discover Your German Ancestors’ Origins,” focused on finding German church records. Why are church records so important, you might ask? Church records are the main category of records that document our German ancestors’ vital events. Depending on the specific town, these records may date to the 1500s. Civil registration was not enacted in German areas until 1876 (October 1874 for Prussia). Exceptions to this statement are areas that were under Napoleon control in the early 1800s. Civil registration was enacted in those areas and some did continue the practice. Church records are a source that covered all areas, in theory.
So how do you find them? My last blog post talked about identifying jurisdictions, including the town where the church would be located. Small towns often didn’t have a church. Residents had to travel to a nearby village. The search for church records may begin once the town for the church is known.
Family History Library (FHL) – Catalog
The FHL has amassed a large collection of church records for German areas. These may be indexed and/or digitized. Records available on microfilm only are gradually going online. Their website, FamilySearch, should be the first place to look.
Two types of searches can be conducted. First use the FHL catalog. Above the “Place” field is a link for “Keyword.” Click that link and enter the name of the town where the church is located. If it is a common name, use the “Place” search, which will help narrow by the correct jurisdictions.
If there is a category labeled “Church Records,” click on it. It will expand to show details. Click on the desired link from there.
Be sure to look for the correct religious denomination (Katholisch = Catholic; Evangelisch = Lutheran). The resulting screen will show exactly what records are available and in what format. You may notice these are all described in German. Use the German Genealogical Word List on the FamilySearch Wiki for help.
The camera with a key over the top means that the records are digitized online, but only available from an authorized facility, such as the Family History Library, a Family History Center, or an affiliate library. If there is just a camera with no key you may access that from home. A magnifying glass indicates records are indexed and searchable. An image of a reel means that the records are only accessible on microfilm at FHL.
Family History Library (FHL) – Records Online
A second way to search for German records is to browse indexed and digitized records. From the main FamilySearch page, select “Records.”
- Click on Europe on the map on the right-hand side of the page.
- Choose Germany from the pop-up window.
Ignore the search fields at the top of the resulting page. Click on the link “Show all xx Collections.”
In the resulting list, see if there are records that pertain to your area of research. Also, scroll past that listing and below there is a category “Germany Image Only Records.” These records are not indexed and are not included in any searches that you would conduct. Reviewing these collections is like looking at microfilmed records. Except you’ll be at home in your jammies doing it!
If your ancestors were Lutheran, Archion is a growing collection that needs to be considered. This is a subscription-based website. Images of church records are available to subscribers and are not indexed. Knowing the name of the town for the church, you search for that town name. Choose the town, the records may be accessed from there. This experience will be like viewing microfilmed records.
Archion also has some Mennonite and civil registration records. There are no Catholic records on this website.
Ancestry has some church records available to subscribers. The most notable database is “German, Lutheran Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, 1500–1971.” To see what specific databases are available for Germany, choose “Search” > “All Collections.” Then scroll down past the search fields. (Can you tell there’s a theme with search fields?) Look for the map. Click on “Europe” > “Germany.” The category “Germany Birth, Marriage & Death” is where church records will be found. Be sure to click the link at the bottom of this category, “View All Germany Birth, Marriage, and Death…” These collections are searchable. Some of them are browsable. Look for this on the right side:
From the main page for Germany databases, on the right side there is an option to narrow by state. Check the modern German state for your town to see if other records are categorized at that level. Databases that pertain only to a certain state will not appear at the Germany level.
Other Online Collections
Some other resources for finding church records online include:
- Matricula Online currently has Catholic and Lutheran parish records for parts of Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Poland, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
- Verein für Computergenealogie – This society maintains a list of church records that are online.
- CyndisList – Search Cyndi’s German category for online church records.
With any online option, check back frequently, as new content may be added.
Church Records in Archives
If you cannot find your church records online, that does not mean they don’t exist. They may be sitting in an archive in Germany. Check the church and state archives related to the town in question. Search for the words Kirchenbuch or Kirchenbücher. Consider contacting the church in the town, if it still exists.
Some websites for locating religious archives include:
- For locating Catholic records, start here: http://wiki-de.genealogy.net/Katholische_Kirche_in_Deutschland
- For locating Lutheran records, start here: http://wiki-de.genealogy.net/Evangelische_Kirche_in_Deutschland
- Check this article for other denominations: http://wiki-de.genealogy.net/Kategorie:Kirche,_Religionsgemeinschaft
- Review Cyndi’s List for other possibilities: http://www.cyndislist.com/germany/religion/
- Lutheran Central Archive in Berlin. These records are not digitized, but the archive lists their inventory here. Their records cover eastern regions that are no longer Germany: East Prussia, West Prussia, Brandenburg East, Pomerania, Posen, and Silesia.
Once you have located the records, you can decide how you will access them. Hiring a genealogist overseas or traveling there yourself are options.
I hope you have found this useful. Happy hunting!