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Using German Church Records
By Elsie Saar

When I started my German research, I ordered a microfilm from the LDS Family History Center for the Protestant church of my father’s hometown. Excitedly I put the film in the reader and cranked away. I came to a screeching halt. It was German! And in the old German script! How was I ever going to read it? After looking through the film for quite a while, I suddenly saw what might look like Scharpf, my maiden name. There it was, but the first letters looked very strange. Soon I could recognize the name and found others. The town was full of Scharpfs. It wasn’t long before I was on my way and gathering tons of interesting stuff. After three years of researching, I have gathered over 500 grandparents, plus collateral families.

In order to use the church records, you must know the town the ancestor came from, at least a name and an exact date of the event. With my father’s name, birth date and town, I found the correct entry for his baptism. Baptisms list the parents, mother’s maiden name, father’s occupation and sponsors. From there I was able to trace my surname back to my 7th great-grandfather.

The next thing to learn is the old German script. Learning the script is just a matter of training your eyes to recognize names and words. There are several books available, as well as sites on the Internet, with examples of the alphabet. I have used the alphabet at < html> in my research, and it has served me very well. If you want examples of what individual words look like, one of the most popular books is If I Can You Can Decipher Germanic Records. This book is available at <>. The author is deceased, but her family is still selling her book. The book shows many examples of letters and written words so you can recognize them.

Some of the letters look very similar. One needs to just look at the sets of letters in the illustration to see the differences. For example, a capital B looks like the capital L but the B has the same bottom part as a small b in our writing. The capital K and R look similar but the K wears a hat, the top stroke goes toward the right. The small u and small n are the same except the small u has a u-shaped mark over it. This is not to be confused with the German umlaut, the two dots over the letters a, o, and u, that changes the pronunciation of the noun. The old script has three different letters for an s: the capital s, the middle s (an s in the middle of a word such as Meisner), and an end s (an s used at the end of a word such as Johannes). Sometimes you will see what appears to be a capital B in the middle of a word. That symbol stands for a double ss, for example, Messer for knife can be Meßer.

Regarding spelling and pronunciation, the German language is very efficient. There are no silent letters in a German word. Words and names are spelled the way they are pronounced. The letters ie or ei are always pronounced like the second letter. For example, the name Schneider has an i sound as in Schnyder, and the name Riegg has an e sound as in Reegg. S followed by another consonant is always pronounced sh as in Stein (Schtein).

German Grammar and Writing

Here are a few helpful points to know:

  • An -in suffix added to a surname denotes a female; it is not a variation in spelling of the surname, example Muller and Mullerin.

  • Dates are written in d/m/y or y/m/d formats, for example, 22/2/1789 or 1789/2/22.

  • Possession is indicated as follows: 1)die Tochter des Johann Bachs means “the daughter of Johann Bach”, or 2) Johanna, Heinrich Messerschmidts means “Johanna, daughter of Heinrich Messerschmidt”. Note that the last name of the father takes an -s at the end when denoting possession.

  • If you see an m or an n with a straight line above it, it signifies that that letter is doubled, for example, Johan with – over the n is Johann.

  • Do not assume that all words starting with a capital letter are names. In German, all nouns are written with an initial capital letter.

  • Sch names always have a c between s and h. Words beginning with the letter c are rare in the German language, but the c does show up in names like Katharina/ Catharina, Karl/Carl, etc.

  • Sometimes the number 1 is written with a dot over the 1 as in i

  • An accepted form of writing words with umlauts is to write an e after the vowel that has the umlaut, such as Schaefer, Schoen, Mueller.

  • Sometimes surnames are underlined in the records.

  • A baptism may be written upside down or sideways to indicate an illegitimate birth/baptism.

Symbols, Abbreviations and Words Used in German Church Records

You will probably need a reference book for the old German symbols, abbreviations, words, occupations, and illnesses. Ernest Thode’s book, German-English Genealogical Dictionary is available in the Friends’ bookstore at NARA- Pittsfield. I find this book more helpful than a regular German dictionary.

Common symbols, abbreviations and words are listed below.


· * indicates birth

· oo indicates marriage (the rings touch each other)

· + indicates death

· o/o indicates divorce

· *+ indicates a stillborn


· b. is a Bürger or citizen of the town; it denotes the individual has special rights.

· ehel. is short for eheliche or married.

· evang/evg. is short for evangelische or evangelical/protestant.

· geb. or g. is short for geboren or born.

· ges. is short for gestorben or died.

· get. is short for getauft or baptised.

· J, M, T. are short for Jahre, Monaten, Tage or years, months and days respectively. You will find these abbreviations in death registers showing the person’s age at death.

· kath. is short for katholish or catholic.

· todg. is short for todgeboren or stillborn.

· u. is short for und or and.

· ux/uxor means spouse, generally the wife.

· Xber / Xbr. / Xbris etc. are short for December; September is 7ber, October is 8ber, and November is 9ber.


· begraben - buried

· Bruder - brother

· Copulation - marriage

· Drillings - triplets

· Ehe Register - marriage register

· eheliche - legitimate, within a marriage, a married couple

· Eltern/Parenti - parents

· Familienbuch/Familienbücher - Family Book(s)

· Geburtstag - birthday

· Geschwister - siblings

· Gevatter/Gevattern - Godfather/God parents/sponsors/witnesses

· Hausmutter - the mother of the house

· Hausvater - the father of the house

· hier/dahier - here or of this place, meaning of this town

· Jahre, Monate, Tage - years, months, days

· Junge - boy

· Kind - child

· Knabe - boy

· ledige - single

· Mädchen - young woman or unmarried woman

· Morgens - during the morning

· Nachmittags – during the afternoon

· Nachts - during the night

· Onkel - uncle

· Proclamation - marriage bans

· Schwester - sister

· Schwieger… - in law, as in Schwiegermutter, etc.

· Seelenregister- register of souls, church members

· Sohn - son

· spur/spurius/sp - out of wedlock, illegitimate

· Tante - aunt

· Tauf Register - baptism register

· taufe/getauft - baptize/baptized

· Tochter - daughter

· Toten Register - death register

· unehelich - unmarried

· Verheilichung - marriage

· Verheiratung/Verheirathung - marriage

· verwitwet - widowed

· Vetter- male cousin

· Wittwe - widow, wittwer - widower

· Zwillings - twins

What the Records Contain

Ok, now that you have all that straight in your head, just why would you want to learn all this? Well, you will be able to learn dates and places of birth, marriage, death, burial; cause of death; dates of confirmations and communions; read notes about emigrations/immigrations, learn maiden names for your grandmothers, names of sponsors, hometowns of ancestors, and occupations which sometimes is the only way you can keep straight family members with the same names. Also you sometimes get real goodies, for example, when the pastor wrote additional information that helps to describe the person. I learned that a great uncle had been in the Spanish-American war from his Familienbuch. For the death note the pastor wrote, “died in the vicinity of Cuba while on the warship the USS New York, June 26, 1898.” From that note I knew he had come to America, when he died, and which ship he was on. I contacted NARA for that day’s ship’s log and was able to get his enlistment date, age, stature, and his cause of death (fell overboard during a coaling operation, drowned, his body never found, age at death, 19 1/2).

Starting in 1808, pastors were required to keep Family Books (Familienbücher). These are wonderful records; they are similar to the family group sheets we use. When you order a microfilm from the LDS for a town, look to see if there are Familienbücher for that town. If you are looking for a person who was born, died, or married after 1808, order the Familienbücher film first. Each Family Book page is numbered and may list referral numbers to other Family Books.

Each Family Book page has four main sections.

  • The names of the married couple: The father and mother of the house, their birth dates and places, marriage date and place, and death dates and places.

  • Parents’ section: The names of the parents of both the wife and husband, the occupations of the father, the town the parents live in if not the same as the one the church is in, and the numbers of the parents’ Family Books if they belong to the same church. Additional spouses, if any, are also listed. A woman who marries twice would be entered in her new husband’s Family Book.

  • Notes section: This section is often used if more room is needed for additional information. If any of the daughters of this family has a child out of wedlock, it may be recorded in this section of her parents’ Family Book. Other notes about the family might be here.

  • Children’s section: The names of the children in order of birth. If the child has more than one first name, the name he is to be called may be underlined. This is called the rufname. Included in this section for each child are the date of the birth and/or baptism, the date of the confirmation or first communion, the date of marriage and the spouse’s name (also the Family Book number of the spouse if from the same church) and the date of death if the child has not married. If the child has married, the child now appears in a new Family Book, with a new number, appearing as the husband or wife.

  • Following the numbers of Family Books can yield a great deal of information rather quickly.

    Church Registers

    For events before 1808, you will have to read the individual registers to gain your information. The main registers are baptism, marriage and death. They are kept in chronological order. There may be additional registers for communion and confirmation as well as a Seelen register, literally a register of souls, listing the church members at a specific period of time. It is suggested you verify the entries in the Family Books with the individual registers. Some Family Books may exist for people who were born before 1808.

    Tauf Register.  Taufen means baptisms. The baptism register will note the name of the child, the name and occupation of the father, the name of the mother including her maiden name, and the names of the sponsors. The baptism records may sometimes include dates of death. If a child is born out of wedlock, sometimes it is noted by writing the baptism information upside down in the record. A baptism listing the mother’s name before the father’s indicates the child was born out of wedlock. The baptism notation may include the number of the corresponding Family Book.

    Confirmation Register.  Most confirmations in the German evangelical churches occurred when the child was 14. Some bigger churches confirmed their teenagers twice a year, once in spring and once in the fall. Generally the child and father’s names are listed. You can use this register to help you determine a birth date if birth records are missing.

    Ehe Register.  The Ehe Register is the marriage register. Notations list the married couple, sometimes their ages, their parents, whether the parents are alive or dead, the fathers’ occupation and towns of residence. Marriage records generally have four dates listed. There are three dates of proclamation - the public notice of the marriage banns - and one for the copulation, the actual marriage.

    Toten/Todten Register.  Toten registers are death registers. They may also be called the Begaben Register, meaning the burial register. Death registers may denote the profession of the dead person, the cause of death, the date and place of death, and the date and place of the burial. The parents, the spouse, and the Family Book number may also be listed. The person’s age will often be listed as years, months and days, abbreviated as J., M., T. (Jahre, Monate, and Tage).

    Seelen Register.  As mentioned before, you may find a Seelen Register, the register of church members.

    Now that you have become familiar with the above, have a look at a German church film. The first look is the hardest. It gets easier each time. Before long, you will be finding relatives and ancestors galore. Have fun and happy hunting.


    Friends of the Silvio O. Conte National Archives

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    Last revised 05/17/2006