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
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 <http://www.mun.ca/rels/morav/pics/tutor/mscript2.
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 <http://pages.prodigy.net/tjbentz/GERMANIC.HTM>.
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
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
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
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
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
· geb. or g. is short for geboren
· 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
· todg. is short for todgeboren or
· 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
· begraben - buried
· Bruder - brother
· Copulation - marriage
· Drillings - triplets
· Ehe Register - marriage register
· eheliche - legitimate, within a marriage, a
· Eltern/Parenti - parents
· Familienbuch/Familienbücher - Family Book(s)
· Geburtstag - birthday
· Geschwister - siblings
· Gevatter/Gevattern - Godfather/God
· Hausmutter - the mother of the house
· Hausvater - the father of the house
· hier/dahier - here or of this place, meaning of
· 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,
· Seelenregister- register of souls, church
· 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
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
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
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 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).
mentioned before, you may find a Seelen Register, the register of church
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