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Ancestors in the Records:
Parish Records: Other Types of Parish Records

Beyond Births, Marriages, and Deaths
(First appeared in Family Chronicle, Dec 2006)

If you’ve spent much time researching European ancestors, you’ve discovered that parish records kept by the local churches are the key record you need to uncover your family. Without a doubt, they are the most important source available for the common people in Europe because they contain information about nearly everyone. Many times, your ancestors’ names weren’t preserved anywhere else.

When most people think of parish records, they think of the big three: birth, marriage, and death records. These standard parish records include the information about life’s three biggest events – the information needed to fill in those genealogy charts. There’s no denying that these three types of parish records are essential in filling in European family trees.

You may not realize, though, that while birth, marriage, and death records are the most commonly used types of parish records, they certainly aren’t the only types. Many church books contain other kinds of records as well. These other records are important for several reasons. First, they can fill in or verify missing or confusing information in the birth, marriage, and death records. Second, they can greatly simplify your search by providing essential clues. And finally, they can expand your knowledge of your ancestors’ lives – giving you another small peek into their experiences.

Below, I’ve described a few other types of parish records, what information they contain, and how to use them. The records vary from region to region, and often their existence is inconsistent even within a region.

Confirmation Records

Confirmation records were kept sporadically throughout much of Western Europe. Confirmation was a religious ordinance performed in several different churches. It signified a child’s coming of age – a deepening of their commitment and their faith. In the Catholic Church, children were usually confirmed around age twelve, while Lutheran children were often confirmed slightly later – around age fourteen. In some areas, the child had to prove his or her knowledge and pass an examination prior to confirmation.

Confirmation records in your ancestors’ parish may only contain the bare necessities – the name of the child and the date of the confirmation. Or, the records could provide more details such as the child’s birth date or age, place of birth, residence, or names of his or her parents (more commonly the father). They might also include information about the child’s test performance or indicate if the child had received the smallpox vaccination. Later records tend to include more information.

Locating a confirmation record can be worth your time for a few reasons. Even the most basic records verify that the child was still alive at this point and that the family was living in that location. They also provide a rough estimation of the birth year (although use caution in assuming the birth year since the age at which a child was confirmed varied). Confirmation records that contain birth dates or other information about the child can replace a hard-to-read or even missing birth record or lead you to the birth record by revealing a previously unknown birth place.

Moving Out and Moving In Records

Moving records aren’t a guaranteed part of parish records in any country, but are a part of some parish records in several different countries. Moving records begin in some places in the 1700s, but often are inconsistent and incomplete in these early records. Records from the 1800s tend to be more useful.

Moving records come in two straightforward types. Records of people arriving in the parish were called moving in records, while records of people leaving the parish were named moving out records. These records were generally kept in chronological order. At minimum, they usually include a date (although sometimes only a year) and the name of at least the head of household. It’s also common to find the name of the town or parish from which the person or family had come or to which they were going. Other family members besides the head of household may be described only as “wife and three sons” or something similar. Some moving records go further. They may list the names of all the members of the family, the occupations of the adult males, the marital statuses of the adults, ages, birth dates and places for some or all of the people listed, and, in rare instances, other personal information.

Moving records can be a valuable research help. They remove a lot of guesswork from tracing your ancestors. For example, perhaps you are following a family in the records of a certain parish, when all of a sudden they seem to disappear. You can find no more evidence of the family within the parish, but you also have no clues to where they went. Instead of searching all the surrounding parishes for the family, the moving record could show you exactly where they lived before or after.

Records Containing Family Groups

In this category, I’ve lumped together several types of records that are specific to certain countries. These records contain information that link entire families together on one sheet of paper. If your ancestors lived in an area that kept records like these, you are in for a real treat.

Records that contain family groups can include everything you need to know about your family all at once – taking the tedium and frustration out of your search through the birth, marriage, and death records. These records often provide dates and places for the major events in the family members’ lives (although it’s always a good idea to check the information against the actual birth, marriage, and death records). These records also verify relationships and other facts, providing confirmations of conclusions you may have come to on your own. I’ve included a description of three types of records containing family groups below.

Clerical Survey Records. Kept in Sweden, these wonderful records (husförhörslängder in Swedish – which can also be translated into English as house examination) had the original purpose of keeping track of the members of the parish and their knowledge of Luther’s catechisms. The records resulted from pastors visiting the homes of the families in their parishes and testing their understanding of the catechisms. A law in 1686 mandated that local pastors keep the records. Despite this law, you can rarely find consistent clerical survey records that date much before 1800. Most clerical surveys were recorded about every three to five years.

Clerical survey records list each family together as a unit. The family’s address and the amount of land they owned (if they owned land) may have been written by the head of household’s name. The parish pastor also usually included either the age or birth date of each member of the family. He may have written down a variety of other details about family members including occupations, birth dates, and marriage dates. Many pastors later noted changes, such as deaths (usually by crossing names out), relocations, or marriages of parish members. The pastor may have gone so far as to record the name of the new spouse or the village to which the family moved.

Of course, the records also contain information about the family members’ knowledge of the catechisms. The pastor could record his evaluations in seven little boxes – five for the catechisms (most Lutherans recognize six catechisms, but the Swedish Lutheran Church had only five), and two for the prayers (morning and evening). Although this section of the record provides the potential of knowing something interesting and individual about your ancestors, deciphering and reading the marks (which usually used some code system) can prove challenging.

Family Registers. These records, Familienbücher in German, were kept in some parts of Germany, more often in southern Germany. They are most commonly found in Baden and Württemberg after 1808. Although their purpose was different than the Swedish clerical survey records, in many ways the result was the same: a set of records that provides nearly everything you could possibly find about a family in the parish records together on one page. They are a genealogist’s dream.

Family registers can contain a variety of information. Usually they list the parents’ names, followed by the children in chronological order. Birthdates and places are given for each person, as well as marriage dates and places and occupations where applicable. The parish priest may have also included death dates of children or information about subsequent marriages.

A similar type of record that you can find in some places in Germany is the Ortssippenbuch, or village lineage book. Pastors or local genealogists may have gathered information about some families in the area in books like these.

Remember that these records are compiled sources, distancing them a step from the original records. Whenever possible, verify the information against the original birth, marriage, and death records in the parish.

Church Census Records. Church census records (known as stato dell anime in Italian or status animarum in Latin – both phrases which mean “state of the souls”) were kept in some, but not all, of the parishes in Italy. These records came into existence because of the requirement for parish priests to collect state taxes from the people within their parishes. Sometimes, the priests recorded the information about the people and the taxes that resulted from this duty in a special set of volumes.

In general, the church censuses list all of the family members who lived in a particular household, their relationship to the head of household, along with their ages or birth dates. If a married child lived at home, they were included under their own listing. The census can also supply addresses for each family.

Other Types of Parish Records

So far, I’ve described some of the major and most useful types of parish records outside of the big three. However, this is by no means a comprehensive list. Here, I’ve briefly listed a few more types.

Lists of parish members. These records will most likely be at the beginning of a church book. Glancing through this list can be a quick way to see if your family lived in that parish. However, if you have reason to believe your family lived in a particular place, don’t dismiss the possibility simply because you don’t see the family on this list. Look further into the records first.

Lists of persons taking the communion or sacrament. Again, this can function as a kind of directory to who lived within a parish.

Other notes and history. Parish pastors may have included other tidbits about events that occurred within the parish – ranging from particulars about building improvements to short notations of major local or even national events. Also, some parishes kept a chronological list of pastors, often preserving some basic information about them.

Locating the parish records outside of birth, marriage, and death records is generally straight-forward. Usually, they were simply kept in a different section of the church book. If you are using the Family History Library Catalogue, it often lists the types of parish records (in the language of that country). If you see titles other than birth, marriage, and death – perhaps words you don’t recognize – take a minute to look the words up. There’s a good chance you have run into one of these other types of parish records. You can also scroll through the church book itself, noticing the record types it contains – particularly at the beginning or end.

These additional parish records vary in their usefulness depending on the type and your particular research situation. Some, such as clerical survey records, are almost always worth your while. The usefulness of others, such as lists of people taking communion, varies depending on what you want to find. Still, take a minute to explore what other types of parish records are available in your ancestors’ hometowns. It could make all the difference.