Are you among the 50 million Americans with German ancestry? Have you traced your line back to an immigrant? Take the next step and continue your research across the pond in your ancestor’s homeland. Your first target: German church records.
As in most European research, they’re your most important source for tracing German ancestors—they could help you extend your tree as far back as the 1500s. Sure, you’ll face scattered records, a foreign language and hard-to-read handwriting. But with online resources, accessing German church records is easier now than ever. And with our guide, you can find your ancestors’ records in just a few steps—or with a little luck, even fewer.
1. Learn what German Church Records are Available.
Start by getting a feel for what you can expect to find in the records. Germany itself didn’t implement civil (government) registration of births, marriages and deaths until 1876. Before then, church records are the primary source of family information. A local church, whose parish boundaries may have included neighboring villages, kept these parish registers or church books, called Kirchenbücher in German.
Church records include information on births, baptisms, marriages, deaths and burials. Sometimes they also contain registers of confirmations, communions, members and families, and other records. Catholic records were usually written in Latin and Protestant records in German. German records are written in notoriously hard-to-read Gothic script.
Church records from different time periods and areas of Germany vary in the details they provide. More recent records tend to give more complete information. In general, churches in western Germany began keeping records first. The farther east you go, the later the records start. The earliest surviving Protestant records date from 1524 at St. Sebald in Nuremberg. Catholic church records begin in 1563, and most Reformed parishes started keeping records by 1650.
You’ll probably have to read websites and communicate with churches and archives in German. Don’t worry: You can do it even if you don’t know a word of the language. Refer to the German Word List on the FamilySearch Wiki and use online translators, such as Google Translate. When you visit a foreign-language website, Google’s Chrome browser, a free download, offers to translate it. If you favor Internet Explorer, the Google Toolbar also translates web pages instantly.
2. Identify Your Immigrant Ancestor’s Parish.
You need to know your ancestor’s German hometown to find church records there. Records of American churches that served German families often name members’ hometowns in Germany. The Lutheran church record for the death of my ancestor Tobias Schaubhut in Lancaster County, Pa., says, “1803, Tobias Schaubhut, von Eichen in Durlachschen, sturb d 19 October, begraben d 21 Oct, Alt 41 Jahr 4 Mo 1 Tag. Krankheit: mit zehrendem, hitzigem Fieber.” This translates as “1803, Tobias Schaubhut, from Eichen in Durlach, died 19 October, buried the 21 October, age 41 years 4 months 1 day. Sickness: with debilitating, hot fever.”
Other sources to examine for a place of origin include family papers, death records, obituaries, naturalization records, passports and county histories. Check FamilySearch, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage for your immigrant ancestor and potential relatives with the same last name. Ancestry.com’s “Hamburg Passenger Lists, 1850–1934” are indexed for the years 1850 to 1914 and give the last place of residence in Europe. Also try to determine your ancestor’s religious affiliation, usually Lutheran (often called Evangelical in Germany) or Catholic.
Distant relatives may still live in the place in Germany where your ancestor was born. If you’re researching an uncommon surname, search the national phone book, Das Telefonbuch. Enter the name in the Wer/Was (Who/What) box and click on Finden. Also search Facebook for people in Germany with the last name.
Once you’ve discovered the place in Germany, find the location and the name of the church parish using gazetteers. It’s common to find towns of the same name in different areas of Germany, so this is important. Try to identify the parish, village, district and state. A large city might’ve had many parishes, while a small village without its own church was usually part of a parish in a nearby larger town. In Tobias’ death record, “Eichen in Durlachschen” refers to the village of Eichen, located in the Protestant region of Baden, which was known as Baden-Durlach until 1771. Eichen is near the larger town of Schopfheim in the southwestern corner of Germany, close to the French and Swiss borders.
Meyers Gazetteer is perhaps the gold standard in finding German place names. My immigrant ancestor Leonard Slip was born in the village of Frankfurt in the province of Middle Franconia (Mittelfranken). Meyers Gazetteer shows that this Frankfurt is in the Evangelical parish of Obersteinbach and the Catholic parish of Scheinfeld. Learn more about using MeyersGaz.org.
The German Society for Computer Genealogy (der Verein für Computergenealogie) has several useful tools, mostly in German, on its website. The genealogical gazetteer of place names contains 858,000 entries. To search it, click on GOV, enter a place name in the box and click the Search button.
A search on Frankfurt produces 167 matches, including an entry for the village in Mittelfranken. The gazetteer gives the district, administrative region, state and country where the village is located.
Click on the place name for links to maps and an article in GenWiki, the society’s user-generated online knowledge base for genealogy research in German-speaking areas of the world. It says that the village’s Evangelical (Lutheran) church records are probably still held by the local church, while the Catholic church records are held by the Archives of the Archdiocese of Bamberg. Some GenWiki articles also list local researchers willing to do record lookups.
If you prefer books to websites, consult Map Guide to German Parish Registers (Family Roots Publishing), a series of volumes by Kevan M. Hansen that list the parishes associated with each town, as well as neighboring parishes.
3. Search for Online Church Records.
Many German church records have been transcribed or digitized and placed online, and the list is growing. Here’s a sampling:
• FamilySearch: The free genealogy site from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a collection called “Germany, Prussia, Brandenburg and Posen, Church Book Duplicates, 1794–1874.” To see FamilySearch’s complete list of online German records, click on Search>Records, then click Europe in the world map. Then select Germany. Some of the records aren’t indexed, but you can browse them.
• Archion.de: This collaboration between several Protestant (Evangelisch) churches has digitized millions of pages of church registers. You’ll need a subscription to view record images, but you can determine what parishes are included for free.
• Online German Genealogy Records and Databases: This site links to a range of German databases, including church records, organized by place. Note that some links go to collections on subscription websites.
To determine if FamilySearch has microfilmed church records from your ancestor’s hometown, start at FamilySearch.org, click on Search and then select Catalog. Enter the village or city where your ancestor lived in the Place box, then choose the place from the dropdown menu. Note that the Family History Library catalogs records according to the political divisions of the German Empire of 1871, not today’s jurisdictions. You’ll get a list of records covering that place. Look for a church records heading, then click each title to see a description naming the parish and records covered. You can use Google Translate to help with the German words.
For example, if you run a Place search on Eichen, the first matching place suggested is “Germany, Baden, Eichen.” Select that place and click Search. The one matching church record is “Kirchenbuch, 1605–1962.” The catalog describes the Evangelical (Lutheran) church records of Schopfheim as the parish register of baptisms, marriages and deaths, including records from Eichen and several other villages.
4. Write to German Churches.
If the records you need aren’t online, contact the parish directly. Most German parishes have websites with contact information. To find a parish’s website, Google the parish name plus evangelische kirche for a Lutheran church or katholische kirche for a Catholic church. For example, a search for obersteinbach evangelische kirche produces matches on the Lutheran church in Middle Franconia and on one in another town named Obersteinbach in Alsace-Lorraine.
If a web search doesn’t work, try the online parish directory of the Lutheran or Catholic church in Germany. You may need to determine which province or diocese your target parish is in before you search directories.
Try the email contact for the parish first. Keep in mind that the primary job of the contact person is religion, not research, so you might not get a response right away. Limit each request to a specific record, such as a baptism or marriage, or at least to a certain family. Write in German, following the guide at FamilySearch. You may have to pay a fee, even if no records are found. If you need extensive research done, you may want to hire a local researcher in Germany.
5. Contact German Archives.
Some original parish registers have been forwarded to a central church archive, a state or municipal archive or another office. In other cases, archives have microfilm copies of local church records. When you request information about early records from a church, you might be referred to an archive where they’re held.
GenWiki has links to profiles of German archives. For church archives, click on the plus sign beside Kirchenarchiv in Deutschland, and select Bistumsarchiv in Deutschland for Catholic diocese archives or Landeskirchenarchiv in Deutschland for Lutheran archives. The archives often can’t respond to genealogical requests, but staff may be able to tell you if they
Some German church archives have online inventories of their parish register holdings. For example, for the Lutheran Archives in Rhineland click on Kirchenbücher on the left side of the page. In general, press Ctrl-F to use your browser to search the archives’ home page for links to Kirchenbücher (church books).
Once you have the church records in hand, you’ll need to read them. Accessing German church records takes diligence, but it’s probably the only way you’ll trace your German ancestry. And you just might have fun in the process.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine, and was last updated in July 2020.