Church records began between 1530 and 1750, so once you have the knowledge to use them and the ancestral parish to start searching in, they can hopefully take you a long way in your research. The church's interest was in recording religious events—baptisms, marriages, and burials—of the members living in their parish.
Determining the denomination of your ancestor is the key to using church records. While a majority of Germans were either Catholic or under the blanket of "Protestant," each of these religions was more common in specific geographical areas. As a generalization, those in Northern Germany were more likely to be Catholic, whereas those in Southern Germany were more likely to be Protestant. Also, an ancestor's religious practices after immigration to the United States may be the clue to their German church affiliation.
Because Protestant aristocrats ruling most communities were responsible for the keeping of church registers, record keeping began in the mid-16th century in areas with advanced administrative systems such as Saxony and Thuringia. The practice spread to other areas of Protestant Germany within the next century, leaving us with several hundred years of church records. The keeping of church records did vary based on the religious practices in certain lands. Sometimes a portion of the population was Lutheran, another Presbyterian (Calvinist), and each were keeping separate church registers. In some areas these two denominations began keeping combined "Protestant" (evangelisch) registers in 1818.
Other smaller denominations also exist, such as the Mennonites and the Moravian Brethren (called Herrnhuter in Germany). These churches often had their own church registers. The registers of the oldest Moravian German settlement, Herrnhut in Saxony, began in 1739.
As with much research outside the United States, a language barrier does exist. The Council of Trent decreed that Catholic Church records would be kept in Latin from 1563. Since the Reformation, almost all Protestant registers were written in German. Reformed Church records date from 1650. Only the French, Dutch and Czech Protestants had registers in their own language, until the nineteenth century.
Several different kinds of church records exist, and can be useful in tracking down names, vital events and relationships of your ancestors.
Kirchenbücher Zweischriften or parish register transcripts date from 1740 in Mecklenburg; 1807 in Bavaria; 1808-1875 in Wuerttemberg; and from 1899 in Prussia.
Taufregister or christening/baptism registers can provide detailed information about an ancestor. They usually include the child's name and sex; baptism date and possibly the birth date; place of baptism; name of mother; name and occupation of the father; legitimacy of birth; name and occupation of the mother's father; and names and residence of godparents or witnesses.
Geburtsregister or birth registers provide less information than christening records, but still may provide the child's name, date of birth, legitimacy, parents and godparents' names.
Konfirmationsregister or confirmation registers record the religious event that usually took place at age 14 for Protestants and about age 12 for Catholics. At the discretion of the minister, the confirmation could provide the name; age; date and place of the event; and sometimes the name and occupation of the father, and name of the mother. Some registers will only provide the name of the participant and the date of the event.
Trauregister or marriage registers usually provide the name and age of the bride; marriage date and place; residence/occupation of bridegroom; name of clergyman; names of both parties' parents, their residence and father's occupation; and a name of the previous spouse if either the bride or bridegroom was widowed.
Sterberegister or death registers usually provide the name of the deceased, profession, age at death, occupation, date and place of death, date and place of burial, and surviving spouse and children's names. Sometimes the death register will provide the cause of death.
Begräbnisse or burial registers usually include the name of the deceased, date and place of death or burial, message, place of residence, cause of death and survivor's names.
While there are many different types of church records available, not all are available for each parish. Baptisms, marriages, and burial records will be the most common for your German ancestor. Most of the church registers are kept in the parish archives. To find out which of the specific records are available for the parish of interest, church record inventories may be available. Also, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has microfilmed many of the German church records. The library's online library catalog, available at www.familysearch.org can assist you in finding the types of German church records available for your ancestral parish.
When using German church records for your own research, exercising patience and creativity will usually bring the bounteous reward you were hoping for. They are a historical testament to the organized system of church records of the Germans—consider yourself lucky to have those Deutsch progenitors!