The most important source genealogists use, are the church records. These records usually satisfy the demands of a trustworthy source. They are written by a person who was present at the event (the minister) and they were recorded at, or very close to the time of the event.
Oldest kirkebok in Norway; Anebu, Vestfold 1623
The beginning - Pre 1812
Before 1668 the ministers who kept records, wrote whatever they wanted.
1668 – The ministers in Bergen stift (Bjørgvin diocese) where required to record baptisms and weddings.
1685 The new church ritual in Denmark/Norway stated that the ministers were to record
The name of the child
The name of the parents
The name of the witnesses
In connection with baptism they recorded whether the child was “ekte” or “uekte” meaning if it was born in, or out of wedlock. Sometime the children born out of wedlock were recorded in a separate section of the church book.
Name of the bride and groom
Name of the witnesses/sponsors
In addition, they also recorded:
1687 The instructions in the Church ritual from 1685 were included in the Norwegian Law
There seems to have been lots of Church books that were started in the last part of the 1600's.
Even though these laws and regulations were put in place, the ministers were not given detailed instructions as to how the records should be written. This means that the earliest church books are very varied in layout.
The layout can be divided into two main categories:
All the clerical actions are listed chronologically
The book is divided in different parts for the different clerical actions.
The layout differs a lot in the books. Some are kept very neat with beautiful handwriting and lot of space between the different records. Other might be cluttered, poorly written and every square millimeter of the page is used. These books can be very hard to read and the information you search might appear any place on the page.
In the oldest books the minister might also record things that didn't really belong in a church record. This is due to the fact that this was the only archive/record he had. This might be information about the yield of crops or about deceases hunting the parish. Some of the records may be very short. The minister might just write “interred a pauper” or “interred four corpses”.
When names were mentioned it was usually only the man’s name; “Baptized Hans Hansson’s child”. The name of the child might not be recorded. The birth and death date might not be recorded, only the date of the baptism and the funeral. In the second part of the 1700’s they started to record the actual birth and death dates. When it came to burials it was initially common to record the deceased’s age. Later they started to record the actual birth date/year. As the years went by, the records got better and more information was recorded.
One challenge in reading the oldest church records is the use of Gothic letters. This was a script used throughout Western Europe from approximately 1150 to well into the 17th century. The only way to negotiate this obstacle is to learn the script, at least the most used letters. Without this knowledge you can still recognize the names. You will see that the same name might be written differently through time. To familiarize you with Norwegian names (both person names and place names) I suggest you read through my articles on these topics found in the “Articles” section of this website.
In the oldest books the dates were recorded according to the liturgical calendar. As we have many movable feast-days you should go to the “Movable feast day calendar” and look for the year in question. It is important to remember that the year started the first Sunday in advent. This means that a person who is reported to be born in 1805, might be born in December 1804.
There are also some Latin words used in the church records. I have tried to collect them in my Norwegian genealogy dictionary.
When looking for baptisms you should be aware that in many books the minister has underlined the name of the child.
Through a rescript in 1812 it was ordered that the church records was to be kept in preprinted books. These books had the following forms:
• Birth/baptism men
• Birth/baptism women
• Confirmed men
• Confirmed women
• Wedded couples
• Dead/buried men
• Dead/buried women
• People moving out of the parish (migration)
• People moving into the parish (migration)
In addition to this, there is a “jevnføringsliste”. This is a list, usually kept in the back of the books, that cross-reference the different actions/rituals the person takes part in, starting with the birth, confirmation etc. The list is kept in a chronological and alphabetical order and you might want to have a look at it if you don’t find what you are seeking in the form you are looking at. The list refers to the page in the book where the actual action/ritual is recorded. I often use this list to confirm a birth or to check a name that is hard to read. When it comes to the other actions/rituals, my experience is that this list is often poorly kept. (I might just have been unlucky).
One important thing about the 1812 revision was that the “klokker” was ordered to keep a copy of the church book. The original and the copy “were not to be kept over night under the same roof” This was due to the many fires where church records were lost.
The “klokker” is a lay person that assists the minister during the church service. He is a person from the parish/sub-parish.
If available, you should have a look in both the “Ministerialbok” and the “Klokkerbok”. Often the minister travelled around in a big parish and left his copy of the church book at the rectory. He had to resort to loose leafs to take notes of his action. Later he would copy these notes into the church book. The “Klokker” normally recorded the information directly into his book. If there is divergence between the two copies I usually consider the “klokkerbok” as the most reliable. The “klokker” lived in the local community (sub-parish) and often knew the people in the congregation better than the minister.
It took some time before the parishes started to use the preprinted book. Some parishes kept on using the books with blank pages and drew in the forms based on the 1812 revision.
The 1820 revision
Many ministers were not satisfied with the preprinted church books. Due to the varied demographics of the parishes they could not use the books efficiently as they were likely to fill one of the sections of the book before the other.
Based on these complaints it was decided that the parishes no longer were required to use the preprinted books. The clerical actions were to be recorded, according to a template, in forms that the minister drew up on blank pages. This may cause the clerical actions to be “chopped” up and appear in several smaller sections throughout the book. There was, however, many parishes that continued to use preprinted church books.
In this revision the “klokker” was no longer required to keep a copy of the church book. Most parishes did however continue to record the copies in the “klokkerbok”.
The information asked for in the 1820 revision were much more detailed than before. The new forms asked for additional information about:
• Confirmand's birthplace
• Bride and groom's birthplace
• Name of the fathers of the wedded couple
• Stillborn were listed
• Cause of death if the person died from a contagious decease pr by an accident.
• All the children were to be recorded in the migration lists.
Two new sections were added to the church records:
• Name and date of (smallpox) vaccination.
• The minister's diary (chronological list of every clerical action he performed)
The changes in the 1820 revision was not fully implemented until about 1830. As the price of printing went down most parishes were back to using preprinted books by 1850.
The 1877 revision
In an Order of council July 13, 1877 there was another revision to the forms in the church book.
The new information added was:
• The birth year of the parents in records about baptism.
• In the wedding records the year and place of confirmation where to be recorded if one, or both of the couple was confirmed in a sub-parish different from the one they were getting married in.
• Forms to record people who left or entered the Lutheran State Church (Statskirken)
The “Law about dissenters” put in place July 16, 1845 gave people the legal right to leave the Lutheran State Church. Before 1877 these actions were recorded in hand drawn lists, often in the back of the church books.
Even though a person left the Lutheran State Church the minister was supposed to record information about birth, weddings and death about this person.
As the population grew, especially in the towns, some of the clerical actions were recorded in separate books
· Lysningsprotokoll – According to law the intention of marriage had to be announced three separate Sundays from the pulpit of the church before the wedding could take place.
· Forlovererklæringer - Signed statements by the sponsors of a couple about to get married.
These may yield detailed and interesting information about the bride and groom.
· Kommunikantprotokoller – Listing of parishioners taking part in communion. Through various laws and regulations, the members of the congregation were required to take part in communion at least once a year. This practice changed over the time. The requirement was abandoned in the 1800’s but some parishes kept these records well into the 1900’s.
· Dåpsbok – Separate listing of baptisms in the parish. Found alongside the church book
· Fødselsregister – Separate listing of births in the parish from about 1915. This is not a listing of clerical actions per see, but it was kept by the minister and are usually found alongside the church books. The births listed here should also be recorded in the church book.
Some things to watch out for in church books
In the oldest books the women were not always recorded.
For various reason the stillborns were not always recorded. Also children who died within days of their birth might not be recorded as either born or dead. This flaw is most import for demographical studies, but it may sometimes explain why there is a “gap” in birth-years in a couple's children.
These problems where addressed in regulations put in place in 1802. The registration of stillborns got better.
People lost at sea was not always recorded in the church records when there was no body to bury.
Due to various reasons people may have attended church in a different parish than the one they lived in. An “out of parish” baptism was supposed to be reported to the minister in the correct parish, but this was not always done.
In cases where a child was born out of wedlock, the church records may be vague about the father's name e.g. “Jon, visiting sailor”.
When it comes to causes of death in the church records we must remember that they did not have the diagnostic tools we have today. Also autopsies were very few and far between. This means that many recorded causes of death are, at best, vague.
In many cases where the subject's age is recorded, this is not always accurate. Also in cases where the subject's birth-year is recorded it may be off. This may occur most often when a wedding, a confirmation or a funeral took place in a different parish from where the subjects were born.
The part of the church records that were poorest kept is the migration lists. People moving (with the intention of taking up residence) in, or out of the parish, were supposed to notify the minister and get a certificate. This was a simple form of ID papers and often also a certificate of good conduct.
Many left without getting a certificate. If they had no certificate to show, there was no reason to contact the minister in the new parish. Sometimes they requested the certificate many years after the actual move (perhaps to get married). This means we need to be cautious when using the migration lists. The fact that a person is not listed, does not necessarily mean he did not move. Also a move might not have taken place at the time it is registered.
Clerical actions taking place among dissenters were not always reported to the Lutheran minister as it was supposed to be. This means that, unless the denomination in question kept their own records, it can be hard to trace dissenters in church records. (Only a few records from churches outside the Lutheran State Church exist.
AccessAccess the church records at The Norwegian Digital archives:
I hope you find this information useful. Don't hesitate to contact me if you have questions or comments on this topic. There may be things that should be added or things that needs clarification. Go to contact and send me a word.
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