Church Register*


In some parts of Europe, Church registers date back to the 14th or 15th century. In Norway, however, the oldest church register, that of Andebu in Vestfold, starts in the year 1623. In addition, only a few Norwegian church registers precede 1650; they are: Bragernes 1634-, Tingvold 1645, Trøgstad 1645-, Vår Frelsers in Oslo 1648, Heddal 1648-, and Sauherad 1649-.

Originally, it was the vicar himself who decided whether to keep a church register, in some form or another. In 1668, however, an assembly of deans from the diocese of Bergen ordered the vicars to register baptisms and marriages. Unfortunately the result was not impressive. There are very few parish districts from Bergen diocese that have church registers from 1668.

A Church Ritual in 1685 set forth general rules for the registration of baptisms. One had to include the name of the baptised child, its parents, and its god fathers/mothers. The same Church Ritual also had rules for the registration of the engagements, which had to include the witnesses, and for the registration of burials.

The Norwegian Law of 1687 confirmed the order to keep church registers. The decision of the Church Ritual and the Norwegian Law came into force autumn 1688. Henceforth, every vicar in Norway was obliged to keep a church register. Naturally therefore, a lot of the registers start in 1688. Nevertheless in some parishes the earliest volumes begin in the 18th century. Although, some of the volumes may have been lost, there were also a lot of priests who deliberately overlooked the order. Furthermore, there are parishes that have records starting in 1688, but that have later periods without any registration.

Although the clergy were obliged to keep a register, no one decided how it should be done. Thus, some vicars have kept their records neatly chronological, while others have separated the different clerical events into baptisms, marriages, burials etc. Since the church register was, for quite some time, the sole official protocol for the clergy, the vicars could sometimes include notes on estate and economic affairs, or other official business.

While it was common to register the clerical events such as baptisms and burials, neither birth dates nor dates of death were noted. The older church registers will, therefore, more often than not, have the dates of baptism and burial instead of the day of birth and death. Normally, the child would be baptised within its first eight days (in 1814, a rescript decided one could wait until nine months after birth), but it could take weeks, months, even a year after the actual death took place before the interment of a deceased. In the winter especially, conditions could prevent burials due to the ground being frozen. On the other hand one should not omit the possibility that the priest actually forgot to record the burial.

The 24 December 1732, bishop Hersleb of Akershus distributed a circulaire with rules about how to keep church registers. The register should be divided in three parts (baptism, engagement, funeral). The baptised child was to be recorded with its name, the names of its parents, godfathers and godmothers. There should be a note if the child was legitimate or illegitimate and also the date of the mother's "introduction" (a ceremony in which the mother is led into the church by the priest some time after the birth -- a ritual showing her reintroduction to the congregation). Under the engagement section, the names of the engaged and their witnesses were to be recorded, as well as where the ceremony took place. The buried should be registered with name, age and date of interment. Hersleb further suggested that one kept notes on "de publique absolverede" – those who had to do their confessions in public. (Mainly women who gave birth without being married, but it could also be others who had broken the church's rules and hence should suffer the church's discipline.)

The rescript of 1 December 1812 introduced printed forms to be used as church registers. Now the church registers were divided in seven sections:
Sections Information
  • Birth and baptism date
  • Parents’ names and position
  • Godfathers and mothers
  • Separate records for males and females
  • Death and burial date
  • Age, occupation, residence
  • Separate records for males and females
  • Marriage date
  • Names on bride/groom
  • Age, occupation, residence of groom
  • Name of witnesses
  • Name
  • Baptism date
  • Residence
  • Parents’ name or the name of the head of household
  • Vaccination date
  • The candidates' knowledge of the catechism, and their behaviour
  • Separate records for males and females
List of migrants from the parish
  • Name
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • To where
Liist of migrants to the parish
  • Name
  • Age
  • Occupation
  • From where
Comparison form
  • Meant for keeping track of the different clerical events each individual had participated in
The rescript also stated that the parish clerk should keep a duplicate register. This way the priest and clerk could compare notes twice a year and correct mistakes or omissions. The protocols were never to be kept in the same house so that there would exist a copy if one of them should be destroyed. In some places one stopped writing the duplicate after just a couple of years, but from the 1850s one can find whole series of duplicate registers. In the 1970s, the duplicates ceased in many places.

As a result of complaints on the 1812-rescript, new rules were given in a rescript of 2 December 1820. There were still forms to be filled and the rules were:
  1. Record baptism, confirmation, marriage, burial, emi- and immigration, as well as vaccination
  2. Separate recording for the daily ministerial duties, including when and where he held sermon, topic of the sermon, announcements, number of communicants, reintroductions of mothers, etc.
  3. The vicar himself decides the size of the book, but it should be large enough to last for ten years

The rules from 1820 were unchanged until 1877, when the royal resolution of 13 July  was issued, followed by a circulaire from the Ministry of Church Affairs. It said among other things:
  1. Every local parish (except if the local parish included both a town and a rural district, and thus should be regarded as separate from each other) should have a church register containing the forms included in the circulaire. The parish priest was responsible for the registration. As it had always been, the church paid the book and paper expenses.
  2. There were nine sections in the new form: Births, stillborn, confirmations, marriages, deaths, immigration, emigration, new members of the State Church, and ceased members of the State Church.
  3. Dissenters should be registered on the last pages with their births, deaths, and marriages; as well as additional notes on which community they belonged to, and who had given the information. There were a separate protocol for the local parishes with a large share of dissenters.
  4. The daily ministerial duties were written in a separate section.
  5. The priest decided for himself the size of the book, but he should calculate for at least ten years usage.
  6. The curates should also keep a day register of his duties.

The were also rules on what to do in specific cases:

  1. Babies born alive, although dead after a short while would still be recorded under the section for living babies; only stillborn babies were recorded as such.
  2. There was to be an extra note about babies who died prior to baptism.
  3. If it was difficult to give an exact date of birth, one should estimate a period, although not above five years.
  4. If the parents of a child were not married until the time of birth, the child should be recorded as illegitimate. However, if the parents married before baptism, a note should be made. One should also note if the parents got married later.
  5. If the priest doubted the correctness of an announced father/mother, he should confront the said person and get a denial/confirmation and a make note of this in the church register
  6. Under the category 'occupation', the main trade/occupation should be listed first, followed by any side occupation
  7. Under the section for deaths, one should also include the dead bodies that were never found.
  8. If a clerical action involved a person not originating from the local parish, it should still be registered with a serial number and a report should be sent to the local parish he/she originated from, where it would be fully recorded. If it was a different local parish, but in the same parish district, it was not necessary with a full recording in the church register of the home local parish, but a short summary and reference to the church register in the local parish where the actual event took place.

    These rules were unchanged, for the most part, until 1920 whenome minor adjustments were mad (only the adjustments listed):

    - Under marriages, one should note the family relationships between the partners following certain rules:

      1. Are the couple related to each other?
      2. If yes, in what form?
      3. If the relationship is more distant than second cousins (grandfather/mother is brother and sister), there is no need for more notes on this matter.

The reliability of church registers

The more recent church registers are very reliable. Since Norway has a state church including nearly the entire population, one must expect to find information in the registers on nearly everyone in the different parishes. However, earlier church registers will not always have full information on the individuals, especially funerals where the priest more often than not, recorded his own actions, instead of the actual number of funerals. The priests were often called upon only for the interment and thus he did not record it. Indeed he may not have attended.  In a number of church registers from the 18th century, on must assume that less than half of the deaths are recorded.

Furthermore, on should be aware of the information on the fathers of illegitimate children in the older church registers. The mother often gave this information and for quite a long time (until the second half of the 19th century), the judicial conditions were of such that the mother could benefit from giving a different name than the actual father.

Literature (unfortunately only in Norwegian)

Ola Bjerkås: Preste- og prostearkiver. En brukerveiledning. (Riksarkivaren. Skriftserie 4. 1997)
Lajos Juhasz: Kirkebøkene i Norge. (Norsk Slektshistorisk tidsskrift bd. XXVI, 1977, sidene 81-99.
Alfhild Nakken: Prestearkivene
Oddleif Lian: Prestearkivenes kilder om flyttinger 
Erling Knutzen: Kyrkja og folket 
Liv Mykland: Om kilder til dissenternes lokalhistorie 
Yngve Nedrebø: "Til sin barnefader udlagde hun ..." Reelle eller fiktive barnefedre for utenomekteskaplig fødte barn i Bergen 1668-1800. Heimen 1/1995, bd. XXXII, side 23-32.

*Based on an Norwegian article written by Yngve Nedrebø: "Kyrkjebøker" for the Digital Archives. The English version is written by Anette Skogseth Clausen. It has been slightly shortened.