Church Record books (congregational records) are book(s) in which record is kept of church functions for individual members, as baptisms, marriages, funerals, etc. The Israelites of old kept similar books in their birth books and genealogies. Not in order to ascertain the fighting strength or to determine taxes were the names of the members entered, but as citizens of a kingdom of God which was expanding farther and farther. That has been the actual purpose of the church book down to the present.
The first beginnings of such a record are found in Zürich, where Pastor Johannes Brennwald introduced a list of baptized members as early as 1525 (Egli). On 24 May 1526 (Egli, 58), on Zwingli's advice the Zürich council decided to introduce church records on the ground that many were not having their children baptized, or said they had been baptized when that was not the case. Thus the Swiss Brethren were the cause of the first introduction of the use of church records. Later on marriage and burial lists were added to the Reformed baptismal lists. Later still came the confirmation registers. Records concerning church discipline and other proceedings in the church were called "family books"; in them an exact record was kept according to families.
Later the church records began to have significance as a source of the study of ethnology and— first in England—sociology. In other countries, as in Prussia, they had to serve the wishes and requirements of civil government; they were used for purposes of court proceedings, army musters, and taxes. This practice ended when the French Revolution completely separated the government records from the church records, restoring the latter to their legitimate function.
Among the Dutch, Prussian, and Russian Mennonites there seems never to have been objection to keeping a record of church members. The oldest "church record" in the north seems to be the one by Leenaert Bouwens, who baptized more than 10,000 individuals and kept a record from 1551 to 1582. Other elders during the 16th and 17th centuries continued this tradition (Vos). The Inventaris der Archiefstukken (Vol. II) of the Mennonite Church of Amsterdam lists (pp. 1 ff) church records of the various congregations starting with the year 1612. The archives of the Mennonite Church of Amsterdam have the largest collection of church records. Some of the Haarlem records date back to 1606.
The Amsterdam congregations kept a Doop-boeck, in which the persons who had been baptized were enrolled, a Trou-boeck for the registering of the marriages performed in the church, a Ban-boeck, or book of the "gebreckleke lidmaten," in which the names of those who were disciplined were entered. Kinderboeken, or books in which the names of the children of the members were enrolled, and which are found for example in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, date from about 1715. By about 1660 all congregations maintained a Lidmatenboeck (book of members). During the Napoleonic regime (1810-1814) most Dutch Mennonite congregations were obliged to hand over their church books, both Doop- and Kinderboeken, to the state officers, because a "list of all citizens, children included" (register) was to be compiled. Not always were the old books returned.
In South Germany, in some areas where Mennonites settled after the Thirty Years' War, particularly in the Palatinate and Hesse, records of Mennonite births, deaths, and marriages were included in the parish church books of the state church. When the German Mennonite congregations began to introduce church books of their own is not known, but probably not before the 19th century. The 18th century immigrants to Pennsylvania, and the 19th century Amish immigrants from Alsace and Bavaria as well as the Swiss immigrants did not establish church books in this country, and the groups descending from these immigrants to the mid-20th century did not have church books in the usual European sense. In fact, the more conservative groups objected to church books as being an evidence of pride. The early exceptions to the above were two alms books containing the deacon's annual report of the alms funds together with the signatures of all the ministers, of the Skippack, Pennsylvania, congregation (1738- ) and the Franconia, Pennsylvania, congregation (1767- ). However, many bishops kept their own private records of baptisms, marriages, ordinations, and funerals conducted by themselves.
Among European Mennonites, congregations which have long had a trained and salaried minister have usually kept church books. Congregations with a lay minister have not so often had them. However, there are notable exceptions. The congregation at Montbeliard has maintained a church book since about 1750. In West Prussia the church books were established in most congregations about 1772, by order of the new (Prussian) government, and were maintained up to the destruction of the congregations in 1945. For instance, the Heubuden congregation maintained a Taufregister (baptismal register) 1770-1944, and a Geburts-, Heiratsund Sterberegister (register of births, marriages, and deaths) 1772-1944. The Taufregister of the Grosse Werder church (including Rosenort, Tiegenhagen, Ladekopp, and Fürstenwerder, 1782-1840, with an appendix on the votes on minister and elder) was deposited with the Danzig State Archives. An official membership roll with residence and dates of birth, baptism, marriage, and death was maintained by the Heubuden congregation from 1888 on. Some of the West Prussian church books have been saved, either in original or copies. For instance, Gustav Reimer (later of Montevideo, Uruguay) had copies of the 1770-1944 and 1771-1944 books mentioned above, as well as the original of the 1888-1944 membership register. A considerable number of the West Prussian church books are now in the Mennonite research center (Forschungsstelle) in Göttingen.
The first entry in the church record of the Danzig Mennonite Church goes back to the year 1667 and was made by Elder Peter Classen in the Dutch language. This copy is now in the custody of the Mennonite Library and Archives, Bethel College (North Newton, Kansas). Elder Johann Andreas brought the church records of the Elbing-Ellerwald Mennonite Church to America during the 1870s. Particularly the annotated entries of Elder Gerhard Wiebe were of significance. C. H. Wedel summarized the contents in Monatsblätter aus Bethel College starting in January 1904, in a number of issues. Later a volume of this church record was returned to Elbing and is now in the Göttingen center. Some of the volumes of the church record have been preserved in this country.
The Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church of Russia, which moved to Kansas as an entity in 1874, brought its church record along which was started in Prussia. The first entry, the birth of a member, dates back to 1640. This is the oldest church record of any Mennonite congregation in America.
The Mennonites in Galicia were compelled by the government to keep a church book, called "Matrikel," which had legal force and significance.
When the Germans occupied the Ukraine in 1941-1943 they found church records in most of the Mennonite congregations of Chortitza, and used them extensively for study purposes. Most of them were lost during the final stages of the war.
In America most of the General Conference Mennonite congregations kept church records from the time of the founding of the congregations, particularly those that immigrated from Germany and Russia in the 19th century. The Historical Committee of the General Conference launched a project to microfilm church records which were in danger of gradual deterioration or sudden destruction. The Mennonite Library and Archives has quite a number of original church records of General Conference congregations, including some brought along from Europe. Most Mennonite Church (MC) congregations had membership books by the mid-20th century.
Egli, Emil. Die Züricher Wiedertäufer zur Reformationszeit: nach den Quellen des Staatsarchivs. Zürich: Friedrich Schulthess, 1878: 42, 58.
Gingerich, Melvin. "The Alexanderwohl Schmirbuch." Mennonite Life 1 (January 1946): 45.
Vos, Karel. "De copia der oudsten en dooplijsten van de Harde Vriezen uit de 16 en 17 eeuw." Nederlandsch Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis XI, 4 (1914).
Wenger, John C. "Almsbook of the Skippack Mennonite Church 1738-1936." Mennonite Quarterly Review 10 (1936): 138-148.
Wenger, John C. "Alms Book of the Franconia Mennonite Church, 1767-1936." Mennonite Quarterly Review 10 (1936): 161-172.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 601-602. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
©1996-2013 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.
To cite this page:
MLA style: Neff, Christian and Cornelius Krahn. "Church Records." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 22 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C4936.html.
APA style: Neff, Christian and Cornelius Krahn. (1953). Church Records. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C4936.html.