Kirkebøker (parish registers) are one
of the most important primary sources for Norwegian genealogy research.
In each parish the priest would maintain such a register, entering information
about baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, etc. It is these local
parish registers that will you will have to turn to again and again in
your genealogy research; birth certificates, marriage certificates, and
death certificates were not issued in Norway in the old days. [ 1
] Due to the importance of these registers you should set aside sufficient
time to become thoroughly familiar with their format and history. Understanding
how to use parish registers will greatly help you in your search for your
As soon as you start looking at Norwegian parish registers, you will see the words prestegjeld and sokn, and these two Norwegian words can sometimes cause some confusion. In the old days it was difficult to travel long distances to get to church, and as a result many a prestegjeld (clerical district) would build more than one church. Each of these churches had their own menighet (congregation) and each such church was referred to as a sokn (parish). Each sokn usually had its own priest, who was called a sokneprest. Over the years, the words prestegjeld and sokn have been translated in various ways. I have seen the word prestegjeld translated as clerical district and sometimes as parish, and the word sokn translated as sub-parish and sometimes as parish. The LDS Family History Library translates prestegjeld as clerical district, and sokn as parish, so I will use this convention also.
The practice of maintaining parish registers is quite
old in Europe. In Germany, for example, it started in the latter part of
the1500’s, while in Denmark the practice started a few decades later when
a royal decree in the 1640’s required the church in Denmark to maintain
In Norway, the first mention of parish registers is in 1668, when the priests were requested to maintain such a register. Although this request did not become law until 1685, some priests in Norway had already begun keeping such registers in the first half of the 1600’s. (The oldest Norwegian parish register is from Andebu parish and dates from 1623. The second oldest register is from Bragernes parish and dates from 1634).
Unfortunately, most priests in Norway did not start keeping parish registers until several decades later: only 127 parishes have such registers that date from before 1700. Furthermore, fires and other calamities have resulted in the loss of numerous parish registers over the past 300 years. One example of such a loss occurred in 1759 in Innvik parish, Nordfjord, on the west coast of Norway. In the bygdebok (local history book) for this parish, the author Jacob Aaland writes of a fire that swept through the vicarage on 11 May 1759:
|"Almost all of the buildings went up in flames. Only the eldhus (building used for baking and washing), the stabbur (food storage building), and the barn was left standing. The fire started in the second floor of the farmhouse in the middle of the day while priest Meldal and the congregation were at church for the church service, and within a couple of hours the entire farmhouse building and its contents went up in flames. The priest’s wife, who was sick, was in bed with their two sons, ages 5 and 1. She didn’t know that the house was on fire until the priest and the congregation came running to save her and the children. She and her sons were hauled out of a window half-dressed. The priest tried to save the parish documents from his office on the second floor, but had to escape through a window. Fortunately he was not harmed. All of the parish documents, however, including all of the old parish registers, were destroyed, to the great loss of the parish…. Of the parish registers, the only one that survived was the volume that had been started in 1750, and the priest probably saved that from his office or perhaps he had brought it with him to the church that morning." [ 2 ]|
The frequent loss of parish registers in fires led
to a royal decree in 1812 that the klokker (sexton) [ 3
] in each parish should maintain a duplicate copy of the parish register.
(In a few parishes such duplicates had already been maintained voluntarily
by the parish sextons since the 1700’s). The royal decree of 1812
also stated that the parish register and the klokkerbok should never
be kept under the same roof, not even for a single night. Finally,the
decree required that the original parish register and the klokkerbok
should be compared twice a year in order to ensure the accuracy of the
This requirement has an important implication for our genealogy research:
if you cannot find an entry in the parish register in the chronological
place where you would expect to find it, it is possible that it was not
entered due to an oversight. You may, however, find it listed at
a later date in the parish register or in the
klokkerbok when the
semi-annual comparison of the two books took place.
The requirement that a klokkerbok be maintained only lasted from 1812 until 1820, but many sextons continued to maintain duplicate records until they had filled out the blank pages in the book that they were currently using in 1820. Fortunately, several dioceses reintroduced the requirement of maintaining a klokkerbok in approximately 1890, and as a result you will find that many parishes have a klokkerbok copy of the parish registers for an extended time period.
Note: For a more detailed discussion of the historical background of the Norwegian church see the book "Church Life in Norway, 1800 to 1950", by Einar Molland, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1957.
Obtaining copies of parish registers
Norwegian parish registers are available on microfilm
at your local LDS Family History Center. The LDS
catalog is now available online. (The link is to the "Place search"
page of their web site). It will take the Center approximately 10
days to obtain the parish register you want from their main library in
Salt Lake City, Utah. The microfilm must be viewed at the Center;
you are not permitted to remove the microfilms from the Center. The
LDS catalog of Norwegian microfilm records is sorted by fylke (county/province)
and then by parish. When a klokkerbok is available it is listed
in the catalog with the letters KL in front of the years that it covers.
You can also purchase your own computerized copy on a diskette (expensive!) from RHD in Norway, [ 4 ] however, not all parish registers are available yet. In addition, a few parish registers have transcribed and published in book form. These are listed in the LDS catalog of Norwegian microfilm records. (Watch out for typographical errors in these transcribed parish registers - according to the transcribed parish register for Innvik in Nordfjord, my family tree includes a set of twins who were born four months apart! Not a medical miracle, but a little carelessness in transcribing the records).
Note 1: Due to privacy laws, Norwegian parish registers are not released until sixty (60) years after the last entry was made in the register.
Note 2: I have created web pages for each fylke (county) in Norway, and I am currently updating these pages so that each page includes a list of the clerical districts and parishes located in that county. See Norwegian genealogy resources.
Errors in parish registers
Norwegian parish registers do, unfortunately, contain errors, and cross-checking information is therefore an important part of using these registers. Anfinn Kjelland, the author of the bygdebok for Lesja in Oppland fylke (county) , has some excellent examples in his book to illustrate how priests were sometimes sloppy in maintaining their parish registers:
| We can easily see the sloppiness when we compare
the parish registers and the probate records. In the probate records
there are quite a few heirs whose baptisms have not been entered in the
parish registers. In addition, there are many persons who should
have been heirs but are not listed in the probate records. This indicates
that they must have died, without the priest having entered their funerals
in the parish register.
The "worst" example is from Sandan. On 22 December 1755 there was a probate proceeding for Gjertrud Endresdatter. The probate was held because the widower, Elling, wanted to remarry. [ 5 ] The probate included a debt in the amount of 7 daler and 16 skilling – more than the value of a good cow – that was owed to the parish priest Fugleberg, because he had given a funeral sermon at Gjertrud’s funeral. But the funeral itself had not been entered in the parish register. . . . [ 6 ]
In my own research I have found similar problems
in parish registers, particularly when it comes to a person’s stated age.
When I researched the parents of my paternal grandmother, for example,
I found that the stated age of my great grandfather was often off by 3
or 4 years in the baptism entries of his children. He fathered 9
children, but at almost every baptism, his stated age was either too high
or too low. This was readily apparent when I compared his stated
age with the entry for his own baptism in 1857 in the same parish register!
The fact that parish registers contain errors raises an interesting question regarding the use of evidence in genealogy research. It is an unfortunate fact of life that in our genealogy research we will, from time to time, uncover conflicting evidence. When this happens we should always endeavor to find out as much as possible about the conflicting evidence, and to examine as many sources as possible. Once this has been accomplished, we will have to make a judgment about which source we believe to be the most reliable. For the benefit of future readers of our genealogy work we should always disclose the fact that there was conflicting evidence and explain our reasoning for adopting one source over the other sources. (For a more detailed discussion of this topic see the book "Genealogical Evidence: A Guide to the Standard of Proof Relating to Pedigrees, Ancestry, Heirship and Family History" by Stevenson, Noel C. (Aegean Park Press, 1989, ISBN: 0894121596). You can purchase this at your local bookstore, or online at the "Ancestors from Norway" bookstore).
Format For Parish Registers:
Prior to 1812 there was no uniformity in the layout
or format of parish registers. Each priest created his own version.
As a result, parish registers dating from prior to 1812 can be difficult
to use: many of these registers are simply chronological logs of various
church matters, much like a diary, with entries for the various things
that occurred each day: funerals, baptisms, marriages, etc., all jumbled
together in no particular order. Fortunately, a standard format for
parish registers was adopted in 1812, and this format was maintained until
1820, when some minor changes were made. In 1877 further changes
were made in the format. You should keep in mind that these parish
registers were maintained for religious purposes, and as a result the earliest
parish records did not include the date of birth, date of death, etc.,
but only the date of baptism, date of funeral, etc.
The standardized parish registers that came into use in 1812 have separate pages for marriages, funerals, etc. Each such page has a caption and several columns with column headings. These were written in old German gothic script. The parish register format for 1812 included a Jevnførelsesregister – a cross-index /cross-reference which included all of the names contained in the parish register. In subsequent formats (i.e., 1820 and 1877) this cross-index was no longer included. At the end of this article you will find links to the various formats used for the parish registers with translations of the column headings.
Births and baptisms
In the oldest parish registers, i.e., those dating
from before 1812, the priests would only record religious events.
As a result, the date of baptism would be recorded, while the date of birth
would not. This fact has led to errors in quite a few Norwegian family
history books because the researcher has mistakenly listed the date of
baptism as the date of birth.
The baptism did, however, occur only a few days after the birth. In 1646 a law was passed requiring that children in rural areas be baptized within 8 days of birth. In cities the baptism had to occur within 4 days. Home baptisms were allowed, however, and with the harsh winters in Norway it is no surprise to read in the old parish registers that a home baptism had taken place, with the infant being brought in several days later in order for the priest to record the information in the parish register. (The baptism was not repeated if a home baptism had taken place).
Unfortunately the entries for baptisms in the oldest parish registers are often quite limited, and may not even list the name of the mother. The father’s name, however, is always listed, as are the names of the godparents. (Early parish registers referred to godparents as sponsores or testes, but after 1800 or so the term fadder was used). The identity of the godparents is often an extremely valuable tool: the patronymic naming system that was used in Norway can from time to time cause confusion when reading old baptism records, but the names of the godparents is always an important clue. They were almost always close relatives of the parents, and this will allow you to identify the correct child if the names of the parents are insufficient for an accurate identification. (If necessary, you may have to trace the godparents’ family histories back a generation or two in order to show their relationship to the parents, and thereby show that you have identified the correct child). If the mother’s name is not included, you should see if she is identified a few weeks later when she was introduceret – attended church for the first time since giving birth (see below).
Then as now, some children were uekte, i.e.,
born outside of wedlock. Although the Norwegian word uekte
literally means bogus or not authentic, it is also said to be derived from
the word utenomekteskapelig, i.e., outside of wedlock. In old parish
registers it is not uncommon to find baptism records where the priest refers
to a child as illegitimate, and starting in 1820 there was a separate column
titled Om ægte eller uægte født (Whether the
birth was legitimate or illegitimate), which the priest was required to
In early parish registers dating from the 1700’s, it is not uncommon to see an illegitimate child referred to as frillebarn (child of a mistress) or horunge (child conceived through adultery). Prior to about 1770 both church law and civil law in Norway provided that illegitimate children could not even be baptized at the same time as a legitimate child in a church!
If you find an illegitimate child among your Norwegian ancestors, you should keep in mind that having a child out of wedlock was not as uncommon as many believe. The Norwegian historian Ståle Dyrvik at the University of Bergen has written regarding the time-period 1500's to 1850's:
| "There are no signs during this time period
of child planning or limiting the number of children one had. Nevertheless,
the average number of children in a family was not higher than 4 - 5.
This is due
to the high age when mariages occurred. For men, the average age of marriage was 27 - 29 years, and for women 1 to 2 years lower. One could expect that the lengthy period of bachelorhood would lead to many births outside of wedlock, but this is not the case. Around 1700 the percent of children who were born out of wedlock was only 2 - 3 percent. But from this time forward, the rate began to increase until it topped out at just about 10 percent in the middle of the 1800's". [ 7 ]
A child born out of wedlock was the result of leiermaal (fornication or adultery). In the 1700’s, this was both a sin and a crime, and those who were caught had to stand up in church and publicly confess their sin to the congregation. This confession (called publice absolverede and also referred to as skrifte) was abolished in 1767. In addition to this public humiliation there were also criminal fines: the father had to pay a fine of 12 daler (an old currency), while the mother had to pay a fine of 6 daler. Soldiers, however, were not fined for their first offense. (The fines were abolished in 1791 if the father and mother subsequently married, and in 1812 the fines were abolished altogether). With regards to the criminal records relating to fornication, these are gathered in the tingbok (local court register) which was maintained by the sorenskriver (local magistrate in rural areas) and by the byskriver (city magistrate) in the cities. In addition, the sakefallslister (lists showing fines that had been collected) should also be reviewed to see if it contains an entry when the fines for fornication or adultery were paid. Finally, legal records relating to illegitimate children also include records relating to child support. Child support laws were introduced in 1763, and legal records relating to child support matters can be found in the archives of the amtmann (county governor) for each fylke (county) under the category farskapsforelegg (paternity matters) and bidragsprotokoll / oppfostringsprotokoll (child support records).
Omitted or partial baptism entries
From time to time, the parish priest may have inadvertently neglected to enter a baptism into the parish register, or the entry may not include the mother’s name. Fortunately, there are some alternative sources you can turn to in an attempt to find the missing information:
Confirmation became required in Norway in 1736, and
generally occurred when a person was between the ages of 14 and 18.
Those who neglected their religious studies, however, could find themselves
in the situation where their parish priest did not think they were sufficiently
prepared to be confirmed, and they would have to try again the following
year. In the event that a person reached the age of 19 without being
confirmed, he or she would have to prepare under the tutelage of the prost
Fortunately this situation was rare, because being confirmed was a serious
matter for the young members of a parish – one could not get married without
being confirmed, and that was perhaps all that was needed in terms of incentives.
There was no way of getting around the requirement of being confirmed:
in the event that a person moved to a different parish and appeared before
the priest there to get married, he or she would have to present a konfirmasjonsattest
– a certificate of confirmation– from the priest who had presided over
the confirmation before the marriage ceremony could occur.
Although confirmations were supposed to be entered into the parish register, some of the older registers from the 1700’s do not include confirmations. In those registers where confirmations were entered, it was usually listed under the heading "Unge Folck derfor første Gang søger Herrens Bord" – young persons who for the first time are seeking Holy Communion. Starting in 1812, however, the standardized parish registers included a separate page for confirmations. These confirmation lists are a convenient checkpoint for our genealogy research, because they can tell us whether the person whose baptismal record we have examined was still alive and living in the same parish some 14 to 18 years later. Since confirmations occurred in the parish where a person was living, the absence of a person from these lists may indicate that he or she had died, or perhaps moved to a farm in a nearby parish where he or she had obtained employment as a servant. In addition, in the event that two children in the same family were given the same first name (which was not uncommon given the high infant mortality rates), the confirmation lists can help us to distinguish between the two.
Engagement and marriage
In 1582 a Danish-Norwegian ecclesiastical law was
passed which provided that a legally binding trolovelse (engagement)
was a prerequisite for marriage. This requirement lasted until 1799,
and, being a religious event, engagements were entered into the parish
register. The engagement event was followed by the lysing
(public announcements or banns) by the priest from the pulpit on three
consecutive Sundays before the wedding could take place.
The engagement itself occurred in the presence of the priest and two kaveringsmenn or cautionister (best men) who served as witnesses to the fact that the bride and groom were not so closely related as to prohibit the marriage. The best men were usually related to the bride and groom respectively, but could also be close friends or neighbors. (Note: The farm names of the best men can sometimes be a useful aid in identifying what farm and parish the bride or groom came from if this information is not included in the parish register entry for their engagement or marriage. The identification approach is the same as that discussed above for godparents in the section on baptisms).
Prior to 1800 it was against the law in Norway to marry one’s second cousin or the second cousin of one’s deceased spouse, or anyone who was closer related than that. In addition it was illegal to marry one’s stepparent or an in-law, or their direct descendants. It was, however, possible to obtain a Kongelig bevilling (royal permission) to marry one’s second cousin, but after 1800 such royal permission was no longer required. Royal permission was still required if one wanted to marry the widow of one’s brother or the widow of one’s uncle, and it remained illegal to marry one’s stepparent, an in-law, or their direct descendants.
Royal permission for a marriage was also required if a person who had been divorced wanted to remarry, or if a couple wanted their marriage ceremony to occur in their home instead of in church. In addition, such permission was also required if the engagement and public announcements had not taken place prior to the marriage. Furthermore, if the groom was serving in the military he had to obtain permission from his superior. Likewise, if the marriage ceremony was to take place in another parish, the couple had to obtain written permission from the priest in their home parish. (Note: Starting in the 1600's Norwegian law provided that engagements and marriages should occur in the parish where the bride lived). Finally, starting in the early 1800’s a couple also had to present their vaccination certificates to show that they had both been vaccinated against smallpox.
The parish register will usually indicate the status of the groom by noting whether the groom was an ungkarl (bachelor) or enkemand (widower). Alternatively, the priest may have written down his occupation, such as soldat (soldier) or gaardbruger (farmer). Likewise, the register will indicate whether the bride was a pige (maiden) or enke (widow). If, however, the maiden bride was from the middle class, the word jomfru was often used, and if she was from the educated upper class she was usually listed as frøken. (The words jomfru and frøken are often both translated as maiden, but this translation loses the class status that is reflected in these words).
Arrivals to and departures from the parish
Starting in 1812, parish registers included Afgangslister
for information about people who moved away from a parish, and Tilgangslister
for information about people who moved into a parish. Historically
there had always been some movement into and out of parishes, primarily
to neighboring parishes. Such movements were usually the result of
marriages. In the 1800’s, however, such movement became more common
as a result of the population increase in Norway. With limited farmland
available, the overpopulation led many people to move to the cities, and,
starting in the 1850’s, many people began emigrating to America.
Unfortunately the parish registers seldom include all of the people who departed from a parish. Furthermore, when an entry was made it was often several years after the person had left the parish. You should therefore also examine the passport lists and emigration lists maintained by the police, as these tend to be more reliable.
Parish registers also include information about funerals,
but the oldest registers only give the date of the funeral, not the date
of death. (Information about the date of death was not required until
the 1812 parish register format came into use). The parish priest
was not always present during the jordfeste (burial), and the jordpåkasting
(funeral ceremony) was often held at the next mass. (The word jordpåkasting
refers to the priest sprinkling a handful of dirt on the grave - from the
noun jord – soil – and verb påkasting - throwing).
Unfortunately, the stated age of the deceased is often incorrect; it is at best a mere indication. The entry made in the parish register when a person was baptized is the only accurate date in a parish register that you can rely on when it comes to a person’s age. The stated cause of death, if there is one, is also questionable due to the fact that most people died without being under the care of a physician. Some of the common causes of death listed include slag (stroke), druknet (drowning), blodsott (abnormal loss of blood during an illness, perhaps caused by dysentery), svinsott (consumption, i.e., tuberculosis), kreft (cancer), and nervefeber (typhoid).
Unfortunately, not all deaths were entered into the parish registers. For example, if a person died at sea without the body being recovered, there was no funeral service, and hence no entry in the parish register. If you cannot locate the entry for the funeral of an ancestor, you should examine the dødsfallsliste (list of deaths) maintained by the sorenskriver (the local magistrate) to see if the death was entered there.
Dissenters and non-Christians
For several hundred years Norwegian law made membership
in the Lutheran State church mandatory, and even with the repeal of this
law in the 1800’s, only a very small minority of Norwegians have been dissenters
or non-Christians. Legal protection of religious freedom was not
introduced in Norway until 1845, and Jews were not legally permitted into
the country until 1851 when the Norwegian Constitution was amended.
Jews, however, had lived in Norway for at least 300 years, and dissenters
started to appear in the early to mid-1800’s. The Society of Friends
(Quakers), for example, converted several Norwegian prisoners of war who
were held in England during the time period 1807 to 1814 (the Great Nordic
War), [ 8 ] and Methodism was introduced in Norway in
1853 by the Norwegian sailor Ole P. Peterson, who had been converted from
Lutheranism while in America. [ 9 ]
The dissenter law of 1845 allowed Norwegians for the first time to resign their membership in the Lutheran State church, and also allowed non-Lutheran Christian congregations to be established. In addition, the law provided that Christians who were no longer members of the State church could be married in a civil ceremony conducted by the sorenskriver (rural magistrate) or byfogd (city magistrate). As for non-Christians, the right to be married in such a civil ceremony was not recognized until 1863, and it was not until 1891 that congregations of all faiths were given the right to conduct their own legally recognized marriage ceremonies.
Paragraph 15 of the dissenter law required that the local parish priest make an entry in the parish register when someone resigned their membership in the State church. It was not until 1877, however, that the parish register format was changed to include a section where the parish priests could enter this information. Prior to this, parish priests would usually make a notation in the last page of their parish register regarding resignations of memberships in the State church.
Parish priests were also required to enter information about the births, marriages, and deaths of dissenters in their parish register, and dissenters were required to notify their local parish priest of these events. In addition, dissenters were required to maintain their own congregation registers, and once a year they had to submit a report to the amtmann (county governor) detailing the births, marriages and deaths in their congregation, as well as a list of their members. The amtmann, in turn, passed this information on to the local parish priest. As a result, information regarding the births, marriages, and deaths of dissenters should have been included in the parish registers maintained by the parish priests. However, in the event that you cannot find information about your ancestors there, you can turn to the congregation register of the dissenter congregation and also the archives of the amtmann.
In addition to parish registers, there are some closely related sources that you can also refer to in the search for your ancestors. Unfortunately only a few of these sources are available on microfilm through LDS Family History Centers, so you will have to inquire as to the availability of these sources for the particular parish that your ancestors came from.
|Old German gothic handwriting and print are very different from the Roman script most English - speaking genealogists use. A useful chapter on German print and script is found on pages 204 to 217 of Schweitzer's German Genealogical Research (Call number 943 D27sg). Another is on pages 171 to 197 of Smith's German Church Books: Beyond the basics. (Call number 943 D27skL).|
Another book you can use is "Scandinavian records extraction : an instructional guide".
The following links will bring you to my translations of the column headings for Norwegian parish registers.
1. It was possible, however, to obtain a certificate from the parish priest with information about a particular baptism, wedding,etc., which stated that the information on the certificate was a true copy of the information contained in the parish register. Such certificates, however, were rarely obtained.
6. Kjelland, Anfinn. Bygdebok for Lesja. Vol.1, Introduction, http://www.hivolda.no/ahf/historie/lesja/engelsk-intr.htm. (Quote translated by John Follesdal).
Copyright, John Follesdal, Esq.1999 - 2002.
Last updated (for correction of link url's & adding quote from Ståle Dyrvik [ 8 ] ): 29 August 2002
Note: This short overview and the translations that I have made of the
columns of Norwegian parish records are some of many items on my website
that can help you in your genealogy research. I hold the copyright
to these items, but you have my permission to print out a copy for your
own personal use. Permission is not given, however, for you to sell
any of these items, or to display them on any other web site.