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Sacramental records or church records sometimes contain information that supplements or parallels information found in civil records, but just as often, they contain information that is not available anywhere else. These types of records are of great use to genealogists and family historians. Therefore, it is helpful to understand why sacramental records exist, and how various denominations use them. This handout provides a general introduction to the sacramental records practices of most Christian religious groups.
"Sacramental" records generally include baptismal, marriage, and death records, which are usually the most useful to genealogists. For some denominations they also include records of first communions and confirmations.
Most denominations use registers for keeping these kinds of records, though records maintained by religious groups vary greatly. In the Roman Catholic tradition, parishes are required by church law to keep accurate, up-to-date records. However, not all denominations or churches are required to keep records; some evangelical denominations actually discourage "sacramental" record keeping.
Baptismal records in Christian churches are often the most informative of all the sacramental records. The information contained in them reflects what the denomination thought of baptism. Generally, the records are maintained to prove church membership and to verify lineage. Catholics, for example, use the baptismal register as the sacramental "track record" of an individual. A Catholic baptismal record might contain a notice of confirmation; marriage; adoption; ordination; profession of vows to become a religious brother, priest, or sister; change of rite; marriage annulment; laicization from the priesthood; or dispensation from religious vows. Baptismal records from other denominations may contain less information, but they still are very useful. Episcopal and Lutheran churches often keep records similar to Catholic churches. Denominations that do not practice infant baptism, such as the Baptists, usually keep records of the service of prayer and dedication for newborns. Baptisms for these denominations generally occur between the ages of 10 and 14. At that time, a notation is made in the dedication register indicating the date of baptism. Other denominations usually have variations of this type of ceremony.
Marriage records are also valuable sources of information. Secular society and religious groups have long recognized the right and obligation to provide structure to the right to marry. Before a marriage is celebrated, it must be evident to the civil and religious authorities that the parties can marry. The primary concern is that incestuous marriages do not occur, although religious groups erected other impediments to marriage as well. Mixed marriages between parties of different faiths were often frowned upon, as were unions between persons of faith and nonbelievers.
Death records are most useful for pinpointing a date of death and place of burial. Generally, they do not contain much additional information, although a cause of death and list of family members may be provided. As baptismal records are kept to show that a person has been accepted into the Christian family in the "proper" way, a death record indicates that the deceased has been properly anointed in order to make the transition from physical death to everlasting life.
The following is a list of common German and Latin words for church and sacramental records, with the English translation.
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