The Protestant Reformation began 500 years ago, in 1517, when Martin Luther posted his now-famous 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. With that small act, Luther set off a chain reaction that changed the course of history. For genealogists, that event in 1517 has particular significance. The Protestant Reformation also changed the course of record keeping. Here, we take a look at the movement Martin Luther started 500 years ago and how it affected the world in general—and genealogy research in particular.
The Protestant Reformation grew out of frustrations with the Catholic Church, the all-powerful religious entity of the time. In his 95 theses, Martin Luther, a professor at the local university, detailed his disagreements with the Catholic Church on doctrines such as justification (or how people gain salvation), authority, and the selling of indulgences to absolve sins. The reaction was instantaneous. Within weeks, the 95 theses had spread throughout Germany. Within months, it had reached across much of Europe. Meanwhile, others took up the cause—with Ulrich Zwingli leading the movement in Switzerland and John Calvin leading the movement in France. The Catholic Church reacted with their own Counter Reformation. Part of their response was a series of meetings known as the Council of Trent. Launched in 1545, this council reaffirmed some doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church while adjusting others.
The effects of the Protestant Reformation on society are staggering. Besides the obvious impact on religion, the Protestant Reformation also led to large shifts in the balance of power in Europe. It challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and the Pope while strengthening the power of regional rulers. One hundred years later, one of the most costly wars ever fought in history, the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), waged across Europe. It was caused by the religious schisms that had grown from the Reformation. Some scholars link the formation of public education, the climb in literacy rates, and the development of capitalism in part to the Protestant Reformation. For genealogists, one of the most important results of the Reformation was increased record keeping.
Religion and Record Keeping in the Reformation’s Aftermath
Understanding the religious developments that came from the Reformation helps us understand the religious climate that existed for our ancestors. In the years after Martin Luther’s 95 theses, Protestant churches began popping up across the German-speaking areas of the Holy Roman Empire and beyond. (Germany as a country didn’t exist until much later.) The majority aligned themselves with Martin Luther’s teachings and identified as Lutherans. The new religion spread and soon most of Scandinavia had converted to Lutheranism. The beliefs of John Calvin also gained traction in the Netherlands and some other places.
Some Lutheran parishes in present-day Germany began keeping records in the 1520s, and a few of these records have survived. Other Lutheran parishes began keeping records in the years following. Similarly, the Church of England, which was formed in the 1530s when King Henry VIII broke his tie with the Catholic Church, also began keeping records in this period. Unfortunately, the Thirty Years’ War wreaked devastation throughout Europe, destroying many records that date prior to 1648. The Reformation also brought a change in understanding events recorded in church records, particularly marriage. Martin Luther believed that marriage was not a sacrament, contrary to what the Catholic Church taught. Instead, he placed it firmly in the realm of secular practice. It was partly this belief that led to more careful record keeping as the state began to have more control over and say in marriage.
Around the same time, the Council of Trent revolutionized record keeping in the Catholic Church. In 1564, the council decreed that records of marriage be kept. Later in 1614, the Roman Ritual, published by the Catholic Church, stated that priests were required to keep four registers including those for baptisms and deaths.
The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, officially recognized three religions: Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. Each prince was given the right to determine the religion of his own state. The result was that many places were largely one religion or another. In what would become Germany, for example, most of the northern states were overwhelmingly Protestant while the southern states remained largely Catholic. The Peace of Westphalia declared that Christians of these three groups were guaranteed the right to practice their faith, even if it was not the chosen state church.
People not belonging to one of these three recognized religions were often persecuted. These nonconformists were sometimes forced to flee from their homes, and they often did not keep standard records partly because these records could provide damaging evidence if found by antagonistic authorities.
Finding and Using Religious Records
Most genealogists tracing their families in Europe will find church records to be the backbone of their research. The reason for this is simple: church records often predate other forms of records, such as civil registration, and they often include nearly everyone. Because religion was so closely tied to the state, religion was not generally a choice. Everyone belonged to a church—and usually to the state church. This means that even if your ancestors were poor peasants with no property or influential position, they would still be included in church records. Church records captured the important information needed to trace our families: birth, marriage, and death dates and places.
Church records are easy to find on FamilySearch. Because church records were kept at a local level (by the parish church), you need to look under these local parishes to find them. Visit the FamilySearch Catalog and search by the town where your ancestor went to church. In some places in Europe, most towns had their own church. In other places, people from several small towns came together to attend one church. Learn more by reading FamilySearch’s Wiki for your country. Type in the name of the country, and then look for the sections on Church Records and Church History. The majority of church records in Western Europe and a growing number in Eastern Europe have been filmed or digitized, and those that haven’t been digitized are being digitized at the rate of 1,000 microfilms per day. You can also help to make German Church records searchable by indexing on familysearch.org.
The Protestant Reformation’s effects reached into many areas. It shook up all of Europe and changed religious worship forever as well as challenged the established order and rearranged political powers. This year as we recognize its 500th anniversary, genealogists might also reflect on the role it played in their research.