Poland Church History

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Church History

Research procedures and genealogical sources are different for each religion. It is helpful to understand the historical events that led to the creation of records your family was listed in, such as parish registers.

The following timeline shows important dates concerning church record-keeping in Poland:

1563 The Roman Catholic council of Trent required Catholic parishes throughout Europe to record baptisms and marriages. Few Polish parishes complied until the 1590s.

1565 The parish priests were asked to make at the end of each year the extracts of the previous year’s records and to send them to the bishop, whose responsibility was to keep them at his archive.

1614 A revised church proclamation repeated the order to keep church books and added a requirement to maintain death registers. Many more parishes complied.

1781 The Austrian Empire recognized religious rights of non-Catholics with the Edict of Toleration.

1784 The Austrian Empire began requiring civil transcripts of church records under Catholic supervision.

1794 Prussia introduced civil transcripts of church records.

1807 Duchy of Warsaw established under jurisdiction of Napoleon’s French Empire. Expanded to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in 1809.

1808 Napoleon’s civil code introduced. Civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths were to be kept in the Duchy of Warsaw written in Polish language. Catholic clergy were generally responsible for making transcripts of their church records for the state, including records of the Protestants and Jews.

1827 Revision of the civil transcript law of Congress Poland let Protestants and Jews keep their own vital records.

1830s Protestants and Jews in Austria, including those of the Polish area of Galicia, were allowed to keep their own civil transcripts of vital records. The practice was standardized by 1840.

1868 Russian law required civil transcripts throughout Congress Poland be kept in Russian language.

1918 The Republic of Poland was created, reuniting Polish territory. Laws regarding keeping vital records were gradually standardized throughout the republic.

Roman Catholic (rzymsko-katolicki)

The Roman Catholic faith was accepted in Poland in A.D. 966 (the date considered to be the founding of Poland) and became the predominant faith in Poland by 1573. Although Protestantism made some inroads in the 1700s, Catholicism has remained the dominant religion of Poland.

Greek Catholic (grecko-katolicki)

In 1595 Orthodox Ukrainians were formally brought into union with the Roman Catholic Church. They retained their orthodox liturgy and doctrine but recognized the authority of the Roman Catholic pope. This church is generally found in the southeast area of Poland. Many Greek Catholics affiliated with either the Russian Orthodox or the Roman Catholic church after they emigrated to the United States.

Russian Orthodox (prawosławny)

The Russian Orthodox faith stems from the Byzantine Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054. Russian Orthodoxy gained a limited foothold in Congress Poland during Russia’s control. Its members in Poland were predominantly of Russian or Belorussian ethnic background.

Protestant (ewangelicki)

In understanding the Protestant churches in Poland, it is important to differentiate between the word "Lutheran (or Lutheranism)" used as an adjective (to describe people who follow the teachings of Martin Luther) and used as a noun to name the Church these people attended. Similarly, the Polish word, "ewangelicki" as an adjective generically describes Protestants in Poland but, as a noun, it refers specifically to the church which Luther's followers attended. In historic Poland, there was no Lutheran (noun) church but there was the Augsburg Evangelical Church which followed Luther's teachings. In Warsaw Archives, any reference to records of Ewangelicki (where the word stands alone) churches are almost certainly to be considered as those of the Augsburg Evangelical Church. Other references might specifically designate the Reformed Evangelical Church. This is a confusing but important distinction for those of us who are more familiar with North American naming patterns for churches.

Because Poland is predominantly Catholic, many religious groups were severely persecuted until the Warsaw Confederation in 1573, when toleration laws were passed and the various Christian denominations were assured protection by the state. Thereafter, Poland became a haven for people who were persecuted elsewhere. Many persecuted Protestant groups were offered safe shelter in Poland, including Anabaptists, Bohemian Brethren (aka Moravian Brethren), and others. Mennonites, Baptists, Brethren, Calvinists, and other groups have existed in Poland since the mid-1500s.

Calvinism, or the Evangelical Reformed Church, gained some followers among the Polish gentry. A few Calvinist Swiss refugees settled in Poland quite early. Most Calvinists in Poland were limited to ethnic Swiss Germans and were far fewer in number than the Lutherans.

Although Lutheranism (the Augsburg Confession or Evangelical Church) had only a small following in Poland, they did become firmly established among the German population. The Prussian provinces of Pomerania, Brandenburg, and East Prussia were settled by Germans from the 11th through the 13th centuries, and by 1880 Lutherans comprised 94% of the population of Brandenburg, 97% of Pomerania, and 86% of East Prussia.

At the partitions of Poland in 1772–95, Prussia gained the provinces of Silesia, Posen, and West Prussia, and German Lutherans began colonizing these previously Polish territories. By 1880 just under half of the population of Silesia and West Prussia and a third of the population of Posen was Lutheran. When parts or all of these Prussian territories became part of Poland at the end of World Wars I and II, most of the German Lutherans moved west into Germany.

Lutheran Germans also settled in other Polish territory taken by Prussia in 1795. This area of central Poland was for a time called South Prussia. It was incorporated into the Duchy of Warsaw from 1806–15 and became part of Congress Poland in 1815. Some of the Germans in this area remained in the Russian held parts of Poland, and others moved further east to Volhynia in Western Ukraine. In the late 1800s, when conditions worsened for these German colonists, many moved to German settlements near the Black Sea, to Germany, or to the United States. Well over 3000 villages within Russian Poland have been shown to have had German settlers in them.

For more information on Germans who lived in Prussia, see the German Research Outline (34061). Histories of the German Lutheran communities that remained in parts of the former Congress Poland and Prussian territories that became part of the post–World War II era are given in:

  • Kneifel, Eduard. Die evangelischaugsburgischen Gemeinden in Poland 1555–1939 (The Evangelical-Augsburg Parishes in Poland 1555–1939). München, Germany: Eduard Kneifel, 1972. (FHL book 943.8 K2ka; fiche 6000812.) (currently available online as a FREE download)

For more information about the history of the Lutherans, Calvinists, Mennonites, and other minorities, see:

  • Klassen Peter J. A Homeland for Strangers: an Introduction to Mennonites in Poland and Prussia. Fresno, California: Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1989. (943.8 F2k.)
  • Kneifel, Eduard. Geschichte der Evangelisch-Augsburgischen Kirche in Polen(History of the Evangelical-Augsburg Church in Poland). Niedermarschacht über Winsen/Luhe: Eduard Kneifel, 1964. (FHL book 943.8 K2k.) (currently available online as a FREE download)
  • Kupsch, Eduard. Geschichte der Baptisten in Polen 1852–1932 (History of the Baptists in Poland 1852–1932). Zduńska-Wola: Eduard Kupsch,1932. (FHL book 943.8 K2ke; film 1183574, item 8.)
  • Schrag, Martin H. The European History of the Swiss Mennonites from Volhynia. North Newton, Kansas: Mennonite Press, 1974. (FHL book 940 F2s; film 1045361, item 5.)
  • Tazbir, Janusz. A State Without Stakes: Polish Religious Toleration in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.(The Library of Polish studies.) Chicago, Illinois: Kościusko Foundation, 1973. (943.8 H2Lp v. 3.)
  • Wandering Volhynians: A Magazine for the Descendants of Germans from Volhynia and Poland.Vancouver, B.C., Canada: Ewald Wuschke, 1989–. (FHL book 947.718 D25w.)