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Finnish Genealogy: Finnish Church Records

Leif Mether

Finnish genealogists usually consider Finnish church records to be the best in the world. That is the reason why it is easy to do genealogical research in Finland. Is this true or is it only a way to bring out the excellence of your own country in comparison to other countries?

In many European countries, church records begin in the 1300s, while the oldest records in Finland begin in late 1600s. The opinion that Finnish church records are the best in world must consequently be founded on something other than their age.

Usually church books consist of records of births, marriages and deaths as well as accounts. That is the case with older church records in Finland (the oldest records are church accounts from 1469). But the most important church records used by Finnish genealogists are the communion books (in Finnish rippikirja, in Swedish kommunionbok). They start during the two last decades of the 1600s and are found only in Finland and Sweden. It is a unique source usually neglected by researchers familiar with research in other European Countries.

The communion books are records where base information of families and single people living on the same farm are presented on the same page or at least as a whole for a period of 5 or 10 years. Some of the information is important for the church and its religious life (i.e. The Holy Communion, baptism, etc.), while other information is considered to be population register information (i.e. births, etc.).

On the farms there usually were several families living at the same time. The families are presented as separate groups usually with farm-hands and maidens in connection to the families they worked for, or in separate groups for unmarried people at the end of the page. Sometimes craftsmen, soldiers, farm-hands and other non-landowners are presented in alpabetical lists at the end of the book.

For every farm it lists who owned the farm and the name of the farmer. After the farmer one can find the name of his wife and the children in chronological order. If someone is dead his or her name is probably overlined. If the wife is dead her name is probably overlined and the name of a new wife is found somewhere towards bottom of the page. Maybe the pastor made a symbol in front of the farmer's name and a similar symbol in front of the new wife's name to show they were a couple. Other married people may be marked the same.

Every five or 10 years the pastor started a new book, then copied the base information from the old book to the new one, and left out all information which was not actual any more. Information out of date included deaths, people moved away, etc. The pastors sometimes made errors when they copied the information. They took information from two different lines and wrote it down on one line or they used incorrect dates for births and marriages.

In the beginning there was not much information in the communion books. The name of the people with some information about the religious life may be all you'd find. As time went on more information was added and the communion book became the most important source when tracing someone from cradle to grave.

Important for the church was information about baptism, marriage and burial. Other important information includes the date of confirmation and the knowledge if someone knew the catechism, could read and.write. The genealogist can use the data to build a picture of the individual when no other personal information is found. Important details in the communion books are the dates when people took part in the Holy Communion. Everyone who had fulfilled the confirmation had to take part in the Holy Communion several times a year, so the pastor made notes who visited the church a certain Sunday. If information about the Holy Communion is missing for an individual it may be an evidence that he or she was away or sick. A male may have been in military service or in jail, while a female could not take part in the Holy Communion a certain time after giving birth to a child. If the markings begin in certain year one can assume someone moved into the farm or reached an age where one could take part in the Holy Communion. Reversed, one can assume someone moved away or died.

Population register information found in the communion books are - besides the names - dates of births and deaths as well as the place of birth. Especially in newer communion books one finds information about people's moves. Sometimes the regiments and companies are mentioned for male in military service. Common are notes about crimes and punishments. Notes about stealing a hen or drunkenness may be the only information about someones mentality. Physical disabilities area common: blind, death, limping, etc.

The communion books are written in Swedish to the second half of the 1800s. For that reason they may be easier to understand for people who only speaking English. A bigger problem especially with the older communion books are the difficulties to decipher the text. They are written using an old Gothic style of handwriting and the pastors tried to use as little as possible of the expensive paper; they used as small letters as possible. Overcrossings and cancellations make it difficult to see what the original text was on the line. Sometimes the ink from the backside has penetrated the paper and the text floats into a spot where nothing can be separated.. Some communion books were lost while others were damaged by fire, water or careless handling in general.

Is it possible to do genealogy in Finland without using communion books? It is possible, but not recommendable. It is much more difficult to do genealogical research only using the history books, i.e. the records of births, marriages and deaths. In the birth records one can find a child and also get the names of the parents where they lived. But is it possible to find the grandparents when you do not know when and where the parents were born? One can not use only the names of the parents, because there maybe several couples with the same combinations of names. The only way is to search in the communion book when there is one. But one must also look through the history books to be sure none of the children are missing (sometimes those who died as children are left out from the communion book). In other words: it is important to use all church records parallel with each other and to combine the information found.

It is not enough to use only one communion book. One must trace an individual from one book to another to get an intact chain of information. There are many examples of genealogists who forgot that rule. They have perhaps missed the second wife of a farmer when both wives have the same name - not uncommon in old times when the number of names was limited in comparison to our times.

Nowadays it is common to search for information on the Internet. A database with births, marriages and deaths excerpted from Finnish church records, the HisKi database, is found on the web at http://www.genealogia.fi.

I know there are many genealogists thinking it is possible to make genealogical research only using HisKi. Unfortunately it is not so easy. One must use the communion books and the history books at the same time. And HisKi is only an index to the historty books.

The communion books may be easy to read and understand, but it may still be difficult to find someone. There are hardly ever indexes in the communion books and the farms may not be in an alphabetical order. Usually the farms are presented village by village.

Inside a village they may be in the same order the pastor used to make his yearly trip examining the people in their knowledge of the cathecism, reading, etc. Of great help is to know the geography of the reagion. Usually one is forced to search the communion book page by page to find the one who is missing. It may be a hard job, especially because the search has to be made on microfilm.

The communion books are generally fairly big, perhaps up to 1-2 feet by 3-4 feet and 2 inches thick.

One important helper when searching in the communion books are the records of movings, especially in the 1800s. From these records one can see when and where people moved. Sometimes the moving records point directly to a certain page in the communion book. It is important to note villages, farms and pages from the history books.

There may be some differences in the data found in the communion books and the history books. Even the data may differ in communion books as pointed out above, because.the pastor made errors when writing and copying the books. Usually it is considered that information in the history books is more accurate than corresponding information in the communion books. In the same manner an older communion book is considered more accurate than a newer communion book. It is important that the genealogist himself make the decision which information can be trusted.

In Finland genealogists are not reduced only to use one type of records. The use of several different records should be promoted, even if it cause more work for the genealogist.

It is also possible to research the Finns' descendants in North America using Finnish-American church records. However, communion books are rare.

The Finnish-American congregations used to keep records of births, marriages and deaths. They also kept a record of the members, usually grouped family by family. A lot of information can be found for each individual, but the records can't be compared to the Finnish communion books. They are of great importance in FinnishAmerican genealogy and give a go0od result combined with information from Vital Records and other sources.

Published in the The Finnish American Reporter, July 2000.

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