Family Bibles were far more than Christian stories on the windswept American frontier or a lucky charm clutched against an immigrant’s heart as he sailed toward the New World on a ship.
All during America’s infancy, into its adolescence, even up to just a few decades ago, family Bibles were often used as a combination of scrapbook, haphazard diary, log of births, funerals, baptisms and weddings and, if necessary, proof that one was born to a certain father with inheritance rights to his land.
In Tennessee, birth certificates were not required until 1908 and, to this day, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will accept a family Bible’s list of births as one proof of citizenship for those with no birth certificate.
“On the U.S. frontier, the family Bible might be the only book in existence for 100 miles,” State Librarian Chuck Sherrill says. “Those early Bibles did not have lined pages inside where you could record births, deaths and weddings the way modern Bibles do. Families inserted pages or wrote on the flyleaves of their Bibles. When families recorded the important events in their lives in the sacred book, it gave them a sense of permanence. These were books that were meant to be handed down through the generations.”
Because of the Bibles’ historical and genealogical importance, the Tennessee State Public Library has been collecting more than 1,500 family Bibles since the 1920s and, in a nod to our new high-tech world, all were recently scanned into a database now available to the public. Among the Bibles in the database are one published in 1538 (two years after Henry VIII beheaded Queen Anne Boleyn) and a bible from the Carson family of Dublin, published in 1753.
The database is a treasure trove for genealogists and historians, a record of a time when Tennessee was wildly dangerous and human life seemed especially small and fragile. Documenting one’s life in those early Bibles was a vote of hope that the family would exist in the future.
Cinnamon Collins is the volunteer who scanned all the Bibles into the database. She scanned the pages with notations on them but also read and examined the materials tucked inside — photographs, locks of a sweetheart’s hair, newspaper clippings, mementos. All the entries she saw were handwritten and sometimes difficult to read.
Sherrill also cautions that researchers using the family Bibles should know that the information was not fact-checked.
Historians have noted anomalies in the way different ethnicities and races use family Bibles. Some families altered wedding dates to protect the privacy of children born out of wedlock, for example, while Quaker families dispensed with that subterfuge.
Southern Adventist University history department head Lisa Diller says historians are often fascinated by comparisons of information in family Bibles to government data/ “(The Bible information) shows how people saw their family structure and what they thought was important to their identity and the family group,” Diller explains.
Veteran genealogists observe that some Bibles offer more detailed family trees of the spouse with whose family owns the most land or the most widely respected name, she says. Some family Bibles offer a cause of death which differs from the one listed on the public record. Was the family hiding a secret or did the government want to avoid a panic about a possible flu epidemic?
“Those kinds of discrepancies are interesting; were there things that people didn’t want written down?” she asks.
She also wonders about the pre-Civil War practice of some rich Kentucky families who recorded the births of slaves and the names of the newborn’s enslaved parents. Slaves had no legal right to marry or keep their babies if the owners wanted to sell them, she notes, so did the impulse to record slave births on pages just a few flips away from the Bible owner’s white children indicate a genuine emotion toward the slaves? Or was it a cold-blooded way of staking a claim?
Future historians may have even more data to absorb if they study some current family Bibles. Page Goodman, floor manager at LifeWay Christian bookstore near Hamilton Place, found some family Bibles that had entries for “Blessings, Times of Hardship, Answered Prayers and a photo album.” One Bible had a place where the hair and eye color of newborns could be noted.
“I’d say this is a recent trend. Most Bibles focus on births, deaths and weddings in the pages for family history,” she says.
On Amazon, a popular King James Version African-American Family Bible published by Devore & Sons includes expansive family history pages including a place to record military records.
Contact Lynda Edwards at email@example.com and 423-757-6391.
Lynda Edwards has covered just about every beat there is while working for The Associated Press, PBS as a Frontline and Nightly Business Report associate producer, Gannett in the heart of Louisiana Cajun country as well as newspapers in Miami, Tucson AZ, Colorado and Arkansas. She has freelanced for The New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, Vogue, Rolling Stone and The Washington Monthly. While at the ABA Journal, she won a Fourth Estate Award, Lisagor ...