Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Family Records : Family Bibles

Testament to a Family

[This article was first published in the now obsolete Discover My Past England 2009]

Gladwin Family Bible - Courtesy of Mr Tim New

Many of our ancestors shared our desire to keep a record of their families through time – but, for them, there was no slow and costly piecing together of census returns and birth, marriage and death certificates. Rather, they would simply turn to that most prized of Victorian possessions - the family Bible – and examine what their forefathers had written there. When babies were born, siblings married or parents died, they would mark the occasion by adding their own entries. When they themselves died, the book would be passed on to a member of the next generation whom it was hoped would keep up the tradition.

Bibles had a multiple function in the nineteenth-century family home, providing spiritual comfort; entertainment; and education. If they were wealthy, your family may have possessed a heavy, leather-bound and (by the end of the nineteenth century) richly illustrated edition. From 1804 onwards, the British and Foreign Bible Society made cheaper editions of the Bible increasingly available to the poor.

Gladwin Family Bible - Courtesy of Mr Tim New

What am I likely to find out from a family Bible?

Entries written in a family Bible can vary from the frustratingly useless, ‘Father died yesterday,’ to the very helpful, ‘John Gates died at Bath February 4th 1789.’ Occasionally you will come across a gem in which far more information is conveyed. Imagine the American Sisson family’s delight to find this entry in their family Bible published in 1790:

My mother Elizabeth Sisson died in Lyons, March 8, 1826, aged 62 years 11 months & 7 days, & her remains were interred in the cemetery of the Presbyterian church, in the Village of Lyons, Wayne County, N.Y. March 10, 1826. On her coffin was a silver plate with this inscription engraven thereon:

‘Mrs. E. Sisson, died March 8, 1826. Aged 62 years’

Her funeral sermon was preached by the Rev. Lucas Hubbell from 12 Chap.
Ecclesiastes, latter part of Verse 5 ‘because man goeth to his long home,
and the mourners go about the streets.’

Whatever depth of information your ancestor chose to record, it will usually be found on  the inside of the front cover of the Bible and on its flyleaf . Sometimes a ‘Register’ (a single page with ruled lines) was printed inside the Bible specifically to allow the recording of family tree information. Occasionally the information is to be found on the blank pages between the Old and New Testaments, and you should also check for handwriting behind loose pictures in the Bible, and in the margins of the text.

Finding a Bible can save weeks of work by providing you with information about many generations and various branches of your family all at once. Bible records that combine names and dates with places where events took place can significantly help speed up searches for certificates at record offices.

Bible entries may include:

·       dates of births, marriages, deaths

·       dates of christenings and burials

·       the places in which births, marriages and deaths, christenings and burials  took place

·       causes of death

·       dates of when family members enlisted in the army

·       the maiden names of women marrying into the family

·       records of church membership or membership of other organisations

·       the names of godparents

·       an indication of which parts of the Bible were read out at births, marriages and deaths

Bible Box: Image courtesy of Mrs Jane Devonald

How accurate is the information likely to be?

Although you may be tempted to think otherwise, even the information recorded in a Bible can be incorrect. Make sure that you check the Bible’s date of publication. Sometimes this can be difficult as title pages may be missing or torn. If the title page of the Old Testament is missing, check to see if there is a title page for the New Testament. Then compare the date of publication of the Bible with the date of the first entry made by your ancestor. Was the family tree started when the Bible was bought, or was much of the information written in retrospect? If the latter is the case, the entries (since they would have been made from memory) are less likely to be accurate.

If the entries were written one by one as the events occurred, then it is likely that they are fairly accurate. But, if a lot of entries appear to have been made by the same hand and at the same time, this can indicate that some of the information was transcribed from another source and you need to be aware that mistakes may have been made. Compare the person’s handwriting with other examples of family handwriting that you may have to help you decide whether or not the same person did indeed make all the entries. Be careful with ballpoint pen entries. Such pens were not in common use until World War Two.

Ask yourself whether the person who made the entries was actually in attendance at the event recorded – this is particularly important if the event occurred in another country. Entries that have been made out of chronological sequence or squeezed in between others to force them into sequence may also be inaccurate.

Try to look at the actual pages of your family bible yourself or at a digitised image of those pages. Don’t rely on the transcriptions of another member of the family, as these may be inaccurate.

To be absolutely sure of the information written in a family Bible, you really need to corroborate it with information from birth, marriage and death certificates, parish registers and other records.

What else to look for?

Bibles may indicate the religious denomination to which your ancestor belonged – Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian etc. Many were acquired as Sunday School prizes and these may include bookplates with useful references to the churches or chapels attended by your ancestors.

Your Bible may exhibit signs of heavy use, (indicating that the family were fairly devout) and certain biblical passages may be marked as special by underscorings in the text. Other Bibles may have marginal notes which indicate which passages were repeatedly read out at family occasions such as funerals or christenings.  

The Bible’s thick pages may have provided a ready-made flat storage area for other family documents such as obituaries from the local newspaper, letters, photographs, deeds, congratulations cards, handwritten speeches from important family occasions, details of life insurance payments, and copies of wills. Some lucky family historians have even chanced across bracelets made from locks of the family’s hair and pieces of dresses worn at family occasions between the pages of a Family Bible!

How might I find my family Bible?

If your family Bible isn’t lurking in the attic or in a box in the garage, there are a number of different ways you might find it:

  • contact as many different branches of your family as possible and ask whether or not they remember the existence of a Bible and if so, what its whereabouts might be
  • try the churches, libraries, historical or genealogical societies local to the area in which your family lived
  • search online. In America, Bible preservation is big business and there are many websites ( for example, where the information in family Bibles has been scanned and then transcribed so that it is available to all interested parties. The British website aims to do the same.
  • Buy it on the auction site, Ebay, ( This always has a number of family Bibles up for sale
Of course, you may never find your family Bible. It’s possible that your ancestors didn’t have the means to afford a holy book of their own, or the literacy to write in it even if they did. If their children moved out of an area, the Bible may have been lost or damaged, or may have fallen into the possession of a relation who didn’t care about its contents. Also, it’s sadly true that over the years many nineteenth-century family bibles have turned up in the hands of booksellers or auction houses who – not being able to sell them on the basis of their genealogical content – often threw them away.  

Even if you don’t find your own family Bible, there is, of course, one thing that you really should do. Make sure that you start one of your own. Modern day bibles often have special pages set aside for recording family trees. If bibles don’t appeal, you can alternatively record your tree in some other book, or in some other way. There is no doubt that your descendents will thank you for it one day.

Useful Websites  Lists details of family Bibles sold on Ebay. American website dedicated to transcribing and digitising the genealogical records written in family Bibles and other documents from 1500 onwards. British Family Bibles site set up to save old bibles from destruction. You can search for your family surname at this site and there are images of some family bibles. Gives list of other sites (including some commercial ones) through which you can search for your family bible

Keywords: European ancestors, family history, Bible, Family Bible, genealogy

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