Genealogy 101: #4 The Family Bible

Introduction: In this article – part of an ongoing “Introduction to Genealogy” series – Gena Philibert-Ortega discusses how helpful family Bibles can be for your family history research, and suggests places where family Bibles can be found. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

The family Bible: it can be the holy grail of family history research, but its promise of information isn’t always what it seems to be. Why are Bible records so sought after? What do they tell us? And if you weren’t lucky enough to inherit the family Bible, is there any hope for finding it?

Photo: family Bible in the possession of the author
Photo: family Bible in the possession of the author. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

Family Bibles

Some of the first facts family historians try to find are the date and place for their ancestor’s birth, marriage, and death. In previous generations, old family Bibles were used to record vital record events in the life of a family. They were also used by families to “prove” these events in trying to secure benefits like military pensions. For the years before vital records registration was mandatory nationwide, the family Bible can be one of the few sources for information on these events.

Photo: family records entered into a Bible
Photo: family records entered into a Bible in the possession of the author. Credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega.

Prior to the 20th century, Bibles were important gifts for newly married couples. Family Bibles allowed a couple to document their marriage, births of children, family deaths, and family history information for posterity, and to use as proof when needed. Eventually, the recording of family history information in old family Bibles was superseded by mandatory vital record registration nationwide, as mentioned in this 1911 newspaper article about the growingly obsolete family Bible.

An article about family Bibles, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 7 January 1911
Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 7 January 1911, page 4

Evaluate the Evidence

Perhaps you are lucky enough to have the coveted family Bible. So, you have everything you need about your ancestor’s birth, marriage, and death, right?

Although it can seem like a slam dunk when you find an entry for your ancestor in a family Bible, it’s important to remember to evaluate the evidence. Family Bible documentation may not be accurate. For example, information on a birth may have been written years after the event occurred, making it prone to error. So, if you’re lucky enough to find a family Bible, consider the following points in evaluating the accuracy of its information:

  • Does the date of the vital record event occur before the publication date of the Bible? A birth date for 1880 in a Bible with a publication date of 1920 means that the birth wasn’t entered for at least 40 years, meaning it could contain errors.
  • Is all the information written in different inks and handwriting – or does it look like everything was written at the same time? If someone took a few minutes to “catch-up” their Bible entries, that indicates that they weren’t recorded at the time of the events. The information should be verified with other records.
  • Whose Bible is it? Was it grandma’s Bible, and she listed all her children’s births as they occurred? Or was it her out-of-state brother’s Bible who was notified of the births via a letter? Did the person who entered the information have first-hand knowledge of the events? In some cases, you may not know whose hand penned the entries and how they knew about the events they recorded.

We should never assume a Bible record is absolutely correct. We need to evaluate what it is telling us and, if possible, seek out additional documentation.

Who Has the Family Bible?

What if you didn’t inherit the family Bible? Don’t worry; many of us are not that lucky. While some Bibles are passed down through the generations, others get sold off or given to non-family members. So even though family Bibles are considered a home source for genealogy, they may not be in your home. When searching for possible family Bibles remember that they can end up in archival collections – as well as for sale on auction websites like eBay. It’s important to be on the lookout for what may be available.

If you are searching for a family Bible, first do the obvious thing and ask family members. The family Bible may be with a family member who has it stored in their closet or under the bed. You can also find possible cousins who have that Bible by posting a family tree online through a free or paid subscription genealogy website, or by creating a blog or family website, so that potential cousins can find you. You can also use social media websites to find others and leave a trail back to you.

Large family Bible collections are one place to search. One example is found on the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) website, which has an online index of more than 60,000 family Bible records. You can search this Bible Records and Transcriptions database on the DAR website. You may believe that searching for one of your family surnames is a long-shot – but when I looked, I was pleasantly surprised to find a pertinent result for a family Bible record pages for my paternal side that I had no idea existed. Once you find a name you’re interested in you’ll need to contact the DAR Library for assistance retrieving additional information.

A source for Virginia family Bibles is the Library of Virginia, which has over 6,800 original or photocopied Bibles. For additional nationwide digitized family Bible records, see the Digital Public Library of America website.

eBay is a great place to find old family Bibles as they’re often resold after being purchased at an estate sale or thrift store.

Lastly, don’t forget about old newspapers when searching for possible Bible records, such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.

For example, this 1982 Texas newspaper column provides transcriptions of information from the family Bibles of readers.

An article about family Bibles, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 22 July 1982
Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 22 July 1982, page 34

To get more ideas for finding family Bibles online, see the Family Bibles page on Cyndi’s List.

Your Family Bible

Are you lucky enough to have a copy of the ancestral family Bible? How have you made those family history pages available to others? How has that record helped you? Please let us know in the comments section below.

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