Your Family Bible and Genealogy Research


If you are fortunate to possess or perhaps find your family Bible, it may not only provide a glimpse into the spiritual and social customs of your ancestors, but it may also offer valuable insights into your genealogy research.


Family Bibles are commonly listed in genealogy reference books as starting places for building your family tree. For more experienced genealogists, the family Bible, especially a recently discovered one, might provide hints on “unknown” or “missing” ancestors, fill in gaps on dates, and/or provide new information, such as locations, church names, or maiden names. In the days before the systematic recordkeeping of births, deaths, and marriages by states, counties, and/or towns, family Bibles were often the primary source of this information. For example, family Bible records were once used, among other personal documents, to support pension or land claims.


“The Revolutionary War pension and bounty-land warrant application files contain many 18th-century documents such as commissions, discharges, deeds, wills, diaries, journals, muster rolls, newspaper clippings, letters, marriage certificates, and family Bible pages.” 1


While the discovery of a family Bible may be fun and exciting, as with any genealogical resource, you should maintain your professional skepticism. Current genealogy evidence standards support the need for evaluating the validity and reliability of Bible records, which can be done in a number of ways. In Evidence Explained, a primer on citing genealogical sources, Mills explains: “As researchers, we can take no record at face value.”2  She cautions that with family Bibles, dates and entries may have been intentionally misrepresented: “A marriage entry in an original family Bible might have been backdated to hide the early birth of a firstborn.”3 When citing the Bible as a source, Mills advises that the citation address at least two key issues: “whatever provenance is known for the material; any characteristics (ink, penmanship, damage, etc.) that affect your analysis or interpretation of the data within this source.”4


Example of glued-in family records, Waters Bible, Montgomery History Bibles Collection

Jerome Anderson, a former reference librarian at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, emphasizes that one should look at the family Bible “within its own context”—that is, evaluating it as a whole and in consideration of its provenance (or ownership over time) and other information you may have collected. Other considerations for using Bible records:


  • Are you looking at the original Bible, a reproduction, excerpts, and/or a transcript (where someone hand copied information out of a Bible)? Poor quality reproductions, incomplete pages, or incomplete or erroneous transcripts can result in incomplete or incorrect information.


  • Has the Bible remained in the family? This consideration relates to the context question Anderson raised and alludes to the whether entries were made by individuals who had first-hand knowledge of events.


  • Have original entries been changed? After-the-fact modifications call into question the validity and reliability of records, which highlights the importance of checking other sources as well.


  • Were all the records entered at the same time? It’s not wholly uncommon to find a family Bible in which all of the family records spanning multiple generations were entered in the same handwriting and ink or in which event dates occurred prior to the publication of the Bible. If it appears that records were all entered in one sitting, “it is less likely that all dates are correct than if each event was recorded as it occurred.”5 This means that in multi-generational Bibles, you would hope to see a mix of different handwriting styles and ink.


Example of different writing over time, Chiswell Bible, Montgomery History Bibles Collection


When working with Bible records, best practice requires that you attempt to corroborate the information with other sources, such as available civic records, church records, or land records, as well as attempt to resolve conflicts between records.


Not sure if your ancestors had a family Bible? Here are some tips for tracking it down:6


  • Check with distant relatives, as the Bible may have been passed down through their lines. Bibles were commonly passed down to oldest sons or daughters.


  • Check other people’s sources when reading genealogies of your ancestors and using online genealogy databases.


  • Check probate records, as they may provide property inventories and lines of inheritance.


  • Search the Internet; Bibles might be found on rare book or online auction sites or in research libraries and repositories (such as historical societies).


  • Contact the local historical society or State library in the region where your ancestors lived to see if they have family Bible collections.


  • Obtain military pension record files for Revolutionary War ancestors.


  • Search for published records or transcripts. For example, the Jane C. Sween Research Library has a number of books containing transcripts of family Bibles.


< Back to The Bibles Collection                                                                                                             Continue to Preserving Your Bible >


[Return to Exhibition Home Page]

  1. Nudd, Genealogy Notes
  2. Mills, p. 33
  3. Mills, p.33
  4. Mills, p. 140
  5. Rising, NGSQ, p. 259
  6. Carmach, NGSQ, p. 297