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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
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:
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