By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
Before the times of digitized records, microfilms, and family history programs used to store genealogical data, families recorded their births, marriages, deaths, and baptisms in the family bible. Family bibles are priceless to genealogists because they contain primary source information about family events.
A primary source record was written at the time that an incident occurred, or shortly thereafter, by someone who was involved. Unlike secondary source material, which was recorded at a later time, primary source information is not hearsay. Most of the events you will find recorded in a family bible were written down by the family record-keeper, often the matriarch of the family, shortly after they happened.
Where can you find family bibles? They can be in the possession of antique dealers or collectors, or they can be part of a family bible record collection. Bible record collections aim to transcribe the information in family bibles and make them available to researchers. Some bible collections with online indexes are: The Bible Archives, Bible Records Online, and Family Bible Records.
It is most likely, however, that your family bible is still in your family’s possession. Talk to living relatives like your aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents. Even if they don’t have the bible, they may know the distant cousin who does. Once you track down the current owner of the family bible, you can ask him or her for the genealogical information it contains. He or she probably won’t want to part with the bible to loan it to you, but you can ask for a transcription or a photocopy. Get a photocopy of the pages if you can, because you can learn a lot by evaluating the ink and handwriting.
Family information is usually recorded in the front of the bible, but ask if you can check the other pages as well. Sometimes documents, photos, or other mementos are tucked in between the pages.
Most, but not all, information in a family bible is primary source material. There are a few simple ways to tell if the information in the bible was written down at the time that the events happened. Check the publication date of the bible, advises genealogist George Morgan (Morgan 1998). If the bible was published after the events on the family record page occurred, they were all written down much later, and this information is not primary.
You should also pay attention to variations in ink and handwriting. If the handwriting changes, that means that information was recorded at different times or by different people. If some of the ink looks especially faded, that text was probably written down earlier than the rest. On the other hand, if the ink and handwriting all looks the same, the information must have all been written down at the same time, after the events occurred. This kind of secondary information is not necessarily incorrect, but it needs to be evaluated carefully. It is also important to be aware that family record-keepers may have altered information that they didn’t want future generations to know. A wedding date may have been “fudged” to hide the fact that a child was born less than nine months after marriage, for instance.
As long as you carefully evaluate the information from a family bible, it is one of the greatest genealogical sources you’ll ever encounter. Only in a family bible will you find the births of children who died young, in between censuses, who were not recorded anywhere else. And only in a family bible will you find your family’s genealogical events, recorded in your ancestor’s own hand.
Morgan, George G. 1998. Questioning the Bible.
“Along those Lines…”
www.ancestry.com (accessed August 4, 2007).