The first step when beginning family history research is to collect family records. These are the records in your home or the home of a relative. The family Bible is frequently the most important of these records. Many of our ancestors lived before vital records were kept. The family Bible could be the only source of information about births, marriages and deaths for these ancestors.
Family Bibles are usually passed from parent to child sometimes traveling across the country or across an ocean. In times gone by, the family Bible was often the only book owned by a person and was considered a family’s most prized possession.
Family Bibles have special pages that are labeled for Marriages, Births, Baptisms and Deaths. These pages are the most likely place to find family information but they are not the only places. The Title Page may have an inscription indicating the owner of the Bible and the giver of the Bible if it was a gift. This could be an important clue to use for identifying relationships. The entire Bible should be checked for notations in the margins. Some times events were recorded in the margins close to the text that was used for that event. Also check for loose papers such as notes, funerals cards and obituaries that may have been placed between the pages of the Bible.
As with any source of written information, the family Bible should be evaluated for credibility. First, check the publication date against the date of recorded events. If the Bible was published in 1846 and a birth is recorded as 19 January 1769, you know that the birth was recorded well after the event occurred. This information is less likely to be accurate than information recorded closer to the time of the event.
Second, check the handwriting and ink to determine if they are the same. This is an indication that the entries may have been made at the same time by the same person If so, then it is likely that the person relied on memory to record the events rather than recording them as they occurred. If they were recorded as they happened, the ink for the individual entries would appear different. Are the entries made in chronological order? For example, are children recorded in their birth order or is a younger child recorded before their older sibling? If so, it is unlikely that they were recorded at the time the event took place.
If you have not found a family Bible in your family’s possessions, don’t loose hope. There may be one somewhere. Family historians have always considered family Bibles to be important sources for family history. Many family Bibles have been preserved and transcribed. The most likely places to find them are at libraries and at the historical and genealogical societies in the area where your ancestor lived.
Many historical and genealogical societies have published transcribed family Bibles. You should check the Periodical Source Index (PERSI). PERSI, which is published by the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is an index of over 6000 historical and genealogical periodicals going back to 1847. PERSI is a subject index, not an every name index. When searching, check not only the surname but also the locality to increase your chances of success. PERSI is available at the Denver Public Library, online at Ancestry.com and also on CD- ROM through Ancestry.
Family Bibles can be found through contact with cousins. These cousins are often the collateral lines that we don’t take the time to research but who share a common ancestor. The family Bible may have been passed down in their line of the family.
If you were lucky enough to inherit the family Bible, consider sharing that information by depositing a copy of the information in a local repository or publishing them in a genealogical journal. This will preserve the information if the Bible is lost or destroyed.
The family Bible is a great way to begin recording your family’s history or advance the research you have already started.