Prior to easily retrievable birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates, and digitized record keeping in general, the family Bible held the ultimate narrative of ancestral history.
They’re a treasure trove for both genealogists and historians. For example, here’s a simple entry in the Lampton family Bible, which was carried from southwest Virginia as the household migrated to eastern Kentucky: “Jane Lampton, born 1803, married John M. Clemens” Lampton and Clemens were the mother and father of Samuel L. Clemens –Mark Twain.
More often than not, the family Bible was the only written record of births, marriages and deaths of loved ones. In addition, between the leaves of this precious possession one could expect to find a wealth of newspaper clippings, letters, photos, and other ephemera pressed for safekeeping over generations of forbears.
It was understood that the book was to be carefully guarded and passed along: “1960 — This Bible goes to Mary Rose. after I am done with it. Momie [sic] Promised it to her. Dad” And: “I wonder how old this old Bible is. Gert gave it to me sometime after Mother Hawkins died. Someday it will be yours. Love, Mother.”
Most family Bibles present dates without any embellishment, but every now and again a quirky personality shines through. The transcriber of Thomas Snelling’s death entry seems obsessively precise in noting the time: “Thomas C Snelling died Dec 25, 1884 half past 1 o’clock and burried ten minuts of 12 the 26″ [original spellings].
It was illegal for any printer in the Colonies to produce the English Bible. Publication of the King James Version of Scripture was controlled by Oxford and Cambridge University Presses as well as other printers licensed by the king.
In response, Colonial printers created a ‘family Bible’ with the addition of record keeping ability to circumvent the copyright restrictions of English law. They frequently included blank pages for multi-generational notes and commentary, as well as engravings and illustrations. These Bibles were sold in inexpensive serial editions.
After the Revolutionary War, the budding American legislature wasn’t any more friendly to Bible printers. “An effort was made in its first Congress to restrict the printing of the [Bible] to licensed houses,” says the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature.
However, this political attempt to continue regulated distribution “was cut short by the first amendment to the Constitution, and the book was thrown into the hands of the trade at large, with anything but a beneficial effect on its general integrity.”
England refused to send its former colonies any more Bibles, so demand for the Good Book was high and supply was low. Isaac Collins rose to the challenge in his Trenton, NJ print shop. He pre-sold 3,000 copies before the project was even begun, and by the time the presses stopped, 5,000 copies awaited eager hands.
Rag cotton linen paper was a precious commodity in early America, which forced Collins to resort to wood-pulp paper. His choice of stock was somewhat thicker than that used for books today. The resulting folio had the unintended benefit of more heft, greater durability, and a therefore a built-in likelihood of arriving at heirloom status.
Isaac Collins produced the most influential American Bible from the late 1700’s until the mid 1800’s, originating the “Family Bible” format we’ve come to know today.
source: “Imperial Bibles, Domestic Bodies: Women, Sexuality, and Religion in the Victorian Market” (review): English Studies in Canada – Volume 32, Issue 2-3, June/September 2006, pp. 203-206
The First American Bible, by Margaret T. Hills, American Bible Society, 1968
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, edited by John M’Clintock and James Strong, Vol. I, pg. 563, Baker Book House, 1981