It’s not surprising that the Newberry holds many family Bibles, given the library’s renowned collections for Genealogy and Local History and for Religion. These span centuries of both family history and printing history, from a 1590 Belgian edition belonging to the Lowrie family in 19th-century Pennsylvania, to the 1701 Lutheran Bible of the Wennberg and Kelter families with over two centuries of manuscript records, to an 1882 American edition which served as the family bible of the Thorntons, an African-American family in Colorado, including photographs and family records.
Family Bibles are passed down through generations as repositories of family records of life events, from births and deaths to keepsakes and memories. Few books have such personal meaning to their owners, or are as evocative of the many powerful roles that books (and particularly religious books) play in peoples’ lives. A recently acquired 1838 edition which served as the Hatfield family Bible contains wonderful, and heartbreaking, documentation of family life between and on its pages. Pages for marriages, births, and deaths appear between the two Testaments, and document the growth of the family of Robert M. Hatfield and Elizabeth Ann Taft. Elizabeth appears to have been the family record-keeper.
Among the ephemera inserted between the pages of the Bible is a colorful needlepoint sampler which reads, “We miss our babe/ when evening/ gathers round us/ thy place is vacant/ on thy mother’s.” Left unfinished, and tucked into the pages of 2 Samuel which recount the tragic story of the death of King David’s son Absalom, the sampler is made more poignant by the deaths of four of Elizabeth’s nine children before the age of five recorded on the pages of handwritten family records in the Bible.
By William Hansen, Curator of Americana