A product of early modern Europe still in use today, a family Bible is any edition of the Bible that includes manuscript records of genealogical and other personal information specific to the owners of the book over several generations. It also symbolically associates the scriptures with the ideal of the Christian family, an association that began in the Reformation, was perfected by seventeenth‐century English Puritans and German Pietists, and was furthered by eighteenth‐century Anglo‐American evangelicals.
Through the medieval period the costly process of copying manuscripts restricted private ownership of the Bible to only the most wealthy families. Between 1450 and 1600, however, the invention of printing and the Reformation's vernacular translations made it possible for many families to acquire and to read the Bible. Both Protestant and Catholic reforming theologies, moreover, emphasized biblical authority and required a greatly increased knowledge of the Bible by the laity. So the newly available vernacular Bibles soon became objects of special veneration in which facts of family history might appropriately be inscribed.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Puritan, Pietist, and evangelical Protestants prescribed ambitious programs of doctrinal catechesis and devotional prayer for family members. The family was viewed as a spiritual commonwealth in which parents were covenantally obligated to transmit the faith to their children. Popular devotional manuals like Philip Doddridge's On the Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745) recommended family prayer and parental exposition of the scriptures every morning and evening. This new physical presence and spiritual authority of the scriptures in daily household rituals encouraged pious families to record the events of their lives—births, baptisms, conversions, confirmations, marriages, deaths—on the pages of their Bibles.
In the nineteenth century the enormous success of the evangelical movement, especially in Victorian Anglo‐America, fashioned the Bible into a cultural icon of spiritual identity, biological continuity, and family prosperity. Since 1800 virtually every English translation of the Bible has been published in a special family edition, with commemorative pages dedicated to genealogy, marriages, births, and family history, and with ornamental bindings designed for prominent display in the home. The custom of keeping a family Bible continues to be observed, especially among evangelical Protestants in the United States.
Family Bibles serve scholars as unique sources for social and religious history, but their spiritual and emotional significance was well captured by an anonymous American evangelical poet, whose popular hymn, The Family Bible, first appeared in The Young Christian's Companion (1826):
How painfully pleasing the fond recollectionOf youthful connection and innocent joy,While blessed with parental advice andaffection,Surrounded with mercy and peace from onhigh.I still view the chairs of my father and mother,The seats of their offspring, as ranged on each hand,And the richest of books, which excels ev'ry other,The family bible that stood on the stand.
Stephen A. Marini