Family Bibles are commonly understood as the text of the canonical Bibles augmented by commentaries and chronologies. Handed down from generation to generation, family Bibles customarily incorporate family births and deaths, vital statistics that, in the United States, long enjoyed the same legal status as institutional or governmental records. After the American Civil War new and weighty editions of family Bibles aided family record keeping by incorporating blank pages for family photographs as well as including preprinted temperance pledges and wedding certificates. Their purchase was often facilitated by installment acquisition one fascicle at a time, and their storage and display often required sturdy purpose-built furniture.

Family Bibles characteristically contained large amounts of supplemental material (definitions of and modern equivalents for ancient weights, measures, coins, and distances), as well as explanations of social conditions and hierarchical organization mentioned in the Bible. Chronologies, based ultimately on dates worked out by Bishop James Ussher (1581–1656) located biblical events on a historical continuum, on whose latter end stood the nineteenth-century reader; concordances and lists of biblical names with pronunciations, meanings, and book, chapter, and verse locations facilitated easy finding of specific biblical passages, while some family Bibles included a praxis-oriented section with texts identified by book, chapter, and verse that could be usefully applied to difficult life situations. In addition, interpretive treatises explicated problematic texts, and historical essays based on recent archaeological excavations together with photographs of Bible sites added materially both to the size and the truth value of family Bibles.

In Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (1995), Colleen McDannell treats family Bibles in the context of nineteenth-century American cultural-historical artifacts related to religious belief and practice. She credits eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European sentimentalism and idealized family religious practices for the family Bible’s omnipresence in nineteenth-century American parlors.

The Presbyterian Erasmus Hopkins’s 1840 claim that every abode of man was the house of God made each family a little church with home religious services led by the father as minister, an image often depicted in the 1850s (McDannell, 1995, pp. 75–79). The gender hierarchy implied both by Hopkins’s words and subsequent illustrations modeled and perpetuated the same gender hierarchy in devotional usage, religious practices, and social institutions. Later in the nineteenth century, however, as the cult of True Womanhood (piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity) gained traction (pp. 80–83), mothers came to play a visual role in illustrations of passing on religious knowledge within the family. A set of complementary gender role distinctions then took hold, which posited “the loving authority of the father” on the one hand and “the nurturing affection of the mother” on the other (p. 83).

Nineteenth-century publishing technologies such as stereotyping reduced prices and made illustrated Bibles affordable even to relatively humble householders, while commercial distribution from Bible publishing’s major centers in Philadelphia and New York utilized America’s expanding road and canal systems to spread family Bible availability deep into the American countryside. McDannell’s approach discloses practices that transformed nineteenth-century family Bibles from sacred texts into material, and also salvational, objects that were meant to embody and represent a family’s social and religious status.

Examining and analyzing editing patterns in the texts of family Bibles in the nineteenth century and in preceding centuries reveals a long history of intrusive editing, whose thrust varied over time. Rewritten for family use in the age of print, family Bibles, like children’s Bibles, are rich sources for early modern and modern attitudes and practices, such as Bible reading, lay views about the nature of God, the value of the Old Testament vis-à-vis the New Testament, class-specificity for sets of virtues, vices, and the work ethic, and differential gender treatments of sex, sexuality, and familial interrelationships.

Early History of Family Bibles.

The early modern and modern family Bible is a direct historical descendant of medieval story Bibles like those of Erfurt, Loccum, or Nürnberg, as Joachim Knape detailed in “Historie” in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit (1984). Medieval story Bibles existed in many forms with respect to content: Petrus Comestor’s (ca. 1100–ca. 1179) ca. 1170 Historia Scholastica with its rephrased text and patristic commentary provided an enduring model. World histories that opened with the historical substance of Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, distantly related to medieval story Bibles, were authored by both Protestants (e.g., Sebastian Franck’s [1499–1543] Chronica, Zeitbuch und Geschichtsbibel [Chronicles, Chronology, and Story Bible] of 1531) and Catholics (e.g., Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet’s [1627–1704] Discours sur l’histoire universelle [1679]). So, too, were early picture Bibles with Latin, German, French, and/or English captions (with many Lyons productions providing all four languages on the same page), examples of which include Sebald Behem, Biblisch Historien, figürlich furgebildet (1539, Biblical Histories Depicted in Images); Georg Oemler, Biblicae historiae, magno artificio depictae … (1540, Biblical Histories, Depicted with Great Skill); Wendelin Rihel, Die Leien Bibelfür die einfeltigen Leien und Jugent … (1540, Lay Bible … for Simple Lay People and Youth); Hans Holbein the Younger, Biblia Veteris Testamenti (1553, Bible/Book of the Old Testament); Vergil Solis, Biblische Figuren (1560, Biblical Illustrations); Gabriele Simeoni, Figure de la Biblia (1564, Illustrations of the Bible); Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, Kupferbibel, in welcher die Physica sacrain Heiliger Schrifterklärt ist … (1674–1748, Copperplate Bible, in which Sacred Natural Science … in Holy Writ [Is] Explicated); Tobias Stimmer, Neue Künstliche Figuren Biblischer Historienzu Gotsförchtiger ergetzung andächtiger Hertzen mit artigen Reimen begriffen (1576, New Artful Illustrations of Biblical Histories … for the Reverent Delight of Pious Hearts); Matthäus Merian, Icones Biblicae … (1625–1628, Images of the Bible); Cornelis Danckerts, Afbeelding der voornaamste bybelsche historien … (ca. 1670, Depiction of the Principal Bible Histories); Christoph Weigel, Biblia Ectypa … (1695); and the publisher Pierre Mortier’s Histoire du vieux et du nouveau Testament (1700, History of the Old and of the New Testament). This is a partial list.

In the same age in which Protestant divines and lay polemicists most violently castigated Catholic inaccuracies in the translation and presentation of Holy Writ, Protestants themselves produced emended and commentated texts for their own confessional use. In Germany, early books of Bible histories included Justus Gesenius, Biblische Historien Altes und Neues Testaments der Jugend und der Einfältigen zu gute … (1684, Biblical Histories of the Old and New Testament for the Benefit of Youth and the Simple) and Misander’s (=Johann Samuel Adami) 1690 Deliciae Biblicae oder Biblische Ergetzlichkeiten … (Delights of the Bible or Biblical Amusements). The tradition remained in place at the beginning of the twentieth century with Paul Langbein’s three-volume Bibel für die Hausandacht (Bible for Household Devotions) published in 1915–1917 and Eduard Rupprecht’s 1900 Erklärte deutsche Volksbibel: in gemeinverständlicher Auslegung und Anwendung (German Bible for the People Explained in Easily Understood Interpretation and Application).

Publishing patterns for family Bibles differed from those for canonical Bibles. Both were published in national print centers like London, Paris, or Zurich, but family Bibles, like other forms of intensively read devotional literature, often appeared with and were distributed from provincial presses. Commercial aspects of the printing and publishing of family Bibles similarly separate them from patterns associated with canonical Bibles. They could be published by subscription, like John Fleetwood’s 1766 New and Complete History of the Bible or in installments like the Reverend Ingram Cobbin’s Illustrated Family Bible and People’s Commentary (1884), available in 20 parts at one shilling apiece or in 87 weekly installments at two pence each. In a competitive spirit, authors often defamed other family Bibles as filled with error, as did Alexander Fortescu in the prefatory remarks to his 1774 Holy Family Bible, whose “Concise Explanatory notes, on all the Difficult Texts of Scripture” were meant to obviate “the Objections of Infidels,” in the words of the extended title.

Family Bible authors were specific about whose eyes they meant their books for: Fortescu’s family Bible was directed toward “The Unlearned, the Aged, and the Christian Poor”; those of “the meanest capacity” were the intended readers of the 1783 The holy Bible; adapted to the use of school and families: containing all those parts of the Old and New Testament which relate to the faith and practice of a Christian: The Whole divided into Chapters and Paragraphs, With short notes and Observations, The whole carefully selected in the Manner recommended by the late pious and learned Dr. Watts. With spelling and pronunciation rules for proper names, the Reverend Joseph Brown’s Family Testament and Scholar’s Assistant of 1767 carried forward some of the tenets of seventeenth-century religious linguistics, which held that Hebrew had been the language of God and the angels and that accurate pronunciation was necessary to invoke the real benefit of reading the Bible aloud to achieve “that blessed and hoped for Eternitie …” (A3r-v). The foregoing concerns clarify the urgency with which reading the Bible aloud was advocated. Further explanations for the practice lie in the presence of illiterate members of the extended household, for whom reading aloud by a literate head of the household represented in all likelihood the only weekday access to Holy Writ. Family Bibles were meant to be a parent-mediated set of texts. The books themselves routinely cast the parent as teacher, with question and answer appendices that presupposed a sober parental interrogation and a parental hand on the family Bible page.

Family Bibles and Early Modern Tale Collections.

All over Europe, the mid-sixteenth century saw the published appearance of tale collections recounting sexual adventure, temptation, and consummation. In 1555, the high-water mark of the flood of carousing European tale collections, Hartmann Beyer, a minister in Frankfurt am Main, bemoaned the decline in literary taste of contemporaries who were reading, he said, a variety of low-life Volksbooks, the worst of which was Johannes Pauli’s (ca. 1455–ca. 1530) Schimpff und Ernst (1519). It had stories of common girls and women, including one in which two village girls set their cap for the same handsome and wealthy fellow. To secure marriage, each climbed through his bedroom window and into his bed at the same time and got pregnant. When they went to court to determine which of them he had to marry, the presiding judge declared both girls whores and left the young man free to marry an honorable woman.

Beyer, a Lutheran preacher, took offense at the bawdry of Pauli’s stories and assembled a collection of Bible stories for adults that better reflected his sense of godliness—Erste Theyl Biblischer Historie (1569, Biblical History, Part One). The book’s extended title speaks of “the most elegant histories from all the books of the Old Testament” (die vornehmbste geschicht auss allen Büchern des Alten Testaments) that he had assembled in chronological order (in ein feine richtige ordnung der zeit vnd jaren nach wie sie sich vff einander begeben haben) from the beginning of the world right up to its 3,950th year (Von anfang der Welt biss schier in die dreitausent vñ neundhalbhundert jar). The stories he included, however, appear as bad as, or even worse than, those he had castigated. In his tale of Lot and his family, he used Luther’s translation of Genesis 19 as his source and wrote the following:

"The two angels came to Sodom towards evening and turned in at Lot’s house. But before they went to bed, the people of Sodom came and surrounded the house and said, “Where are the men who arrived here this night? Bring them out to us so that we may know them.” Lot went out to them, in front of the door, and closed the door behind him and said, “Oh, dear brothers. Do not do this evil thing. Look—I have two virgin daughters. I will put them out among you and you should do with them whatever you like, only spare these men.”"

The mob was miraculously blinded, the daughters were spared, Lot and his family escaped the burning city, his wife turned into a pillar of salt for disobediently looking behind her, and later, after sulfur and fire had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot took refuge in a cave above Zoar with his two daughters. Seeing nothing but fiery destruction, the daughters concluded that their father and they alone had survived an all-consuming disaster. The story continued:

"Then the elder daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no other man left on earth who can sleep with us, as was done all over the world. So let us give our father wine to drink and sleep with him, to get seed from him.” So they gave their father wine to drink, and the first went in and lay with her father. The following night they also gave him wine to drink, and the younger got up and lay with him. Thus both became pregnant by their father."

Within a few decades, children were reading Beyer’s collection of Bible stories, including this one, in a book that was effectively the first German children’s Bible in the modern sense.

Across the Rhine a stately volume issued from the Paris press of Pierre Le Petit in 1670. Titled L’Histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament (The History of the Old and of the New Testament), its first and many subsequent editions were addressed to prosperous adult buyers. Its author, Nicolas Fontaine (1625–1709), included the same kinds of stories as had Hartmann Beyer in slightly expurgated form (Lot didn’t offer his daughters to the mob) but with abbreviated patristic commentary, which, in the case of Lot, explained that his daughters’ behavior, although contrary to accepted standards of conduct, was motivated by a laudable purpose. When Fontaine’s Bible was translated into English as a family Bible 20 years later (New Testament 1688, Old Testament 1690), the same content remained. For the Lutheran Hartmann Beyer in 1555 and for the Catholic Nicolas Fontaine in 1670, the biblical source hallowed the narrative content, so that biblical tales of sin, sexuality, and violence became exemplary tales describing sins to be avoided. In the eyes of these, and other, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors, the more graphic the description, the more effectively educational the tale.

Two centuries of children’s reading Bible stories led to a sharp rethinking of the practice of exposing young readers to either the canonical Bible itself or to Bible stories as they had been purveyed up to and through the seventeenth century. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, a profound worldview alteration was gradually taking shape in Britain and on the Continent, one that would affect the kind of image and text that might be included in children’s and in family Bibles.

John Locke (1632–1704) implicitly rejected the religious view of the newborn child’s mind as contaminated with indwelling sinful inclinations born of the first parents’ eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Instead, he clearly and forcefully articulated the notion of the young child’s mind as a tabula rasa. In applying this concept to reading materials prepared for the young, Locke argued against furnishing the empty chamber of young children’s minds with sinful behavioral models. His views resonated with pedagogical concerns all over Europe and affected not only the ways in which children’s Bibles were written but also the ways in which canonical Bibles were edited for paternal readings to an assembled household. This was as true in Germany, the land of Lutheran Bible and Bible story reading, as it was in England, where Puritans had given their children the Bible neat.

By the eighteenth century, most of the “hard parts” of stories like Lot and his daughters had been excised from Protestant children’s Bibles all over Europe. Catholic children’s Bibles had jettisoned Lot’s offer of his daughters to the mob, but had retained the paternal incest that concludes Genesis 19, explaining it via patristic commentary. Stories of criminous sexuality that disappeared from Protestant children’s Bibles migrated to a new medium, for just at the point at which children’s Bibles all over Protestant Europe began to be expurgated, the publishing of Protestant family Bibles accelerated vigorously. Based perhaps on the 1688 and 1690 English translation of Fontaine’s Histoire into English, Protestant family Bibles followed the Catholic pattern of omitting Lot’s offer, but maintaining his incest.

The title pages of family Bibles typically announced their contents, as did the 1828 American production by the Presbyterian Mathew Henry (1662–1714). First published in England over a century earlier, it had been brought up to date for publishers in Philadelphia and New York as An Exposition of the Old and New Testament: wherein each chapter is summed up in its contents; the sacred text inserted at large, in distinct paragraphs; each paragraph reduced to its proper heads; the sense given, and largely illustrated; with practical remarks and observations; by Mathew Henry. Edited by the Rev. George Burder, and the Rev. Joseph Hughes, A.M., with the life of the author, by the Rev. Samuel Palmer. The title hints that the English Nonconformist Reverends Burder (1752–1832) and Hughes (1769–1833) built their views into this book, but it implicitly and disingenuously affirms its canonicity, even though canonical Bible text forms but a small proportion of the wordy, and weighty, tome. At the other end of the spectrum a “family Bible” might consist solely of a book of pictures with brief captions, much like sixteenth-century picture Bibles.

Bible societies, which began their work in the eighteenth century and expanded vigorously in the nineteenth, ultimately printed and distributed millions of canonical Bibles in whole or in part (just the New Testament or just the Psalms, for instance). Thus, the urgency with which preachers produced family Bibles during the same period is puzzling. The canonical Bible’s ubiquity seems only to have intensified their editors’ concerns, for preachers evidently felt a pressing need to produce volumes that would provide “the Right Understanding of the Oracles of God,” as the Haddington Minister of the Gospel Reverend John Brown expressed his goal in the 1838 Illustrated Family BiblewithSelf-Interpreting and Explanatory Notes, and Marginal References.

The Story of Lot and His Daughters in Family Bibles.

In children’s Bibles after 1700 in Protestant England and Germany, but not in Catholic France, the tale of Lot and his daughters concluded abruptly after Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt. No patriarchal incest polluted either the tale or a reader’s innocent mind. Not so, however, in family Bibles, most of which continued through to incest and pregnancy but rationalized the incomprehensible conduct it delineated. (A rare, and infrequently reprinted, exception was Richard Wynne’s Holy Bible Adapted to the use of Schools and Private Families … [1772].) The family Bibles speak best in their own voices: “Lot lost his chastity when his daughters made him drunk and incited him to incest,” wrote Emanuel Meyer in 1714 in Die Fürnehmsten Biblischen Geschichten (The Most Elegant Bible Stories), whose extended title claimed detailed circumstantial descriptions with brief interpretations.

The Swiss Meyer rendered the biblical text fairly accurately, as was typical for a Zurich Reformed writer in the early eighteenth century. But the English Reverend Francis Fawkes (1721–1777) edited intrusively in his Complete Family Bible (1768). Attempting to understand why the daughters of a venerable and venerated patriarch would earnestly plan and could successfully implement incestuous impregnations, he wrote: “It is natural to suppose that the daughters of Lot, having long seen the unbounded licentiousness that reigned in Sodom, had no great horror for the crime of incest.”

That explained the moral transgression of Lot’s daughters but did not resolve Lot’s participation. The Reverend B. Boothroyd, “Editor of the Biblia Hebraica,” according to the title page of the “Improved Version” (New Family Biblewith Notes, Critical and Explanatory), reasoned that since Lot had had wine, he had probably brought household possessions from Sodom (wine and goblets with which to drink wine); since he had had possessions (a supposition that Boothroyd transformed into fact), he probably had maidservants; and since he had had maidservants, he probably commanded one of them to sleep with him now that his wife had turned to salt; and since he had been accustomed to sleeping with his maidservants in his mountain retreat, his daughters availed themselves of this circumstance to go and lie with their unwitting father. In this manner, Boothroyd incorporated Lot’s immoral incest but removed all taint of witting transgression.

In The Holy Bible, principally designed to Facilitate the Audible or Social Reading of the Sacred Scriptures (1828), William Alexander, a Quaker from York, enlisted typography to help parents avoid passages that were “not couched in terms suited to the present state of refinement,” especially in families consisting “of many individuals of both sexes and of all ages” (p. iv). Where the impediment to social reading was a single word, Alexander provided an acceptable synonym; where, however, an entire section came into question, Alexander used distinguishing typefaces to divide the text into three distinct categories:

  • (1) safe Bible passages,
  • (2) questionable Bible passages, and
  • (3) commentary on one or the other.

For example, he placed Genesis 19:31–36, the verses that describe Lot’s daughters’ conversation about how best to carry on their father’s family line, in italics at the bottom of the page. In his “Notes,” Alexander wrote that their conduct “will, no doubt, be deemed contrary to law, both human and Divine” and, he continued, it was “plain they wouldn’t have asked their father to comply with their wish to secure a posterity,” so they did what they could (Alexander, 1828, p. 118).

William Alexander’s lead was followed by other family Bible authors, notably Reverend Cobbin, whose Illustrated Family Bible (1884) enjoyed a great market success. He used “thick brackets, which, easily catching the eye, will enable the reader to omit or correct [sic!] some portions, which, although necessary in the sacred narrative, are not always adapted for profitable perusal before the young or ungodly.” With the arrival of Cobbin’s family Bible, every head of household was licensed to recreate Holy Writ in his own pattern and image. Each of the versions of the tale of Lot and his daughters discussed here represents an intensification of a trend to exculpate the father. Family Bible editors’ and authors’ contortions and distortions of logic in amending Holy Writ in accord with contemporaneous cultural and religious values contrast strikingly with their contemporaries’ rhetoric about Protestant devotion to and regard for the words of Holy Writ.

The canonical Bible harbors much material that defies credibility, and so, like contemporaneous children’s Bibles, family Bibles bolstered both comprehension and credulousness among their readers. For instance, long after Richard Simon (1638–1712) had initiated textual criticism of scripture in seventeenth-century France, family and children’s Bible authors like Alexander Fortescu or Jacques Basnage (1653–1723) maintained that Moses himself had composed and written down the Pentateuch. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, authors and editors of family Bibles introduced encyclopedia-like illustrations and explanations “to render the difficult plaine to the Apprehension of the meanest Reader,” as Fortescu put it. Above all, illustrations that had been borrowed from scholarly reference works conferred a truth value on hard-to-credit texts by gracing Holy Writ itself with the authority of a reference work.

The typical family Bible editor or author was a man of the cloth. From a twenty-first-century perspective sensitized by feminist biblical exegesis, it seems to have been the man as well as the cloth that was responsible for first accepting and then embroidering a set of exegeses that so regularly exculpated the fathers (not only Lot’s incest, but also Adam’s participation in the Fall, Noah’s drunken nakedness, David’s seduction of Bathsheba, and the rape/murder of the Levite’s wife) and relentlessly inculpated daughters and wives. The additions made to the story of Lot and his daughters in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century family Bibles also exhibits a social commentary that preachers considered essential to add to Holy Writ. Thus biblical commentary perpetuated racist myths like the “fact” that many Africans and West Indians were Ham’s descendants (Meyer, 1714, p. 49).

Commentary in family Bibles also supported existing political order. As early as 1647, John Jackson’s Abridgement of the Histories of Noah, Joseph, Moses … declared that “the construction of the Histories of Holy Scripture points at government and order, both in Church and Commonwealth, to preserve Gods people within their due limits; without which, their inclinations and nature are prone to nothing but disorder, tending to endanger all quiet and peacable concord to the life of man, and to confuse our way towards that blessed and hoped for Eternitie” (A3r-v). The words cited here bear witness to the conclusion that what seemed right and good to the author of a family Bible took on the force of sacred truism.




  • Alexander, William. The Holy Bible, Principally Designed to Facilitate the Audible or Social Reading of the Sacred Scriptures. York, U.K.: W. Alexander and Son, 1828.
  • Cobbin, Ingram. Cobbin’s Illustrated Family Bible and People’s Commentary. London: Ward, Lock & Tyler, 1884.
  • Fawkes, Francis. The Complete Family Bible: Containing the Sacred Text of the Old and New Testament, And the Apocrypha, at Large; With Notes Theological, Moral, Critical, Historical, and Explanatory. The Whole Accommodated to the Use of the Learned and Ingenious, as Well as the Understanding of Every Christian, and the Benefit of All Families. Vol. 1. London: J. Cooke, 1768.
  • Fortescu, Alexander. The Holy Family Bible: Containing the Scripture of the Old and New Testament, and the Apocrypha at Large: With Concise Explanatory Notes, on All the Difficult Texts of Scripture, Wherein the Objections of Infidels are Obviated, and the Obscure Passages Explained to the Meanest Capacity, Illustrated with Copper-Plates. Winchester, U.K.: John Wilkes; London: William Harris, 1774.
  • Jackson, John. An Abridgement of the Histories of Noah, Joseph, Joshuah, Hezekian, Zedekiah, and the Taking of the Ark: With Meditations and Prayers upon Each History. London: John Legatt, 1647.
  • Knape, Joachim. “Historia” in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit: Begriffs- und Gattungsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen im interdisziplinären Kontext. Baden-Baden, Germany: Valentin Koerner, 1984.
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Meyer, Emanuel. Die Führnehmsten Biblischen Geschichten des Alt und Neuen Testaments: Umständlich beschrieben, kürtzlich außgelegt auch mit Anweisung der fürnehmsten Lehren und Moralien, Erklärung der Fürbilderen und Auflösung der meisten Schwärigkeiten erläuteret und Jedermann zur heilsamen Betrachtung vorgestellt. Basel: Joh. Ludwig Brandmüller, 1714.

Further Reading

  • Bottigheimer, Ruth B. “Bible Reading, ‘Bibles’ and the Bible for Children in Early Modern Germany.” Past and Present 139 (May 1993): 66–89.
  • Bottigheimer, Ruth B. “Les Bibles pour enfants et leurs lecteurs aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles en France et en Allemagne.” In La Bible Imprimée dans l’Europe moderne, pp. 428–446. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 1999.

Ruth B. Bottigheimer