Family binding: Bibles pass down faith as well as heritage

Mary Beth Petr keeps her family Bible on a special prayer stand wrapped with an old curtain cord.

Mary Beth Petr keeps her family Bible on a special prayer stand wrapped with an old curtain cord.

Family Binding: Bibles pass down faith as well as heritage

Family Bibles demonstrate more than a religious lineage — they often tell the stories of those that came before through records of births, marriages and deaths as well as photos and other keepsakes. These are a few of the stories behind family Bibles in the Lawrence area.

A family’s faith is often passed down as directly as DNA, but none so obviously as the family Bible.

Often given as wedding presents centuries ago, they were the place early Americans not only kept their religious beliefs, they recorded life’s major events: marriages, births, deaths. It was a practice especially important in America’s infancy, when birth and death certificates weren’t commonplace. Therefore, family Bibles were vital not only to a person’s religious lineage, but also its physical one as well.

“My understanding is that family Bibles were once regarded as essential genealogical repositories,” says Tim Miller, professor of religious studies at Kansas University. “Permanent recording of births and deaths has not always been a governmental function; people who want to look up long-ago population records turn to things like family Bibles and baptismal records in churches. So the family Bibles were valued as a way of preserving essential family history.”

That essential nature may have been compounded by the nature of the Bible’s portability and necessity in each home, says Charlene Winter, tour coordinator of the Territorial Capital-Lane Museum in Lecompton, which has a collection of dozens of family Bibles.

“I don’t think there was a family around that didn’t have instructions: ‘If the house catches on fire, take this, this and this. The rest of it can go,’” Winter says. “And the Bible was a big book that you could easily grab to take and save for family records.”

Each Bible’s story is as unique as the family to which it belongs. Here are the tales of seven family Bibles that have made their way to Lawrence. No two stories are alike, but they all contain one common theme — faith in the next generation’s ability to keep its history safe.

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