Some families are lucky enough to have a Family Bible in which ancestors have recorded the dates of births, baptisms, marriages or deaths of family members. This information should always be checked against other records. In particular, you should check the date of publication of the Bible so that you know what information was written from memory and what information was likely to have been written in the Bible contemporaneously (since that is more reliable).

A Family Bible could have been handed down to your cousins, rather than to your immediate family, so it is worthwhile to broaden your inquiries to include all relatives. Many Family Bibles have unfortunately been lost or destroyed. Some can be found in second-hand bookshops, but your chances of finding long-lost family are very small.

Do you have a Family Bible you would like to share with us? Send us the details.

Using a Family Bible as a tool in your research can certainly have its advantages as well as pitfalls.
Initially you should take note of the Bible’s first owner – generally the head of the household e.g. the father or even the mother. Then you should observe how long after Bible’s publication date the first entry was made. If the entry was made not long after the Bible was published, and the first event happened shortly afterwards, then one can assume the owner of the Bible wrote this in themselves. Many Bibles that have been handed down through the years generally don’t go much further than two generations and others, which were initially not filled in had names and dates added at a much later stage.

For example, if a man’s date of birth is given as 1894 in a genealogical register in a Family Bible, in his death notice, in his epitaph and by his widow, but the baptismal register states that he was born in 1893, the former sources cannot be accepted simply because they are in the majority. The Family Bible was probably the widow’s source of information and she would have been the one to supply details for the death notice and the epitaph. The baptismal register is probably more reliable because the entry was made shortly after the birth of the child. However, one must also consider the possibility of a clerical error in the register.

To obtain certainty of the exact date of birth of the person concerned, one can find out when he was baptized, how old he was at the time and when the children just before and after him were born. An attempt must also be made to determine when the information in the Family Bible was recorded.
Don’t forget to page carefully through the whole book as you will find that many times your ancestors left loose papers with notes, old photographs and sometimes even pressed flowers or leaves between the pages.

The Africana Library has in its possession a prize exhibit, the De Mist Bible – it was sent by Commissioner-General J. A. de Mist in 1817 as a token of appreciation for the kindness extended by the inhabitants of Uitenhage to the officers and crew of the vessel Amsterdam which ran aground near the estuary of the Swartkops River.

The Hugeunot Museum possesses a fine collection of old Bibles, the oldest being a State Bible printed in 1636 and authorised in 1637 by the Netherlands States General. The genealogical archives form a vast source of information on descendants of the Huguenots, and in this connection special exhibitions are arranged of old portraits of different families together with their genealogies.

The Grey Collection in the South African Library holds the so-called Sutton Bible dating from the 13th century, which contains many beautifully illuminated capitals, and several smaller Bibles.

In 1837, British 1820 settler Thomas Philipps ceremoniously present a Bible to a party of Voortrekkers, on behalf of the settlers, as a token of regard and esteem for their departing fellow-countrymen.

The American Zulu mission was the first body in Natal to own a printing-press, and the first to issue literature in the vernacular. The mission was also the first to translate the whole Bible into Zulu. The translation was completed under the editorship of S. C. Pixley in 1883. This translation of the Bible into Zulu was carried out by the Rev. Josiah Tyler.

To find out more about South African Family Bibles, a good start is at the Virtual Library of the Genealogical Society of South Africa.

Written by: Heather MacAlister