Monday, June 28, 2010

Family Bibles Were Precious American Possessions

Based on what we hear in popular media, it's easy to forget the strong religious heritage that is part of our nation's legacy. Statistics show that professional journalists are much less likely to attend a house of worship regularly than the average citizen, for example.

But during the 19th century and much of the 20th, it was common knowledge that religion is part of everyday life. Earlier posts in this blog, for example, point out that some state or local governments required an oath of office that professed a belief in God. In some court cases a witness' testimony was thrown out because the witness was know as one who had no regard for religion.

I have also pointed out that even Thomas Jefferson, who "gave" us the phrase "separation of church and state," approved the Bible and the Watts Hymnal for use as the primary sources of reading practice in public schools.

From the website of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center we learn of a collection they have of family Bibles. "Why would they do that?" you might ask. Here is a quote from the collection's introduction:

The family bible was often the most precious possession of the nineteenth-century American household. In addition to spiritual inspiration, religious instruction, and the means by which many children learned to read, the bible served as the repository of a family’s vital records. Family bibles were often handed down from one generation to another. Each succeeding generation recorded its family’s birth, death, marriage, and baptismal dates and places. Precious photographs, documents, and keepsakes were stored in the family bible as well.

The Bible was used in this context not as a religious reference or study. But it was such a common household item, and had such an important place in the family, that it was seen as the obvious place to hold such important information. The traditions described go back to well before the 19th century. The Bible was simply a part of family life, assumed, a fixture, a source of comfort, a source of moral guidance, and a way to practice reading.

Read more here:

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