Preserving family history, one Bible at a time

Andy Smith, who attends Van Dyke Church in Lutz, has an unusual hobby.

It began about eight years ago, sparked, in part, by the Bible he inherited from his grandmother.

The sacred text originally belonged to his great-great grandparents, dating back to the 1870s.

“I believe it was given to them as a wedding gift,” Smith said, and it was passed from generation to generation.

Andy Smith, who attends Van Dyke Church in Lutz, spends part of his free time trying to help reunite families with Bibles that were owned by their ancestors. (B.C. Manion/Staff Photos)

Andy Smith, who attends Van Dyke Church in Lutz, spends part of his free time trying to help reunite families with Bibles that were owned by their ancestors.
(B.C. Manion/Staff Photos)

“It is something I had seen in my grandparents’ house when I was a little boy. It was always opened to the family registry pages,” he said.

After inheriting the heirloom, Smith, a longtime newspaper professional, decided to see what he could learn about his own family’s history.

The more he delved into genealogy, the more fascinated he became.

His great-great grandfather, Smith said, had nine brothers and sisters.

“I’ve contacted descendants of every line of that family that had children — from those 10 siblings — and all of them had family Bibles,” Smith said. “I found one guy who had my great-great-great grandfather’s Bible. I went up to St. Louis and met him, and got to see his Bible.”

As Smith learned more about his relatives, he became more aware of how much personal information can be lost, when a Bible is separated from its family.

He decided to do something about that.

He began spending part of his free time helping to reunite family Bibles with their families.

“I look for the Bibles on eBay and, if they have family registry pages in them, I make a list of the names and dates provided, then match that with names and dates on family trees on Ancestry.com,” he explained.

Some Bibles sold on eBay date back to the 1700s. Some are ornately decorated. Others are plain. Some records are detailed in elegant handwriting. Many of the books develop a beautiful patina over time, Smith said. They can sell for anywhere from $50 to $350, or more.

If Smith finds a match, and if there’s contact information available on Ancestry.com, he sends off an email.

Family Bibles often contain hidden gems, notes Andy Smith. In this Bible dating to the 1870s, there’s a flower that pressed between its pages, at the marriage page

Family Bibles often contain hidden gems, notes Andy Smith. In this Bible dating to the 1870s, there’s a flower that pressed between its pages, at the marriage page

It goes something like this: “Greetings. No, we’re not related, but I’ve come across something that I think that might be of interest to you.”

Smith shares what he’s copied from the registry pages, and adds a disclaimer, such as: “I did the best I could, but I’m not 100 percent sure that this is 100 percent accurate.”

Smith makes it clear that he doesn’t own the Bible and doesn’t know the person selling it. He’s merely acting as conduit, passing along information that may be useful to the recipient.

“My primary goal is to salvage this information,” Smith said, noting a family Bible in some cases is the only repository for some records.

For instance, families typically were larger in previous generations, and there also were more childhood deaths from disease.

“A lot of these younger children never show up in censuses,” Smith explained. They may have been born after one census was taken and died before the next one came along.

It would be a shame to have this personal history lost to the ages, Smith said.

Bibles often contain other hidden gems, as well.

“There will be old letters. There may be old family pictures,” Smith said. “In my own Bible, on the marriage page, there’s a flower that’s pressed in there, between the pages. There’s a picture of my grandmother and of my great-grandmother in there.”

Of course, Smith has no way of knowing what Bibles will come up for sale, but when he scans eBay, he keeps an eye out for one that may have a connection to his family.

“For the number of years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve never found even a distant relative that I’m aware of, in any of these Bibles,” he said. “The chances of you finding anything from your own family are pretty close to zero.”

Over the years, he estimates he’s contacted thousands of people to alert them to a Bible that may interest them. Those emails have gone to people living at great distances, as well as people living nearby.

Smith doesn’t know how many Bibles he’s helped to get back to their families, but he guesses it’s between 100 and 150 — based on the emails he’s received.

His favorite response, so far, came from a woman who desperately wanted the family Bible, but said the price of $350 on eBay, was far beyond her family’s means.

She shared, with Smith, what happened next.

She told Smith that she told her husband: “I really, really, really want this Bible.”

Her husband told her: “OK, here’s the deal, I will get it for you, but this is for your birthday, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Mother’s Day. It covers everything for the next year. Are we good with that?”

It turns out, Smith said, “she was very good with that.”

It turns out that Smith was, too.

Published July 27, 2016

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