This is the family bible of my maternal great-great-grandfather Valentine Myers and his wife Viola. It was published in 1882. The title page reads, in part, “The Holy Bible: Containing the Authorized Edition of the New Testament and the Revised Version of A.D. 1881 Arranged in Parallel Columns; with Cruden’s Complete Concordance, Embracing Every Passage of Scripture in the Largest Editions. Comprehensive Bible Dictionary, In Which Every Important Scriptural Word is Fully Explained. A Complete History of Each Book of the Bible, Beautifully Illustrated. Cities of the Bible, With Descriptive Scenes and Events in Palestine. Jewish and Egyptian Antiquities; Biblical Scenery; Manners and Customs of the Ancients; Natural History; Bible Aids for Social Prayer; A History of the Jewish Worship; Biblical Antiquities; Recent Explorations in Bible Lands; History of Herod, King of the Jews, &c. Apocrypha and Psalms. A Concise History of All Religious Denominations, And Many Other Important and Useful Aids to the Study of the Holy Scriptures. All Written to Increase the Interest In and Simplify The Study of the Word of God.”
Two publishers are listed – Bradley, Garretson & Co. in Philadelphia and Wm. Garretson & Co. in Columbus, Ohio and other cities. Given its provenance – the hard coal country of eastern Pennsylvania – it’s safe to assume that this volume was printed in Philadelphia.
In the very center of the gold-embossed leather cover, the names of its original owners are printed: “MR. and MRS. V. MYERS.”
This is the portrait of Viola Myers that hangs in my parents’ living room, a formal photograph embellished with paint. Our only photograph of her husband is an informal, slightly blurry snapshot taken sometime in the 1930s. He appears as a white-haired and mustached man with the aquiline nose and large chin typical of Myers males, posing with his son Walter, daughter-in-law Georgina, and grandsons Harold – my grandfather, whom we called Pop-pop – and Walter.
The distinguishing feature of family bibles is of course the record of births and deaths, typically sandwiched, as here, between the Apocrypha and the New Testament. The “Births” column includes only the five children of Valentine and Viola: Claude, Walter, Calvin, Ethel and Harold. The “Deaths” page was filled out by three people: first Valentine, then an unknown hand, and then Pop-pop, who gained custody of the bible from a first cousin a few years before his own death in July 2003.
The two entries in Valentine’s hand are crucial to appreciating the rest of this post. The first was for his wife:
Viola Miller Myers. Was born at Lehigh Tannery. Pa. June 15th 1864. Died at Vulcan Pa. April 23rd 1894. Aged. 29. Years 10 Months and Eight Days.
Viola died giving birth to her fifth child. Valentine never remarried, raising the children himself and then joining the household of his son Walter, first in the little coal-company town of Vulcan, above Mahanoy City, then in Pottstown. He was probably the single biggest influence on my Pop-pop, who imbibed much of his strict Methodist religiosity, love of learning and conservative, success-oriented outlook from his grandfather.
The second death record, also in Valentine’s hand, is for that fifth child:
Harold Chester Myers. Died at Perkasie Pa. May 25th. 1908, Aged 15 yrs 5 months and nine days.
Thus we learn why it is that Walter’s first son – my Pop-pop, born in 1914 – bore the name Harold Chester Myers, and the name Walter was reserved for his second son.
The other four entries on the “Deaths” page are for Valentine, his son Calvin, and for Pop-pop’s parents Georgina Dresch and Walter D. Myers. Valentine Myers, we learn, “was born at Ashley, Pa., Nov. 27, 1857. Died at Pottstown, Pa. Sept. 27, 1940.”
In a taped interview conducted by my brother Steve – the oldest and most Myers-like in our generation – Pop-pop recalled how his grandfather Valentine read the Bible continuously, cover to cover, in the last couple decades of his life. “Eighteen times!” Pop-pop said, but my mother told me that that was probably an approximation: “Whenever he said ’18,’ he just meant ‘a lot.'”
I doubt that this was the copy of the scriptures Valentine used for his daily reading, though. For one thing, it’s massive, heavy and awkward, and the corners of the pages do not appear to have been thumbed. Instead, this bible seems to have served as a repository for memories, and probably a great deal more. I don’t know if any of us today, even the most devout Christians, can quite conceive of what it means to employ a sacred text in this manner. One of the first things I discovered in flipping through it was a yellowed newspaper clipping tucked between the pages of the book of Job. You can probably already guess its contents:
Harold Myers Buried.
The funeral of Harold, the 15-year old son of Valentine Myers, was held at the home of the bereaved father, at Vulcan, at 12 o’clock noon today, and was largely attended. The services were conducted by Rev. E. W. Burke, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal church of town, after which cortege proceeded by the 12.50 P. R. R. train to the German Protestant cemetery, where interment was made in the family burial plot.
Below this clipping are the faint outlines of where another clipping had been tucked. It’s not hard to guess whose obituary that might have been. Between the pages immediately following are the pressed remnants of what appear to have been rosebuds, faded to a light brown.
A ringlet of hair resides between the pages of Jeremiah VI and VII. Jeremiah VII: 29, marked off with a paragraph sign in this edition, reads: “Cut off thine hair, O Jerusalem, and cast it away, and take up a lamentation on high places; for the Lord hath rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath.”
I knew that 19th-century Protestants sometimes used the Book of Ruth for divination regarding marriage, but found nothing pressed between its few pages. However, a full-page lithograph illustrating the meeting of Ruth and Boaz – a plate that happens to be located in I Kings – yielded another intriguing find: a ladyslipper orchid, probably a yellow ladyslipper, judging from the shape. I started to think that Pop-pop’s life-long love of wildflowers might have come from his grandfather, as well.
Of course, it’s possible that later owners of this bible might have been responsible for some of the inserts, though it’s hard to imagine someone else appropriating for their own prayerful use a book that has its original owners’ names engraved on the cover.
Most suggestive of all the inserts is this one: an ancient, very faded carnation tucked inside a scrap of paper and inserted next to the last chapter of The Song of Solomon.
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.
(Song VIII:6-7. See here for my own reactions to this most enigmatic of biblical texts.)
The Book of Numbers – specifically, Chapters VIII, IX and X – holds the mother lode: two more obituaries for Harold Myers (one with his last name misspelled), a newspaper subscription receipt for “Mrs. Myers,” and a local tax receipt for someone named Martin Robters (sp.?). The reasons for including these last two items are not immediately clear to me; I want to suggest some relationship to the practice of numbering or record-keeping, but I’m not sure. Chapter IX of Numbers contains the instructions for removing impurities conferred by contact with a corpse, and the way in which resident aliens – “strangers sojourning among you” – should keep Passover. Perhaps the tax receipt was for someone whom Valentine helped out, during the Depression or before? As a retired mine supervisor, he was always fairly well-off, and spent generously on acts of charity. His daughter-in-law Georgina had a similarly generous spirit: Pop-pop recalled in the interview that they fed every stranger who came to their door during the Great Depression.
A two-page spread on “Scripture Natural History – Zoology” contains some pressed tree leaves and another orchid blossom. Again, I’m not sure how to read this insertion. Perhaps some metaphorical meaning was intended – a reminder of the fragility and preciousness of life itself, say, or of this very bible, whose gilt-edged pages have grown almost as brown and brittle as the leaves and clippings it so lovingly enshrines.