Thou shalt not steal: the Hancock Family Bible

Last month the Society held a special event and for one night only displayed some rarely seen artifacts related to John and Dorothy Hancock. One of the featured items was the Hancock family bible.

The bible was donated to the Society in 1886 by Franklin Hancock. In the Society’s early years, Franklin donated a number of personal Hancock items, such as one of John’s coats and a pair of Dorothy’s shoes. Our membership lists show that Franklin was a lifetime member of the Society, but the donation file for the bible does not provide any further information about him and his place in the Hancock family. John and Dorothy only had two children and neither lived beyond childhood, so Franklin could not have been a direct descendant. With a little digging, I was able to determine that Franklin Hancock was born on November 17, 1818 and died June 1, 1893. He was the son of John Hancock (b. 1774), who was the son of Ebenezer Hancock (b. 1741). Ebenezer was John Hancock’s youngest brother, so that means that John Hancock was Franklin’s great-uncle.

This bible was printed in 1721 in Edinburgh, Scotland and belonged to John’s grandfather, Reverend John Hancock of Lexington. After his father died, John lived with his grandfather for a few years before he was taken in by his uncle Thomas. We do not know if the bible passed to John’s father or his uncle before he received it. According to our donation file, John later lent the bible to the chaplain at Castle Island for use of the troops stationed there.

John made a few notations on the title page of the bible which make it an even more personal item. In the upper right-hand corner, he signed his name with an apostrophe “s” to ensure that everyone knew who it belonged to. In the upper left-hand corner, he inscribed “Thou shalt not steal, saith the Lord” as a reminder to anyone who might be contemplating slipping off with his personal bible. These details illustrate the importance that he placed on the family bible.

According to our files, this oversized bible was sent to the James MacDonald Company in New York for conservation work in 1961. It has been rebound and the backs of the first pages have been reinforced with Japanese paper. Even though the bible has been repaired, it is still one of the more rare and fragile items in our collection and is only taken out of storage for special occasions.

For more information on John Hancock, check out The Baron of Beacon Hill by William M. Fowler, Jr.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager