Abraham Lincoln was a famously voracious reader—so much so that, more than 150 years after his death, we’re still adding titles to his library’s catalog. The latest discovery is a Bible—the sixth known to belong to Lincoln—that has been kept hidden from scholars and the public since the president acquired it in 1864, the year before he was assassinated.
The New York Times reports that Lincoln received the Bible as a gift, at a Philadelphia fundraiser for soldiers wounded in the ongoing Civil War. Lined with gilt pages, the Bible bears an engraved dedication on its cover “to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States,” from “the Ladies of the Citizens Volunteer Hospital of Philadelphia.” It may have served as a token of appreciation for the president’s own contribution to the fundraiser: 48 signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln had issued one year earlier. Starting today, the Bible will go on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.
The occasion marks the first time that this particular Bible has been on public view. Seven years after her husband was assassinated, Mary Todd Lincoln gifted the Bible to Noyes W. Miner, a reverend and an old friend of the Lincoln family from their days as neighbors in Springfield. Reverend Miner was among the procession that escorted Lincoln’s body to Springfield, and he read from the Book of Job at the president’s funeral. The Bible even bears an inscription on its back from “Mrs. Abraham Lincoln to N.W. Miner, D.D., Oct. 15, 1872.” At the time, Lincoln’s former law partner, William Herndon, had been claiming that Lincoln was an atheist; the Library and Museum’s Executive Director, Alan Lowe, says that Mary Todd may have given the Bible to Miner to enlist him in the effort to protect Lincoln’s legacy against what was then a rather damning charge. (Miner would, in fact, later write that he was confident that Lincoln had been a believer.)
Since that date, the Bible has been passed down through generations of Miner’s descendants—who have kept it quiet. Sandra Wolcott Willingham, Miner’s great-great-granddaughter, told the Times that her grandparents, who kept the Bible in their sitting room, “obviously very much loved it and appreciated it. But it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, look at us, we have Lincoln’s Bible.’” The family decided to donate the Bible to the museum after Willingham and her husband stopped in while on a road trip, and had a discussion with Lowe that piqued his interest.
Lowe and Ian Hunt, the museum’s head of acquisitions, flew to Willingham’s son’s San Francisco home to authenticate the item, and were left “speechless” by what they encountered, Willingham told the Times. That’s no small thing, as Hunt had previously acquired an attaché case which Lincoln likely used to carry the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. Lowe added to the Times that an airline representative who escorted him through airport security with the Bible “completely broke down crying” at the sight of it.
Inspired by Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American president, Willingham said that her family had initially offered the Bible to the Obamas, but that they never received a reply. (Obama, after all, had been sworn into the presidency on a better-known Lincoln Bible.) The historic occasion suggested to Willingham that it was time to “share” this family heirloom. “It needs to go back to the country,” she said. For Lowe and Hunt, the next great unsolved mystery in Lincoln memorabilia lies in locating the original, delivery-day copy of the Gettysburg Address. For all we know, they say, it could have been thrown out, or it could be sitting somewhere in an unsuspecting family’s attic.