Bullet-ridden Bibles

I have been treating the digital remnants of the first and apparently-last PEM exhibition focused on the holdings of the Phillips Library as a requiem; when I first saw Unbound: Treasures from the Phillips Library of PEM back in 2011, the same year that the library closed in Salem with promises to return two years later, I enjoyed it immensely, but did not return multiple times because I believed I would see these items again. Now I fear I never will, so I go back, again and again, and again, in search of memento mori. One exhibition item that attracted a lot of attention then was a bible with a bullet embedded in its cover belonging to Private Charles W. Merrill of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment who nearly lost his life at the Battle of Fredericksburg after coming in the line of fire of two bullets: one entered near his right eye and was extracted from his left ear. Another ball would have entered a vital part of his body had it not been arrested by a Testament, in which it lodged. When this safeguard was shown the President, he sent to the hospital a handsome pocket Bible, in which, as an evidence of his warm regard, he caused to be inscribed: “Charles W. Merrill, Co. A., 19th Massachusetts, from A. Lincoln.”  [Devens, Pictorial Book of Anecdotes of the Rebellion, 1887] Unfortunately Private Merrill succumbed to his wounds in the next year, and his family placed the “safeguard” bible into the care of the Essex Institute, one of the progenitors of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Bullet-ridden bible Merrill PhillipsCharles William Merrill Papers, Fam. Mss. 611, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

There’s a bit of (urban) mythology surround bullet-stopping bibles, tales of which predate and postdate the American Civil War. After the English Civil War some 200 years earlier, the Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, who briefly served as chaplain to the Parliamentary army, recounted an anecdote in which one of the Souldiers Pocket Bibles issued to Cromwell’s soldiers saved a man’s life, but these were 9-page pamphlets, so I’m wondering about the veracity of the claim. This little bible seems to have established the precedent for military pocket bibles, however, and there are many references to them on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are much bigger in the nineteenth century–and presumably more bullet-proof: in addition to Merrill, I easily found references to seven Civil War soldiers whose lives were shielded by bulwark bibles—three union and four confederate—and I am sure there are more stories.

Bible collage

bible 2 collage

Bullet Bible Kelley

Bible Hall VT

The Souldiers Pocket Bible, 1643, British Museum; Francis Merrifield’s “Bunker Hill Bible”, Bonhams Auctions; the bibles of Corporal John Hicks Kelley of South Carolina (Darlington County Historical Commission) and Edwin Hall of Vermont, Heritage Auctions.

But it is in the twentieth century (ironically, as so many new weapons surpassed the rifle) that the bullet-proof bible became the bullet-proof bible. The onset of World War I centennial commemoration in 1914 has brought lots of interesting war stories and souvenirs to light, including several bullet-ridden bibles. The story of handsome British soldier Leonard Knight, who enlisted at 17 armed with a bible gifted to him by his Aunt Minnie, has been particularly resonant. There are more tales, including several harrowing ones involving ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli. And all of these bespoke bibles culminate with the steel-plated “heart-shield bibles” that were the preferred gift for every soldier shipping off to the fronts of World War II: May this keep you safe from harm.

Bible Knight

Heart-shield BibleBritish soldier Leonard Knight and the bullet-ridden bible that has been passed down to five generations of his family; a heart-shield bible from World War II.


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