Geneva Bible From The 16th Century On Display At Connecticut Church

The Abercrombie Bible on display at the Trumbull Church of Christ in Connecticut. Photo by Jillian Cheney.

TRUMBULL, Conn. — In 2016, Ted Abercrombie called the Trumbull Church of Christ — where his great-grandfather served as one of the original elders — with an offer.

He wanted to give the church a Bible printed in 1595 that had been in his family for generations.

Earlier this year, Abercrombie’s daughter, Christa Davis, called again with an inquiry: Her father had died in 2018, and she wanted to know what happened to the Bible. Davis is a member of the Central Church of Christ in Haines City, Florida, the congregation her parents attended after moving to the state.

“He told me he donated the Bible before I’d ever seen it,” Davis said of the family heirloom. “After he passed, I took a real interest in it again, but I didn’t know where to start — by calling the Trumbull Church of Christ and saying, ‘Hey, you have my family Bible?’

“It just sounded awkward and weird,” she said. But she decided to call, which she described as “the best decision ever.”

The Abercrombie Bible was displayed publicly for the first time Nov. 4-6, when members past and present gathered to celebrate the Connecticut congregation’s 150th anniversary. The Bible is but one small part of the church’s legacy as a tightly knit congregation with a steadfast love of God.

Trumbull, with its population of 35,000, neighbors the city of Bridgeport, about 50 miles southwest of Hartford and 20 miles east of New Haven. The 120-member congregation is one of 21 in the New England state, according to the 2018 edition of “Churches of Christ in the United States,” published by 21st Century Christian in Nashville, Tennessee.

At the Trumbull Church of Christ, everyone is family, and everyone has a story.

Minister Ron Saracino began attending the church after his mother was contacted during a door knocking campaign in the mid-1980s led by former minister John Cooper.

“We always tried to do more to get into the lives of people,” Cooper, the congregation’s preacher for a dozen years, said about that time. “You’ve got to get out where people are.”

Saracino, Trumbull’s minister since 2008, says he’s shy, but that didn’t stop a calling to ministry. A lesson on Romans 12 prompted his decision.

“I made a vow to God in tears that I’d never say no to him again,” Saracino said. “The very next day, the preacher at the time came up to me and said, ‘You know, preacher school is starting up soon in Massachusetts. I think you’d be great; why don’t you consider it?’ I’m like, ‘Really?’”

Soon after, he moved to Fall River, about 50 miles south of Boston, to attend classes at a satellite campus of the Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock, Texas.

The church has grown in Saracino’s time here. Some bilingual Spanish-speaking members formed a group that met for a time in the church basement but now are searching for a permanent home.

In 2009, the Trumbull congregation planted a church in the neighboring city of Bridgeport. Led by former elder Ellis Stanley Sr. and his wife, Donna, that group met for a decade in the Bridgeport Holiday Inn before leasing a more suitable spot. They, too, are looking for something permanent.

“The work continues,” Donna Stanley said, “and we continue to preach and teach.”

‘Such a healing place’

Trumbull’s anniversary weekend was filled with good food, good fellowship and opportunities for members to dive into the church’s 150-year history through presentations by elders and a new time capsule compiled and presented by youth group members. Attendees also had the chance to view the church’s history wall and artifacts.

Former ministers Cooper and Randy Gardner traveled from Colorado and Vermont, respectively, to give devotions. Other former members came from across the country to celebrate.

“It’s just such a healing place,” said Tracy Walkup, a former member who now attends the Old Spanish Trail Church of Christ in Tucson, Ariz. “Nobody’s playing church here. It’s all real.”

David and Carmen Bell, who traveled from Virginia, said they were welcomed like family in the six years they were Trumbull members.

“They just took such good care of us,” Carmen said. “It was exactly what we needed at the time.”

The Abercrombie Bible, printed in 1595, contains the Apocrypha — the set of books that are not officially part of biblical canon. Photo by Jillian Cheney.

A Bible and an elder named Abercrombie

Christians in Trumbull still care about each other and about their history — and the Abercrombie name is essential to their story.

In 1880, eight years after the church was founded, Sylvester Pike and Charles Abercrombie became the first two elders.

The Stanleys’ daughter named a pet gerbil Abercrombie in honor of the founder.

“We were always looking for Abercrombie when he got out of the cage,” Donna Stanley said, laughing.

In 1891 the church purchased a lot for its first building for $200 from P.T. Barnum, the famed circus showman. Members encased a small metal time capsule inside that first building’s cornerstone, including a new Bible, three newspapers from 1896 and a statement of purpose.

The cornerstone was preserved even after the church moved to new buildings, and its time capsule’s contents remained a mystery for decades.

Elder Bruce Pancoast and his wife, Paula, were visiting older members Alton and Doris Brewer several years ago and learned the couple had the old cornerstone out in their garage.

“It was covered with leaves,” Bruce Pancoast said. “No one would even know it was there.”

The Pancoasts took the cornerstone and a trove of other materials, including old business ledgers, and have remained stewards of the Trumbull church’s history.

Trumbull’s archives now include old pews, original photographs, hymn books and a table and silver set used for serving the Lord’s Supper. Given COVID-19 precautions, Bruce Pancoast said he was amused at that discovery: “We wouldn’t even think of using the same cup for taking communion.”

The Abercrombie Bible is the latest addition to those archives.

“He doesn’t get excited about much,” Paula Pancoast said of her husband, who ran a printing business for his entire career. “He’s been more excited about this Bible than he has been about anything.”

It’s a Geneva Bible, an early English translation known by the nickname of “the Breeches Bible.” In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit and sewed leaves to clothe themselves, the translation says they “made themselves breeches.”

Because it was printed in 1595, the Abercrombie Bible still contains the Apocrypha — the set of books that are not officially part of biblical canon, but which are used by different groups as historical and spiritual texts. Geneva Bibles stopped including the Apocrypha in 1599.

In the first few pages of the Bible, someone has written, “It is the oldest book in the town.” A 1947 article in a New York paper proclaims, “Resident Owns Oldest Known Area Bible.”

At least twice, notes in the margins indicate owners did the math to determine the Bible’s age, including once from well before the American Revolution: 1712-1595.

Today, it’s 427 years old.

Davis’ family lineage beginning in 1710 is recorded inside. The Bible meant a lot to her family, and it means a lot to her, too.

“I think this was the first time I’ve been in the room with it — and it’s sort of intimidating,” Davis told The Christian Chronicle during the anniversary celebration. “My ancestors were educated, deep thinkers, and what have I done? I’ve had kids, and I’ve lived a little life in Florida. I didn’t start a church. I just wonder what they would think of me.”

After initially connecting, Davis and Bruce Pancoast spent weeks texting about the Bible, sharing interesting tidbits and historical discoveries. Davis found more documents from the family’s past in her dad’s belongings that she passed on to the church.

Making these connections with the church and seeing how the Bible and the church’s history are celebrated has relieved some of Davis’ initial intimidation.

The 150th anniversary “feels like a completion,” she said. And she brought her daughter to the event so “whatever needs to be continued will be her journey.

“That feels wonderful,” Davis said.

Most importantly, she feels a little more like she’s made her ancestors proud.

“I feel like my dad was sitting in the corner saying, ‘Yes, you did good, kid.’”

This piece is republished from The Christian Chronicle. Jillian Cheney is a contributing culture writer for Religion Unplugged. She also writes on American Protestantism and evangelical Christianity and was Religion Unplugged’s 2020-21 Poynter-Koch fellow. You can find her on Twitter @_jilliancheney.

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