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Why one man is rescuing Bibles to preserve genealogy and find their original owners

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OGDEN — Joseph Kerry was astonished as he examined the items a woman had just dropped off at his law office.

From a cardboard box he removed four thick, weathered Bibles and stacked them on a table. As a small group of curious people watched, Kerry opened the first Bible and began flipping its fragile pages, looking for evidence of family history. It didn't take long to find a page containing names, births and deaths, even handwritten letters and some portraits.

"Look at this treasure trove," Kerry said. "This is extremely rare. A lot of our Bibles come from after the Civil War. These dates go back to 1817, 1820. ... I'm like a kid at Christmas now."

Such donations and discoveries are typical for Kerry since he founded Bible Rescue, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding family Bibles that contain genealogy and returning them to the original family.

In the last five years, Kerry has found more than 1,000 Bibles. It's said to be one of the largest private collections of family Bibles in the country, although he's quick to point out he's not collecting, just rescuing. His work is also nondenominational with a greater focus on family, not a particular religion.

"Each Bible truly is irreplaceable," Kerry said. "There's not another Bible like it on the planet. When that Bible disappears, all the information leaves the planet."

Kerry hosted an open house at this 25th Street law office last weekend to give people a chance to scope out his long shelves of Bibles, each one identified with a white slip of paper and a name.

Kerry wondered how many would people would come on a nice fall Saturday but was happy with the turnout. Many expressed appreciation for his efforts to reunite Bibles with their original families, he said.

"When you give a family Bible to that next generation, or maybe two generations down, and they're able to see the photos and touch the handwriting of a great-great grandparent, there's something magical and amazing about that experience," Kerry said.

Kerry's mission to rescue family Bibles began about five years ago when he noticed one at a yard sale. Among the old religious book's pages he found a wealth of genealogical information. When it started to rain, Kerry decided to buy the book and protect it — from the elements and further neglect.

Soon Kerry was finding similar Bibles at other yard sales and thrift stores. In the pages between the Old Testament and New Testament, he almost always found births and deaths, prime family history details. This led him to start Bible Rescue.

"My kids hate it," Kerry said. "Whenever I pass a Deseret Industries, we have to stop and I go in, even when it's 'No Dad, don't, we're on vacation.'"

As his supply of Bibles grew and the word got out, people started to send Kerry Bibles because they felt guilty throwing them out, he said.

Each Bible has a unique story. He has one Bible from the 1700s. Another one contains rare photos of slaves. One tiny Bible was carried by a Union soldier at the 1862 Battle of Shiloh. Others were found to contain locks of hair, flowers and other small items in the pages.

Kerry has a "heart shield Bible." It's a small, pocket-sized New Testament with a heavy piece of metal over the cover usually worn over the heart. Engraved on the metal are the words, "May this keep you safe from harm." It belonged to a serviceman during World War II.

Along with each book's historic value, it's been most rewarding to see a Bible reunited with its original family, Kerry said.

He told of sending one Bible to a woman in North Carolina who wrote back that she never thought her great-grandmother loved her.

"I don't know what the story was there, but there was something she saw in that family Bible that gave her assurance that she was loved by her great-grandmother," Kerry said. "That's what makes the work worth the effort."

Collector Brent Ashworth added to Kerry's open house by displaying some of the famous Bibles from American and world history, including Joseph and Emma Smith's family Bible, the William Bradford Bible from the Mayflower, along with Bibles belonging to the Queen Elizabeth I of England, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, Helen Keller and a Union soldier that died in the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia.

"I've been thrilled to follow what Joe's doing," Ashworth said. "People have lost track of their family and some of their records and so they've lost their family heritage. ... That's why Bibles and genealogy are so important."

Scott Campbell, of Provo, came to the open house hoping to learn more about a family Bible that has been in his family for more than 100 years. He said the large, thick book was miraculously preserved in a flood. While looking through it Saturday, Campbell found tender words his mother had written before her death. She had even pricked her finger and left a few drops of her blood on the page.

"I hadn't been aware of that. We found it today. It was a wonderful, spiritual moment in finding this deep and meaningful thing from my mom. It gives us an opportunity to look into her heart and see how she felt," Campbell said. "Things were strained between us. But when you see something like that, it enables me to see her with more empathy and compassion, everything I had for her before. It was just wonderful thing to discover."

Katrina Cortright and her mother, Linda Hutchins, both from Ogden, enjoyed seeing all of Kerry's family Bibles but the experience also left them somewhat disappointed.

"Why wouldn't a family want to keep a Bible with so much family history?" said Cortright, who cherishes the possession of her grandfather's scriptures. "Look how old these are? There are so many. All this information is just sitting here."

John Pulver, of West Jordan, has a passion for genealogy and wanted to help reunite Bibles with their families.

"It would be fascinating to take the older books and match them with genealogical needs of families," Pulver said. "I could get into some volunteer work like that."

Kerry welcomes volunteers. To learn more about Bible Rescue, visit www.biblerescue.org.