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Once in Oyster Bay, a Lincoln Bible goes home to Springfield

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A Bible that Abraham Lincoln once owned was held in reverence by a family that passed it down for generations, the descendants of the Rev. Noyes W. Miner, of Springfield, Ill. — including the Hill family of Oyster Bay. Mary Lincoln gave her husband’s Bible to Miner, Lincoln’s friend and neighbor, in 1872.

Nearly 150 years later, Miner’s descendants donated the Bible to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, where it went on display on June 20.

It isn’t known whether Miner had the book on display at his home, but it was on view at one time on a small, round, Victorian marble-topped table at his grandson Dr. Miner C. Hill’s Oyster Bay home, at 200 East Main St., which Hill bought in 1932.

When the Bible was passed down to Carol Hill Lamb, Hill’s daughter, in 1965, she, too, displayed it, placing it on the piano in the living room of her Cove Neck home. It was a treasured heirloom, but the family was permitted to handle it and read it.

“I was fascinated by the fact that it was so big and so beautifully tooled,” said Lamb’s son, David Lamb, 66, of Locust Valley, a landscape architect. “I even polished the brass clips, which I should not have done. I was always just so impressed by it.”

William P. Wolcott, 51, David Lamb’s nephew, who lives in San Francisco and works for Morgan Stanley, grew up in Boston. He remembers reading Lincoln’s Bible while summering in Oyster Bay. “I think I was told to wash my hands first,” he said. “Being a U.S. history buff, I was in awe of it. It was pretty neat reading a Bible that belonged to Lincoln.”

Historians believe that presenting the Bible as a gift may have been a way for Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s widow, to change people’s perception of the religiosity of her late husband, which, according to Chris Wills, a spokesman at the presidential library, she was desperate to do. Prior to the Civil War there was much speculation that Lincoln may not have believed in God.

“When speaking to our historians, this Bible doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know,” Wills said, “but it is a direct link to Lincoln and religion, and how his beliefs changed during the horrible bloodshed of the Civil War.”

And the fact that his widow had the Bible inscribed with the words, “Mrs. Abraham Lincoln to N.W. Miner, D.D., Oct. 15, 1872,” before giving it to Miner, was important, Wills said. “Maybe she wanted to beef up Lincoln’s image as a Christian,” he said. “His former law partners said he didn’t believe in God. Giving the Bible to Reverend Miner, a Baptist minister, may have been a way for Mary to counter that belief.”

The Bible was given to Wolcott in 1994 after his grandmother died. David Lamb, who was the executor of his mother’s estate, said the family wanted to give the Bible to someone from a younger generation. As it happens, Wolcott’s ancestry on his father’s side includes two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Oliver Wolcott and Samuel Huntington.

Wolcott displayed the Bible on his mantel, below a painting of his ancestor Dr. Samuel Prescott on horseback, a pitchfork in his hand, getting the word out that the British troops — the “redcoats” — were coming during the Revolutionary War.

Last year, while on a cross-country trip, Wolcott’s mother, Sandra Wolcott Willingham, a retired floral designer and a volunteer firefighter, went to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. After speaking to the curators there about the Bible, she decided that the family had to donate it to the museum. She said she didn’t believe her son wanted to part with it, but aside from the family’s responsibility to share it with the public, she told him that the often foggy, cool weather in San Francisco was hardly conducive to its preservation.

Wolcott Willingham is content that the world can now see the Bible, and said that she hopes it will perhaps give people a reason to contemplate what Lincoln stood for. “The country is divided, and this Bible is a message,” said Willingham, 73, who lives in Idaho. “It will draw attention to that great man and his leadership. Lincoln showed us the way, way back then. We need a leader like that right now.”