What is the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible?

What is the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible

History of the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible

So many people have grown to love the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible over the years because of the way it helps to focus topical study and the almost limitless way it allows students to examine the connections within the Word of God. But where did it begin? How was it organized and distributed? How did it become the Bible that people know and love today?

The Passion Behind the Chain-Reference System

The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible is one of the oldest study Bibles on the market today. At the time of this writing, it has been in print in some form for nearly 115 years. But rather than featuring commentary on different passages, the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible (TCR) features a chain-reference system that allows users to follow any topic, idea, person, or place from the front to the back of the Bible.

First published in 1908, the TCR began as the work of Dr. Frank Charles Thompson in 1890.  Dr. Thompson had been ordained in 1879. During his years of studying the Bible, he had become disappointed with the reference Bibles that were available to preachers at the time. So he began planning to create what he had been looking for: a reference Bible that was both scholarly and simple, with study features to be that would be unbiased and useful to anyone. He wanted it to be well organized, and simple enough to be usable to both novice laypersons and seasoned ministers. Additionally, knowing that it was difficult for evangelists to take commentaries with them, Dr. Thompson wanted it to be portable, so it had to fit within the dimensions of other reference Bibles on the market at that time.

How could he create such an unbiased work? The easiest way to accomplish this was to remove the human element from the equation and allow Scripture to comment on itself.

Beginning His Work

In 1890, Dr. Thompson, with the help of his wife Laura Boughton Thompson, began work on a reference system that would link similar thoughts together within the context of Scripture. They examined every verse of Scripture in multiple translations and categorized the topics found in those verses into different subject areas. They consulted may of the available Bible commentaries and topical helps to aid in this study.

As they worked, Dr. Thompson used their analysis to place “thought suggestions” in the margins of his wide-margin Bible, next to the verses that featured these topics. Each “thought suggestion” included a reference to the next verse that featured that same topic. These notes became the chain links that make up the Thompson chain-reference system.

Several people in his church saw the notations that Dr. Thompson had in the margins of his Bible. They became fascinated with Dr. Thompson’s system of study, and suggested that perhaps they could have one of their own. Recognizing how helpful it was for Bible study and sermon preparation, they encouraged Dr. Thompson to have his Bible published so others could have access to these wonderful study tools.

First Edition of the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible

Methodists Book Concern of Dobbs Ferry, New York published the first edition of the KJV Thompson Chain-Reference Bible in 1908. It quickly became known amongst a small circle of people as the most helpful and trustworthy study Bible available. However, it wasn’t distributed very well at that time, so few people had the opportunity to take advantage of the study system that the Thompsons had developed.

This first edition did not include many of the tools available in the TCR today. For example, it did not include the numbers for the topics that organize the study tools in today’s Bibles, and many of the chains moved both forward and backward, which more modern TCR Bibles don’t do. It did include the subject index, but the number and variety of subjects was far less than what we have available today.

Dr. Thompson wanted to make improvements to this Bible and also make it more widely available. This was difficult to do under Methodists Book Concern of Dobbs Ferry, so Dr. Thompson began to look for other options.

B. B. Kirkbride Bible Company

To increase distribution and have the capability to make constant improvements to the chain-reference system, Dr. Thompson joined with B.B. Kirkbride in 1913 to form the Kirkbride Bible Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. Through this productive partnership, both of Dr. Thompson’s goals were met. The Kirkbride Bible company produced the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible for over 100 years; during that time, they sold over 4 million copies.

TCR Improvements

Over the ensuing years, the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible continued to be improved with new features, topics, references. Newer editions added to the number of topics and references, and a more substantial set of reference tools was added in the end matter. The 2nd edition was published in 1917, and enjoyed much wider distribution.

The 3rd edition was published in 1929. This edition added the topical numbering system to the New Testament. This became a popular addition, and the publishers at B.B. Kirkbride soon learned that readers were responding well to this innovation. They wanted more.

In 1964, the 4th edition was published. This added the numbering system to the Old Testament, so for the first time, the TCR included the popular numbering system in the margins in both testaments. This edition also added pictorial maps and journeys of Abraham, Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon. It also featured an archaeological supplement developed by Dr. G. Frederick Owen; this feature was also linked to the numbering system.

The 5th edition of the KJV TCR was published in 1988. It improved the TCR tool set even further and added new features such as a KJV glossary and improved cross-reference chains. Also, the maps, charts, and diagrams featured in the end matter were added to the numbered system and listed in the index.

More Translations and Languages for the TCR

The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible was later published in modern translations including the New International Version (NIV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), the New King James Version (NKJV), and the English Standard Version (ESV). The TCR was also published in other global languages, including French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. Each included the same tools and structure, so those familiar with one edition could naturally use the others.

Licensing in various translations and other languages opened several unique opportunities over the years. The TCR was licensed to other publishers such as Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, Eyre & Spottiswoode in the UK (which was then absorbed by Cambridge and produced under their brand), Hodder & Stoughton, and others in various global languages.

Zondervan Obtains the TCR

On December 2, 2020, HarperCollins Christian Publishing (HCCP) announced they had acquired the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible from Kirkbride to be published by Zondervan. The first round of TCRs used the Kirkbride files and were published in the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV translations in multiple sizes and cover options. The Spanish edition also came under the stewardship of HCCP.

The TCR in the 2011 NIV, which Kirkbride had not previously licensed, will be published in the summer of 2022. Typeset by 2K/Denmark in the NIV Comfort Print typeface, it will be available in multiple sizes and covers including a goatskin edition in the Premier Collection.

Ending Thoughts

Thompson’s chain-reference system has been refined for over 100 years into a sophisticated navigational system that’s both intuitive and natural. It not only shows themes in the text, but it makes them easy to navigate. As Dr. Thompson perceived over a century ago, Scripture is its own best commentary. No other study Bible allows Scripture to interpret Scripture to the extent that the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible does.

Choose your own Thompson Chain-Reference Bible on the Zondervan TCR page.

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