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Blog / The Thompson® Chain-Reference® Bible: Where It Came From, How to Use It, and Where It’s Going

The Thompson® Chain-Reference® Bible: Where It Came From, How to Use It, and Where It’s Going

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By the Zondervan Bible Group

The Thompson® Chain-Reference® Bible (Zondervan, 2021) has been trusted and used for more than five generations. It’s a study and reference work that’s unparalleled in its ability to enrich personal devotions, topical study, and sermon preparation.

Why has it been so popular since its release in 1908? Because this unique reference Bible enables you to follow Scripture’s teachings on thousands of topics throughout the entire Bible. Its Chain-Reference System is an ideal tool for comprehensive topical study, with over 100,000 references that are listed in the Bible’s margins covering over 8,000 topics that span the entire Bible.

This Bible also offers a library of additional study resources that allows readers to interpret God’s Word using related Scripture passages rather than consulting other works, making this an all-in-one, self-contained study resource.

Where It Came From

The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible (website) is a beloved and time-tested reference work that was the lifetime labor of Bible scholar, minister, and teacher Dr. Frank Charles Thompson. Dr. Thompson received his PhD from Boston University and began his ministry in a Methodist church in western New York in the late 1800s.

Early in his ministry, Dr. Thompson realized the reference Bibles then on the market failed to help students of the Bible organize their study in a clear, scholarly, interesting, and yet simple and compact form. He saw the need for a well-organized reference Bible that both laypersons and ministry professionals could use.

Dr. Thompson began his original research about 1890. He was a deep Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek scholar, and he referred to the original manuscripts for many of the thoughts he placed in the margins of his wide-margin King James Version Bible. After seeing the notations in his Bible, several parishioners inquired about using those notes in their own study, eventually working with Dr. Thompson to publish the first edition of the Chain-Reference Bible in 1908.

Dr. Thompson gave the franchise for distributing the Bible to a firm in Lincoln, Nebraska, who hired a young college student named B.B. Kirkbride to sell this work. Kirkbride eventually acquired the rights to sell and distribute the Bible, and as his business grew, he organized and handled several crews of agents working in such cities as Buffalo, Atlanta, and St. Louis. He eventually established the B.B. Kirkbride company in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1915.

As Mr. Kirkbride and his team hand-sold the Chain-Reference Bible, they also asked each minister or student about other tools that would help them in their Bible study. In this way, the notes and features of the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible were expanded over time, with new chain-reference information and study tools added in each new edition. Under the management of family members, a completed numbering of all the marginal references throughout the Old Testament was finished in 1964, thus finalizing the famed pilot numbering system present in the work to this day.

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Over time and through four generations of family, the curators of the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible at B.B. Kirkbride and Company worked with other English and global-languages publishers to release the notes and study helps in various Bible editions. Their work included working with then family-owned Zondervan Bible Publishers to release the first NIV edition in 1983. In 2020, the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible assets were sold to Zondervan for its ongoing stewardship of this important Bible resource.

Zondervan continues to honor the long and excellent publishing tradition of the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible. The goal of the Zondervan Bible Group is to continue the legacy of in-depth study and learning begun by Dr. Thompson with the first edition in 1908, bringing these excellent, in-depth reference tools in new fonts, formats, and translations to readers in the 21st century.

[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, Thompson® Chain-Reference® Bible to Be Published by Zondervan]

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How to Use the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible

This Bible is the most unique and complete topical reference study Bible in print. The Thompson study system, which enables anyone to follow a single biblical topic from Genesis to Revelation, provides the foundation for this monumental work. More than 7,000 topical listings are found in the Alphabetical Index in the back of the Bible so students can pursue almost any imaginable study path—devotional or academic, general or specific. The more than 100,000 marginal references enable readers to quickly discover the primary concepts of any biblical passage.

In addition to all of the in-text study tools, the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible includes a practical and helpful section of study tools at the end of the Bible. The larger part of this section is comprised of comprehensive indexes of all the study materials present in the marginal notes of the Bible—again, almost any topic that one can imagine. The study tools in this end matter section allow this Bible to be adapted to all types of study and presentations, as these exhaustive features make this Bible an actual mini-library.

The Thompson Chain-Reference Bible is designed for individual and group study, and for young and old alike. Whether used for devotional reading, teaching children, preparing Sunday school material, preaching, or for any other Bible study purpose, students who love God’s Word will find this Bible easy to use and loaded with information for in-depth study of spiritual truth.

The outstanding feature of the Thompson Chain-Reference Study Bible is of course the extensive topical system. More than 4,000 topics are arranged into chains, enabling the student to follow the prominent texts of a topic from the beginning of the Bible to the end. Many of these topics are subdivided, allowing for even more detailed analysis.

Study a Theme

Thematic study is designed to be simple. The first step in studying a theme is locating the initial verse of the chain, which is done by finding the Topic Number, either from the marginal notes or from the Alphabetical Index. Once readers locate a topic of interest, they can start their topical study right from the margin, following the prompts in the side columns and searching the different passages to which each study refers.

If readers want to locate the first verse of the chain, they can look in the Numerical Index. Once the initial verse has been located, readers can again follow the chain within the text using the marginal reference system. The first verse in each chain is marked in the margin with the symbol of a triangle (^).
For example, the topic Christ Shepherd (1) (topic number 3264) can be located in the Alphabetical Index. Once readers know this number, they can refer to the Numerical Index for the initial reference in the chain: Psalm 23:1.

If the student discovers the topic Christ Shepherd (1) located in a marginal reference (e.g., at 1 Peter 5:4), they can follow that chain from there. The margin of 1 Peter 5:4 provides the Topic Number 3264, the topic Christ Shepherd (1), and a forward reference to Revelation 7:17. The information at 1 Peter 5:4, however, does not indicate any of the prior verses of the chain, and specifically does not note the important first verse in the chain. To find the first reference, the student must look in the Numerical Index and can complete an in-depth study from there.

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Study a Book

The Thompson Chain-Reference Study Bible features extensive material for those who wish to have a panoramic view of a particular book. Information-packed book introductions include details on the author, date, purpose, suggested recipients, main theme, key verse, prominent people and key studies found in each book, as well as detailed book outlines.

Also throughout each book students will notice helpful summary statements appear before each chapter. These enable readers to easily study the overall structure of the book and its major divisions. This is especially helpful to those who teach and preach chapter by chapter through a book, as the outlines provide a natural lesson and preaching plan.

Study a Chapter

As noted previously, each chapter is preceded by a synopsis of its contents. The primary divisions of each chapter are highlighted in bold print in the margins. Again, this provides the teacher with an excellent teaching tool. In essence, the chapter is already in outline form.

Study a Passage and Verse

Passage and verse study are at the heart of the Thompson study system. Students can analyze each passage in great detail using the topics found in the marginal references in combination with the information in the Numerical Index. These topics illuminate the meaning of the verse and provide the reader, teacher, or pastor with significant guidelines for leading others through the passage.

Study Bible Characters

The Character Studies section in the end matter of the Bible provides extended outlines of 12 heroes of the Old Testament. Outlines detailing the events of their lives accompany other important facts, but perhaps most helpful are the characteristics noted for each of these individuals. The student can then go to the Numerical Index, where Dr. Thompson has listed the major characteristics of not just the individuals listed in the Character Studies section, but also those of many more men and women in the Bible.

Prominent Bible Characters (4300a) highlights the meanings of biblical names. The Outline History of the Apostles (4300b) provides a detailed analysis of the 12 disciples. And a plethora of information on Moses (4307), Christ (4308), and Paul (4309) along with detailed journey maps will provide the basis of in-depth study for those who wish to enter God’s Word through the lives of the heroic men and women of the Bible.

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Where It’s Headed

Topical study of the Bible is as relevant today as it was when the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible was first developed. This Bible and its study system have been profitably used by millions of students of the Bible over the years as the editors of the study tools have carefully and consistently updated them throughout the decades since its release.

The aim of the editors and producers of this Bible has always been to provide the most complete one-volume biblical topical study tool available: one filled with a vast array of resources designed to enhance the study, teaching, and preaching skills of Bible students of all ages and backgrounds.

And now, the in-depth Thompson Chain study notes have once again been released in multiple translations, sizes, and bindings. Recently re-released in the King James Version (KJV) in three sizes and multiple bindings, the New King James Version (NKJV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the English Standard Version (ESV), a robust selection of Thompson Chain-Reference Bibles are once again available online and at retail stores for current and past users and for new audiences as well.

The Zondervan Bible Group and its editorial staff pray that the Thompson Chain-Reference Bible in these multiple translations will serve to enhance the study of God’s Word for you and millions of other students, for the glory of Christ and his kingdom.


The Thompson® Chain-Reference® Bible is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.


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Filed under Bible, Bible Reference, Bible Study, Editions