"The Holy Spirit had to be involved in it," Harris said as he sat down Monday with Jason McGregory, the local charter boat captain whose mother, Mary, and father, Jimmy, had received the Bible as a wedding gift in 1974.

VALPARAISO — A quarter-century after finding a charred Bible in a burned-out cottage in Mary Esther, Clinton Harris on Monday saw the holy book returned to the son of the woman who had ensured it was always prominently displayed in the family home.

Technically, the Bible found its way back home via social media and other digital avenues. But Harris, a man of deep faith, knows that's not the whole story.

"The Holy Spirit had to be involved in it," Harris said as he sat down Monday with Jason McGregory, the local charter boat captain whose mother, Mary, and father, Jimmy, had received the Bible as a wedding gift in 1974.

Joining McGregory and Harris on Monday was Harris' brother-in-law, Harry Brown, whom Harris believes was divinely guided in getting the Bible back to its family.

"It means the world," McGregory said, leafing through the Bible's pages where his mother had written about her son's first Christmas, his father's military service, and other family events.

"This is about the only thing I've got left from my Mom," he said. "She was a writer. It didn't matter what it was, she was always making note of something."

No one was at home at the time of the blaze — Mary McGregory, by then divorced, wasn't home, and Jason and his sister, Jamie, were grown up and had moved away — so the cause of the fire is lost to time.

Harris, who was hired to clean out and tear down the structure, definitively recalls finding the Bible. "When I dug that Bible up, it was just laying under all these clothes and papers and things, charred black," Harris remembered, although the word "Bible" remained visible on its blackened cover.

"And then I thought, 'Well, it ain't no good now, because it's all burned up and everything,'" he said. He picked it up anyway — because, he said, "you don't want to disgrace a Bible."

"And I opened it up, and I saw, 'Lord, this is perfect in here,'" he said, remembering his surprise at finding the pages intact.

Harris put the Bible in his truck, and later moved it to the garage in his Fort Walton Beach home. A couple of weeks later, he saw the handwritten names and notations in the family history pages.

"I read those names in there, and said, 'Well, maybe I can look through the phone book and see if I can find the family,'" Harris said. "I called all over Pensacola, around Fort Walton ... and nothing."

Harris eventually moved to a home near Crestview, where he lives today, and the Bible found a place in the garage workshop. A religious man, Harris used the charred Bible frequently.

"If I was wanting to read the Bible, I'd get it out and read. I used it a whole lot," he said. Still, he wanted the Bible to go back to its family. "That was always in the back of my mind," he said. "I wished I could find out who the Bible belonged to and give it back to them."

And then, Brown stepped in. Several weeks ago, the two men were in Harris' workshop, discussing some point of the Scriptures, and Harris told Brown to get the charred Bible to help settle the point.

"When I saw the personal stuff in it ... I'm always curious about family," Brown recalled. "I was intrigued by what she wrote, and that's what inspired me to try to find who the Bible belonged to."

Given Jimmy McGregory's military service, Brown's first thought was to contact the Army or the Department of Veterans Affairs. "But then," he said, "something popped in my mind about the newspaper, that maybe they might be able to operate quicker than going through the Army red tape."

A couple of weeks later, Brown brought the story — along with the Bible — to the Daily News. A story appeared online July 14, and in the next day's print edition. Almost immediately after the story appeared online, McGregory began receiving phone calls and Facebook messages from strangers who had seen it and then tracked him down via the internet.

"I had calls from Mississippi, from Pensacola, all the way to Tallahassee, telling me, 'These two gentlemen have something that belonged to you, please give me a call back,'" McGregory said Monday. "I had messages and messages," he said. "Finally, I stopped answering my telephone."

Eventually, McGregory did a little sleuthing of his own, and was able to track down Brown. And so it was that, just hours after the news was out, McGregory learned Brown had left the Bible with the Daily News.

He claimed the Bible the next morning, and a week later, the three men sat down together at the newspaper.

"I'm just honored that you're able to get this Bible back," Harris told McGregory.

Then, turning to Brown, Harris said, "I didn't have any idea about taking it to the newspaper. You had it a couple of months, just laying there, and all of a sudden, something told you to take it to the newspaper. That's the Spirit leading you."

Sadly, Mary McGregory, who died six years ago, isn't around to see the family Bible returned. But if she were, her son said, "she would be floored. It's just amazing. It makes you tingle to think about it."

McGregory's father, now living in Mississippi, was as shocked as his son by the return of the Bible. "He was surprised that it withstood the cottage fire, because the whole inside of the cottage was gone," McGregory said.

His sister, too, was surprised, McGregory said. And, she had a surprise for him. The charred Bible wasn't the only family Bible to make it through the cottage fire. A Bible that had belonged to their grandmother had been stored in a cedar chest that survived the blaze, and Jamie McGregory, now living in DeFuniak Springs, had salvaged it.

"I just found that out," McGregory said Monday. "I had no clue."

As it did during his childhood, the recovered Bible is going to occupy a prominent place in McGregory's family's home.

"It's going to be out in plain sight," McGregory said. "It's not going to be put up on a shelf somewhere or in a closet. ... It's just truly amazing that it got back to me. My kids' kids' kids are going to see this."

"It's amazing," Harris agreed. "The word of God can ... ."

He struggled to complete the thought, which Brown quickly did for him.

"Survive anything," he said.