NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The strong but pleasant smell of old leather and parchment fills the rare books room in New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s John T. Christian Library. Shelf after shelf of ancient books and documents line the walls of this long narrow room.
Stepping into the room is a step back in time -– into the world of Reformers and the dawn of the printing press. It’s also a step back to the earlier days of the seminary when the library’s namesake, John T. Christian, donated the collection shortly before his death. Because they are so delicate, the books have rarely been seen, much less used.
Though closed to the general public, the room has been the site of intense research since February. Last spring Ellen Middlebrook Herron, a Chicago-based scholar specializing in medieval history and rare books, spent four months carefully assessing and cataloging the collection.
For years, library workers suspected that the collection was special, if not remarkable. Herron’s research has confirmed its uniqueness and importance.
“It’s a really nice collection and now that it’s getting organized, it’s a great opportunity to get students fired up,” Herron said. “I’m excited to have a small part in helping these books that have been quiet for 80 years or so live again.”
The books and documents include an illuminated manuscript from the 12th century, a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, a Geneva Bible and works by the Reformers such as Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Several books are inscribed with handwritten notes by Charles H. Spurgeon.
In total, the seminary owns 600 rare and unique books and documents.
Herron first became acquainted with the collection in early 2005. At the time, she was serving as the curator of the traveling Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, for which NOBTS was an institutional sponsor for the exhibit’s stop in Mobile, Ala. In connection with the display of the scrolls, Herron put together an exhibit on the history of Bible translation. She chose several volumes from the NOBTS collection to help illustrate how the Bible has been preserved and passed down through the centuries.
After the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit, Jeff Griffin, director of libraries at NOBTS, invited Herron to assess the NOBTS collection on a contract basis. She planned to come on Aug. 30, 2005, and begin the work of cataloging the collection. When Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, her trip was postponed.
But the books were safe. Before evacuating, Griffin and his staff packed the rare books in plastic boxes and placed them in an interior room on the second floor of the library.
After the seminary’s initial hurricane recovery stage, Griffin decided to get the rare book project got back on track. In November 2006, he offered Herron a short-term contract to work with the books. For her, it was an easy decision.
“I developed a great affection for the seminary when I was working on the Dead Sea Scrolls [exhibit] and a great affection for the city,” she said. “I wanted to come down and do some things to help.”
Herron said that many universities and seminaries have similar collections that are not cataloged or utilized. She emphasized the importance of organizing, cataloging and registering the existence of these rare books. The cataloging process often leads to surprises.
“You never know what you will find,” she said.
It didn’t take long for Herron to make an exciting discovery at the NOBTS library.
Shortly after arriving in February, she discovered a book she had not seen before -– a collection of sermons by an Italian preacher printed in 1479. She called the volume “one of the treasures” in the John T. Christian Collection. Only two other known copies of this pre-Reformation book exist.
Printed just 24 years after Johannes Gutenberg produced the first press-printed Bible, the volume belongs to a rare class of books called incunabules. Herron said the term means “from the cradle of printing” and refers to books printed before 1500.
“I think this is a particularly great find and needs to have some research done on it,” Herron said. “This is one of my favorite things in the collection.”
Besides the sermons, the book reflects the story of how printing and binding developed, Herron said. “It is a really great example of early printing,” she said. “It looks a lot like a manuscript. It’s a really nice example of book history.”
Early printers carried over the practice of hand-lettering highly decorative initials from manuscript production. The wear of the book also offers a look at early book construction. The missing inside of the cover reveals that the pages were bound together by thick leather straps. The straps also attach the pages to wooden end boards, forming a sturdy cover. The end boards were then covered with fine leather.
The faded shelf mark on the book attests to how books were stored. Unlike current shelving procedure which stores books vertically with the spine out, in that period books were stored flat with titles written across the page edges.
“This is in remarkable condition for a book that’s 550 years old,” Herron said.
Another book that caught Herron’s attention is a volume that profiles the leaders of the Reformation. Written by Theodore Beza in 1581, the book gives descriptions of important Reformers and the work they did. The book also includes engravings of each of the Reformers.
While engravings of John Calvin and Martin Luther are common, Herron said woodcuts of other Reformers are extremely rare.
“I think this is a really neat find. I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “To be able to see the faces of the early Reformers, I think, is pretty amazing. The engravings are just beautiful.”
Other collection rarities include a theological work by Zwingli written in 1523 and the Gutenberg Bible leaf from the Book of Isaiah. The collection also features a Mennonite confession from 1620, of which only three other copies of this Dutch text exist.
“This is history,” Herron said about the Gutenberg page. “It’s the first book ever printed. It’s amazing.”
The introduction of metal-alloy moveable type by Gutenberg revolutionized book production. Before Gutenberg developed his technique, books were copied by hand. The press paved the way to increased literacy and the availability and affordability of Scriptures for common people.
Though not as rare as some of the other volumes, the collection includes a copy of the Geneva Bible, an important English Bible printed in 1562. This Bible, sometimes called the “Breeches Bible” due to the somewhat humorous translation of Genesis 3:7, was the first English Bible to include chapter divisions. The Puritans would have had a copy of this Bible with them on the Mayflower, Herron noted.
The quality, quantity and rarity of the collection raises the question, “How did the seminary acquire the books?” Griffin recounted that John T. Christian collected most of the books in Europe in the early 20th century. While pastoring churches in Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, Christian made frequent summer trips to London. The trained church historian frequented the shops and stalls looking for important and unique books.
One of the seminary’s founding fathers, Christian served on the committee that recommended the establishment of the seminary in 1917. In 1919, trustees elected Christian to the faculty. From 1919 until his death in 1925, he taught church history and served as the seminary’s librarian. Now, 82 years after his death, the full impact of Christian’s diligent work of collection is finally coming into focus.
Griffin said there are no plans to begin showing the books in the current library. However, the board of trustees approved the planning process for a new, state-of-the-art library. When the new library is built, space will be available for display of these important works.
This does not diminish the importance of Herron’s work in cataloging and organizing the collection. Through her efforts, the academic community now knows the existence of additional copies of several rare volumes.
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.