Hard to believe the panel exhibition of Manifold Greatness has been traveling across America for a year! Like you, I’ve followed its progress, reading reports from Whitworth University (Spokane, WA), Winfield Public Library (Winfield, KS), Mobile Public Library (Mobile, AL), and Hope College (Holland, MI). And these are only the posts on the blog’s first page! I remember when Steve Galbraith and I, as co-curators of Manifold Greatness, met with representatives of all the host sites.
In September, 2011, the American Library Association hosted a daylong workshop, where Steve and I talked about the genesis and realization of the exhibition, and about what we saw as its most compelling stories. It was fascinating and moving to hear then from all the representatives, as they described the diverse array of events with which they would surround the Manifold Greatness panels. So many of these have now come to pass: lectures and colloquia on the translation of the Bible, on the influence of the King James Bible on American writers, on family Bibles, on rare book preservation, and much more. Through the wonders of communication technology, we’ve been able not only to read about these celebrations but to see photographs, and even watch a live stream of the colloquium at the University of Minnesota. It’s as if the conversation we started at the Folger is ongoing, being joined and carried on by other communities across the country.
In a way this reminds me of the spread of the King James Bible itself. I wrote in the exhibition book about Parson Weems, the almost legendary Bible salesman of the Philadelphia printer Matthew Carey. Weems hawked Bibles in the 1790s and early nineteenth century in Maryland, the Carolinas, Georgia, and his native Virginia. But he sold Bibles to Northerners, too. From New York he wrote to Collins that their publishing plans had “knock’d up just such a dust here among the Printers as would a stone if thrown smack into the center of a Hornet’s nest.” As an interesting aside, Weems was also the author of The Life of Washington , a collection of stories about America’s first president and the origin of the famous (but untrue!) anecdote of young George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree.
Weems was the Johnny Appleseed of Bibles, planting them wherever he and his horse rode. Weems’s efforts were later eclipsed by those of the American Bible Society, whose goal was to put a Bible (King James Version) in every household. By mid-19th century they were printing and distributing a million Bibles a year. In the twentieth century, the Gideons took on the task of putting a Bible in every hotel room. The huge dissemination of the King James Bible in America ensured its influence on American literature and culture. The influence of Manifold Greatness will be more modest, I’m sure, but like the book it explores, it will have a wide reach. The panels have already traveled to 14 states, and they will reach 13 more before they reach the end of their road in 2013.
Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, was co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
The Manifold Greatness panels were packed up and shipped from Rhodes College on Monday this past week. But their presence lingers, in part through the exhibition of Rhodes archival holdings that it helped inspire.
Last September, when I attended the ALA/NEH workshop at the Folger Shakespeare Library in preparation for our hosting these panels, I recall a moment that was almost Norman Rockwell-esque in its poignancy. We had been invited to introduce ourselves and our home institutions. One by one, forty different people stood up and expressed their eagerness for “Manifold Greatness” to visit their libraries. But what was most moving were the accounts everyone spontaneously gave of how they planned to augment the panels with local resources. Someone mentioned a copy of a Native American Bible translation that they planned to display; another person described with pride the venue in which the panels would be exhibited, a converted church sanctuary; many others detailed the extraordinary range of documents, events, and people who would be connected to this traveling exhibition. It seemed ‘American’ in all the best ways: regional riches strengthened in conjunction with federal resources.
Here at Rhodes, the arrival of Manifold Greatness occasioned some delightful discoveries. The more we sought biblically related materials, the more we found. We gathered dozens of critical studies related to the biblical translation into one nearby shelf, so that visitors could read further into this cultural history.
Based on a suggestion made by another Manifold Greatness host (Stan Campbell, at Centre College), our archivists Bill Short and Elizabeth Gates realized that we hold copies of a series of facsimile reproductions of leaves from early English Bibles, produced in 1935 by the American Bible Society.
We already knew of our copies of a Geneva Bible (1582), Fulke’s contentious refutation of the Rheims New Testament (1589), and an early reissue of the 1611 Bible by the King’s printer (1617). All three of these items from our Special Collections enriched the panels’ narrative considerably—many visitors commented gratefully that these volumes helped them appreciate the scale of the portable Geneva or the dauntingly large KJV.
But what was a marvel to encounter was the discovery that we had, decades ago, acquired an extraordinary collection of mounted pages from various biblical translations. These include a manuscript (1121) of the Bible in Armenian; a Paris Bible (c. 1240); the new edition of the Greek New Testament and accompanying Latin translation by Desiderius Erasmus; the complete Douai-Rheims Bible (1609-10); the London Polyglot (1657), edited by Brian Walton; John Eliot’s Algonquin Bible (2nd edition, 1665); and The Works [Opera] of St. Cyprian (1563).
Our colleague Michael Leslie was teaching a seminar on the pre-history of the 1611 translation, and eagerly provided explanatory commentary, further enriching the collective exhibition.
While the panels have departed our library for their next host institution, the circulating bookshelf, the facsimiles, the original volumes, and the mounted pages will all remain on display for another month. This is a tribute to the generative quality of Manifold Greatness itself and the ways in which it inspires local libraries to recognize their own great and manifold holdings.
Scott Newstok is associate professor of English at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, which hosted the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition in November and December of 2011. For more about the traveling exhibition at Rhodes College and the related symposium and programs, see Hannibal Hamlin’s previous blog post, Manifold Greatness at Rhodes.
With each new post I write for the Manifold Greatness blog, I am struck anew by the long reach of the King James Bible and how much history was covered by just our one exhibition. Take, for example, the 1863 King James New Testament loaned by the American Bible Society for the Folger exhibition. When images of the Bible first arrived at the Folger, we were all struck by the book’s inscription:
Presented by the Sanitary
the rebel authorities at
Richmond, Feb. – 1864
Thomas P. Meyer
Prisoner of war
This extraordinary copy dates back to the American Civil War, when it was given to a Union prisoner of war named Meyer “through the rebel authorities” by the United States Sanitary Commission, an organization that provided relief to Union soldiers. Wanting to learn more, I began reading about the prison on Belle Isle and ended up on a website that had a transcription of the diary of Zelotes A. Musgrave, a Union prisoner of war from Ohio, who spent about five months in the prison. Spare, though compelling, daily entries such as “Belle Island. The body lice are fat.” provide a captivating glimpse of the harsh conditions at Belle Isle. At one point Musgrave receives a blanket from “our government, as rather the Christian Commission,” a moment of comfort reminiscent of the Sanitary Commission’s gift of the New Testament to Thomas P. Meyer.
Reading through Musgrave’s diary also brought back memories of what I had learned about the Civil War history of my own hometown. I grew up in Elmira, New York, which was the site of a rather brutal Union prison. I thought about how the words of the King James translation have brought relief to many in need. A Confederate prisoner of war in Elmira likely read the same Biblical passages as a Union prisoner of war at Belle Isle (see Hannibal Hamlin’s earlier post on the Civil War)—just as a young man sailing “beyond the seas” sought comfort in the Psalms and Martin Luther King inspired millions with verses such as Amos 5:24.
In the planning stages of the Manifold Greatness exhibition, Hannibal and I agreed that we wanted to show the human side of the history of the King James Bible. Meyer’s Civil War New Testament is a powerful example and we are thankful to the American Bible Society for allowing it to be a part of our exhibition.
Steven Galbraith, Curator of the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at Rochester Institute of Technology, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, open through Monday, January 16.
Yesterday, July 21, was the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas or Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil War. The coincidence of the anniversaries of the U.S. Civil War and the publication of the King James Bible offers an opportunity to reflect on how important the KJB was for this crisis in American history.
For both sides, South and North, the war was conceived in biblical terms. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural Address on March 24, 1865, “Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” In the mid nineteenth century, the King James Bible was overwhelmingly the Bible of American Protestant Christians, with the American Bible Society alone publishing a million KJBs annually. Lincoln was sworn in on a copy of the KJB, just as George Washington and other presidents were before him. The key issue in the Civil War was slavery, and for Southerners the Bible provided its justification, as argued in works like Josiah Priest’s Bible Defense of Slavery (Glasgow, KY, 1852). Yet Northern Abolitionists from John Brown to Frederick Douglass (as discussed in this earlier post) found their justification in the Bible too.
In fact, though the KJB, along with Christianity, was introduced to slaves by their owners in hopes it would encourage obedience, the slaves turned the religion and the book against their masters, finding in them instead a source of hope and a manifesto for freedom from bondage. The spiritual “Go Down Moses,” for instance, interprets the story of Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt as a promise for the exodus of blacks out of slavery. The language of African American religion, music, literature, and public oratory has been steeped in the rhythms and phrases of the KJB ever since.
Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.