Vol. 8, Issue 1 
Winter 1985-86
     Pages 53-55

Ramseyer-Northern Bible Society Collection

The largest non-seminary Bible collection in the Upper Midwest

written by Mary Morse
photographed by Ken Moran



IN MANY PIONEER households of the late nineteenth century, the Bible was the only reading material. The large, leatherbound volumes typical of this period, classified by book collectors as "family Bibles," often were illustrated with reproductions of Gustav Dore woodcuts and usually contained several blank, gilt-edged pages near the front for recording births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, and other family events. Most had pages  devoted to elaborate family trees. 

Family Bibles are not regarded as particularly rare today, but they have become significant sociological and religious sources for historical scholars.  Printed in several European languages as well as English, they provide valuable links to America's ethnic heritage. Duluth is fortunate to have several examples of these Bibles, in a variety of languages and dialects, in the Ramseyer-Northern Bible Society Bible collection owned by the University of Minnesota-Duluth. 

Six clickable photos The six photos can be enlarged by clicking on them. 

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This collection, which now contains more than 2,000 volumes, is the largest non-seminary Bible collection in the Upper-Midwest, according to Donald J. Pearce, head of the Library and curator of the collection.  Reverend Henry E. Ramseyer, a missionary who settled in Duluth in 1899 and originator of the collection, intended it to illustrate the origins and progress of English-language Christian scholarship. 

Three ornate biblesRamseyer, a native of Hamburg, Ontario, received his theological training at Bluffton College in Ohio. He spent his first seven years in Duluth as a missionary and in 1906, was named superintendent of the Duluth branch of the Bethel Society for the Homeless. In 1918, he and several other area ministers founded the Northern Bible Society, an organization with a stated mission which resembled today's Gideon Society. Because of the large influx of immigrants into northeastern Minnesota, the Society made a specific attempt to provide Bibles in several European languages. It also targeted Native Americans as likely recipients of its Bibles. According to an excerpt from The Sower, the Society's newsletter, Bibles were sent "into isolated and religiously neglected homes in frontier settlements - to sailors on the lakes - men in Government Camps -cheap boarding houses - logging camps - prisons - to Indian children in Government schools. . ." 

The Society built its headquarters, the Bible House, on Superior Street in 1932. Its second floor housed Ramseyer's Bible collection, which eventually became a popular attraction. After Ramseyer's death in 1945, the collection was maintained and expanded by his daughters, Pauline and Esther. The collection was officially donated to UMD on May 14, 1979. Portions of the collection first went on display in January 1983. 

Although Ramseyer considered his collection a Christian record, he also acknowledged Christianity's debt to the Jewish scholars who wrote the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). Four Torah scrolls, one dating from the thirteenth century, and the others from the fourteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, are included among the volumes Ramseyer gathered. 

The thirteenth-century Torah, handwritten on goatskin in an ink made of honey, charcoal, and soot, is especially rare, since Jewish synagogues traditionally buried worn copies of the Torah. The 140-foot scroll consisted of 52 goatskins sewn together; a scribe was permitted only three mistakes per skin. All of the Torah scrolls in the collection are written in traditional style - without vowels or breaks between words, paragraphs, or chapters. Because of the close spacing of the letters (all capitals) and lines, corrections can be made only on the margins. Thus, even the medieval renditions of the Torah collected by Ramseyer embodied the very human qualities of their makers. 

Islam's link with Christianity is less well-defined, but Ramseyer also added two versions of the Koran to his collection. One is a tiny volume with hand-painted covers and illuminated pages (fifteenth century) and the other is crudely lettered on goatskin pages and bound by two wooden slabs (thirteenth century). The contrast between the two clearly demonstrates the societal differences which marked medieval Islam. Pearce and Jim Vileta, UMD's archivist, figure that the Old and New Testaments have been translated into 1,200 languages and dialects. The Ramseyer collection holds nearly 400 translations, including several first editions. Two  unusual first editions, one written in Turkish and the other in Mongolian, were printed in 1827. The Turkish-language edition was translated by Albertus Bobowsky, a Polish boy who was kidnapped by Tartars in the sixteenth century and sold as a slave in Constantinople. Bobowsky, who later took the name Ali Bey, is believed to have made his translation in the late 1600s. But the manuscript, sent to Holland for printing by the Dutch ambassador to Constantinople, was relegated to a museum, where it would remain for another century  and a half. The 1827 Mongolian translation, written for the Tartar nomads who lived on the western border of the Gobi desert, may have had a predecessor, but no copies of a translation mentioned in a 1305 letter to Kublai Khan from a Franciscan monk are known to exist. Armenian, Javanese, Urdu, Bengali, and Basque are just a few of the other exotic languages in the collection. 

Both family Bibles and a number of simpler Bibles which were distributed by the Northern Bible Society are represented by editions printed in Finnish, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Czech, Serbian, Ukranian, and several other European languages commonly spoken by immigrants who settled in northeastern Minnesota. Several translations in Native American languages also are part of the collection. 

The university will not reveal the total value of the collection, but several rare versions of the entire Bible or individual books were purchased by Ramseyer. The collection's centerpiece is a first edition of the King James Bible issued in 1611. Ramseyer also found four editions of the Geneva or "Breeches" Bible published by Puritans who fled to Geneva from England in the mid-1600s. The translation received its popular name from its interpretation of the seventh verse of the third chapter of Genesis: "And they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches." From a historian's viewpoint, the Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to delineate verses, and also one of the texts used as a basis for the King James version. Other Scriptural volumes in the collection which appeared prior to 1700 include a 1554 edition of the Latin New Testament translated by Erasmus, a 1545 edition of the latin Vulgate (the Vulgate was the Biblical translation used by Catholics in the Middle Ages) printed by Parisian Robert Stephens and containing Calvinistic  marginal references, a 1543 Hebrew edition of the New Testament (also printed by Stephens), and 1632 and 1633 editions of an ancient Greek New Testament. 

Not all of the volumes, however, are in the kind of shape that would appeal to a collector. A 1595 Geneva Bible could command between $1,500 and $2,000, says Pearce, but the Ramseyer copy might require $1,000 worth of restoration to put it in that league. Restoring such old books, he adds, cannot be taken lightly, since a careless job could ruin, not enhance, their value. The task itself is time-consuming -- hand-washing individual pages, duplicating materials used in original bindings, and painstakingly recreating old binding techniques. 

Since Pearce and Vileta first began sorting the volumes, their admiration for Ramseyer's accomplishment has steadily increased. Though neither is a religious scholar by profession, "we've been stimulated to learn more about the history of the Bible and its religious implications," says Pearce. "This collection really shows the effect the Bible has had on the development of our own culture." 

Further additions to the collection are being made from the university's library fund. "We're trying to fill the gaps which exist," Pearce says, "and to move the historical record into the twentieth century." Already, the collection has first-edition copies of significant modern English translations such as the New English, Good News Bible, Living Bible, and, of course, the Revised Standard Version. Volumes from the collection which pertain to a particular theme are on display in the Library; the display collection changes twice a year. Special tours for groups can be accommodated with prior notice. 

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Mary Morse of Duluth, Minnesota, is a free-lance writer and contributing editor of PORT CITIES.   Ken Moran lives in Duluth, Minnesota, and was the official photographer for the University of Minnesota-Duluth until his retirement in 1999.


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