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Saturday, April 8, 1989

UMD Bible collection stacks up among finest

Anne Bretts
Staff Writer

Photo of this paper article showing many unusual bibles

It may be one of the finest collections of religious writings in the country -- and one of the best kept secrets in Duluth. 

To find it, walk beyond the shelves of magazines and newspapers, behind the stacks of textbooks and research material, to a plain room in the University of Minnesota-Duluth library. There you'll find the Ramseyer collection, nearly 1,400 Bibles, manuscripts and scrolls outlining centuries of religious history. 

Don Pearce, retired UMD Library director in the stacksThe collection is named for Henry Ramseyer, executive secretary of the Northern Bible Society, an organization affiliated with the American Bible Society. Over the years Ramseyer amassed a collection of Bibles, which he displayed at the society's office, appropriately called the Bible House, at 715 W. Superior St. 

Ramseyer died in 1945 and the society eventually donated his prized collection to the university. The university has had the collection for 10 years, but outside of small exhibits in the Library display cases, little has been done with it. 
"Nobody ever had the time to work on it," said Donald Pearce. Pearce found the time when he retired as director of UMD's library in December. And he found the financial support for the project in a $17,500 grant from the Endowment for Biblical Research in Boston. 

So far, Pearce has researched about 1,000 of the volumes, entering information in a growing index card file on a desk tucked in a narrow space behind the stacks. 

Organizing the collection has proved a challenge, even for an experienced librarian like Pearce. The collection includes Torahs written in Hebrew and Moslem Korans in Arabic. The Bible translations alone, which make up the bulk of the collection, represent 350 languages-- including 190 African dialects and 32 Native American languages. 

"What I'm absolutely amazed at is how many people have given a go at translating it," Pearce said. 

Many of the translations were the work of Bible Society missionaries, Pearce said. It was a missionary, for example, who developed a written version of the Cree language to produce an 1861 Bible for that Indian tribe. Today many Bible Society missionaries in remote areas still work as linguists, creating a written language before they can begin translating the Bible for the people. 1750 revision of the Douai Bible 

Even English language Bibles vary widely, Pearce said. One reason is that all Bibles reflect not only the language but the culture at the time of the translation. The English used in the King James Bible, for example, is considered very formal by today's standards, but was the common language spoken in the 17th century. 

Pearce sees the need for periodic revisions of the Bible: "To me that doesn't destroy the basic message of the Bible.  But some of the details may have to change. We'll have to keep on doing that to make it accessible to people. That was the point of the collection. Mr. Ramseyer wanted to show the effort to make the Bible accessible. 

Pearce uses his own linguistic skills and a stack of reference publications to track down the history of the volumes. All the information will go into a complete bibliography of the collection, which Pearce hopes to have printed by the end of the year. 

The collection is a lesson in religion, but it's also a lesson in the history of books and in the art of book collecting. "The older they are, the better shape they're in," Pearce said of the item sin the collection. "The problem today is the quality of paper." And it's a problem not just in Bibles, but in all books printed after about 1870, he said. Acid-treated paper has deteriorated at an alarming rate, he said, leaving libraries faced with the nightmare of having a century of literature crumbling on their shelves. 

Pearce moved away from the tattered books to unroll a 13th century Torah. The neatly printed Hebrew words still were clearly legible on the soft leather scrolls. The ink formula sounds primitive --Pearce described it as "a mixture of lampblack, soot, honey and some other ingredients" -- but it has lasted seven centuries virtually intact. 

There's a small but incredibly elaborate version of the Moslem Koran hand- lettered by a 15th century scribe. The gilt-edged pages are filled with near rows of delicate black lettering, embellished with gold detailing. 

A copy of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas dates to 1490. "That's within 50 years of the invention of the (printing) press," Pearce said. The printed version deliberately copied the look of the more expensive handwritten books treasured by the people of the time. But the early printers couldn't reproduce the elaborately drawn colored letters that illustrated handwritten manuscripts. "They left a space so then you could have a scribe draw in the letter for you, just like a manuscript," Pearce said, pointing to the blank spots on the printed pages. The owner of this copy, he said, obviously hadn't gotten around to adding the illustration work. 

Some volumes in the Ramseyer collection, like the first edition King James Bible from 1611, are obvious treasures. Others are rare but too obscure to be considered valuable on the commercial market. Pearce declined to put a dollar value on the total collection, saying that the only way to be sure of the value of the books be to put them up for sale and see what was bid. And insurance values are meaningless, he said. "The problem with a collection like this is if you lost it you couldn't replace it." 

Pearce has no plans to part with any volumes.  In fact, he's always looking for the chance to add to the collection --if the price is right. "We just scored a coup with this one," he said, holding up a small thick book. It's one of three volumes that comprise the 1750 revision of the Doway Bible, a Catholic Bible first issued in 1609. Pearce said he knows of only four complete sets in Great Britain and a few more in the U.S. He considers himself fortunate to have made the first bid on the set, offering the $650 asking price. Soon after he made his move, Pearce said, a Texas collector offered $2,500, a price beyond UMD's budget. 

Pearce feels part of his job is to make people aware of the collection's existence. He things the writings will be of interest both to Biblical scholars and to people interested in the history of Minnesota. 

He's planning to stage an exhibit in May and June using Bibles from the area to trace the history of its immigrant groups. In addition, he's willing to bring groups in to view the collection and discuss some of its most interesting items. 

Discussing the Bible is quite literally an academic exercise for Pearce, who is a Buddhist, But while he doesn't agree with beliefs that confront him every working day, Pearce deeply respects Ramseyer's work in assembling the collection. "It's something that deserves to be preserved and maintained," he said. 

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He did more than just give bibles away

Who was Henry Ramseyer? A Canadian born in 1873, Ramseyer came to the U.S. as a youth, became a minister and devoted his life to missionary work.

That work brought him to Duluth in 1899, where he became superintendent of the Duluth Branch of the Bethel Society for the Homeless. He may be best known, however, for his work in establishing the Northern Bible Society, which he served as secretary for 27 years. 

Society members raised enough money by 1932 to build the Bible House, which still stands at 715 W. Superior St. According to one biography of Ramseyer, the non-profit, non-denominational society was created to "spread the word of God among the needy, regardless of race, color or creed." 

Bibles were given free to visiting sailors as well as residents of the then-frontier settlements. They were delivered to prisons, logging camps, boarding houses and state schools for the handicapped.

But Ramseyer wasn't content just to give Bibles away. He also collected them, amassing so many that he opened a Bible Museum in the second floor of the Bible House. Ramseyer still was adding to the collection when he died in 1945. 

The Bible collection was donated to the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 1979. The Bible House now is the law office of Attorney Daniel Mundt.  But Ramseyer's work goes under the leadership of Mundt, who serves as the society's president. Through its affiliation with the American Bible Society and the World Bible Society, the organization still supports the work on international missionaries who translate and distribute Bibles around the world. 


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