Last week, Washington University in St. Louis was privileged to have esteemed novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson on campus to give a series of lectures titled, “Holy Moses: An appreciation of Genesis and Exodus as literature and theology.” If these talks have sparked your interest in all things biblical, the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections has a number of items you might find engaging, including but not limited to one of the earliest Bibles translated into English, a leaf from the first Bible printed in America, a page from the Gutenberg Bible, a second edition of the King James Bible from 1613, a leaf of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible (a Bible published in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew), an Oxford Lectern Bible (designed so that each line can be read in one breath), and a beautiful Doves Press edition of the Bible. In this post, however, I will be focusing on a Bible that might be of particular interest to attendees of Robinson’s talk, our Witherspoon Manuscript Bible.
The Witherspoon Bible: A Relic of Early American History
Robinson’s talks last week touched on American readings of the Bible, a subject that dwells on in depth in her fictional novel Gilead. The Witherspoon Bible is a family Bible handed down from generation to generation since near the beginning of America’s history as an independent nation, making it a unique relic of American history and American Christianity.
The Witherspoon Bible, originally penned by hand around the thirteenth century, came into the Witherspoon family through Reverend Daniel McCalla, who had acquired it quite accidentally through an estate sale of a lawyer who had brought it to America from England around the close of the Revolutionary War. McCalla was a Presbyterian preacher located in South Carolina who had supported the Revolutionary War and participated in the fight to establish a separation of church and state. The library holds a number of his sermons from the early days of the nation in microform (view their catalog records here, here, and here), as well as an edited collection of his works. McCalla’s daughter married John Ramsey Witherspoon, a distant relation of Continental Congress member John Witherspoon, and the Bible was passed down to their children.
Notes on American History
The Bible contains a number of doodles and notes in English from various owners of the Bible over the years. A particularly wonderful page in the Witherspoon Bible that may be of interest to those who attended Robinson’s lectures and heard her speak about the importance of the abolition movement in American Christianity comes at the foot of John 12. Written in cursive English, it notes, “The war between the Northern and Southern states commenced in the spring of 1861 and which resulted in the defeat of the Confederacy in the Spring of 1865.” The page on which it appears is significant, as John 12 recounts Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the day Christians celebrate as Palm Sunday, which is also the holiday on which Confederate General Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant (April 9, 1865). We can conjecture that the owner might have been reading this passage when they learned of the end of the war.
Early History of the Bible
Although the McCalla/Witherspoon family owned the Bible for almost the entirety of its American history, the book far predates them. This Latin Bible was executed by hand sometime around 1275 and is written in black ink on velum pages, with large beautiful capital letters drawn in blue and red ink to separate sections. It is bound in oak boards covered in sheepskin and held together with leather thongs. It is very thick, but relatively small, with 7.25 inch x 7.75 inch pages. The book is water-damaged (much like the Greek Testament John Ames inherits from his abolitionist grandfather in Robinson’s Gilead), but still readable, provided you are fluent in Latin. It is missing the first two chapters of Proverbs, book of Obadiah, first chapter of Jonah, II John, III John, Jude, and I Revelation, likely lost during binding, and contains a compendium of biblical prologues in a different hand.
For more information about any of the Bibles mentioned in this post, please contact the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections. You might also be interested in our previous blog posts about the Reformation and our post on texts in Native American languages, which includes a description of the first Bible published in America.
Briceland, Alan V. “Daniel McCalla, 1748-1809: New Side Revolutionary and Jeffersonian.” Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985), vol. 56, no. 3, 1978, pp. 252–269.
Witherspoon, Margaret. History of the Witherspoon Manuscript Bible. Eden Publishing House, St. Louis. 1975.