John in Japanese (Singapore, 1837)

Christianity was brought to Japan by Francis Xavier (1506-1552) and his fellow Jesuits in 1549. By 1587 the systematic persecution of Christians had already begun and by 1639 all foreign missionaries had been banished and Japan was almost completely isolated from the outside world. Evidence suggests that the Jesuits had printed in 1613 a Japanese New Testament in Kyoto, but no copy of the book survives.

The Gospel on display here is the earliest extant Japanese translation of the Scriptures. Its publication was made possible by a string of unpredictable circumstances. Karl Gützlaff (1803-1851), a German by birth, was sent to Java in 1826 by the Netherlands Missionary Society. Having learned Chinese in Java, Gützlaff left the Society and went to Singapore and Bangkok, where he translated the New Testament into Thai. In October 1835, he was working in Macao on a Chinese translation of the Bible, when he was entrusted with the care of three young Japanese fishermen.

Otokichi (1817-1867) and his two companions had sailed from a small port not far from Edo (present-day Tokyo) in November 1832 in a small boat manned by a crew of 14. They were caught in a storm that smashed their rudder and left them floating aimlessly throughout the Pacific. Thirteen months later the boat landed on the shores of Cape Alava in the Oregon Territory. The three survivors were enslaved by the native Makah, freed by the head of the Hudson Bay Company, and sent from Vancouver to London via Hawaii, and from London to Macao. Their arrival in Macao provided Gützlaff with an unexpected opportunity to learn Japanese and start work on a Japanese translation of the Bible. The three Japanese refugees tried unsuccessfully to return home and finally started new lives in China. Otokichi was baptized and took the name “John” in remembrance of his work with Gützlaff on the Gospel according to John.

The translation prepared by Gützlaff and Otokichi was printed in Singapore on the press of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions with funds provided by the American Bible Society.

Woodblock used to print John’s Gospel in Japanese in 1872

Like any other Japanese book at the time, the 1837 translation of John’s Gospel was printed from woodblocks. In this technique, a relief matrix of two consecutive pages of text is created by cutting away all the areas that are to remain white and leaving the characters standing off from the original surface. Once the double page is printed, it is folded through its middle to simulate a double-sided leaf. The woodblocks used to print Gützlaff’s translation have not been preserved. However, the ABS collection includes five double-sided woodblocks that date from 1871 and 1872 and served to print the Gospels according to Matthew and John translated by J. Goble and J.C. Hepburn. The side seen in this display includes the text of John 3:17 to 18. 

Faith Comes By Hearing

"Faith Comes by Hearing" New York: American Bible Society, 1998

“Faith Comes by Hearing”
New York: American Bible Society, 1998

In 1953 American Bible Society began distributing the Talking Bible, a set of 169 audio records with a running time of 84 hours and 30  minutes. It was the first recording of the King James Bible in its entirety. The text was read by Alexander Scourby (1913-85), an actor known for his beautiful deep voice. Though ABS was initially aiming to reach the visually impaired, as technology evolved, it became possibly to use audio recordings like this one in new ways, as part of a ministry to those who lack the ability or inclination to read. In the 1990s ABS entered into partnership with Faith Comes By Hearing, an organization committed to bringing the Bible “to the world’s 50% illiterate population” and used its recently published New Testament in the Contemporary English Version to produce two different sets of cassette recordings. The first one, released in 1991, targeted young Americans in general. The second version, described here, was especially designed for young African Americans.


New Testament New York: American Bible Society, 1861 Title page Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

New Testament
New York: American Bible Society, 1861
Title page
Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

The Civil War prompted ABS to launch a campaign of Scripture distribution of unprecedented magnitude.  More than 3 million pocket Testaments and Bibles such as the ones shown here were given to soldiers and sailors on both sides of the conflict.  Copies like these were also sent to recently freed slaves. Printed in the smallest available type, Pearl and Diamond, these editions were both inexpensive and portable.

The Bible depicted here was presented to ABS on December 1, 1982 by a certain D. Bishop of Somers, Wisconsin.  The book had been in the same family since its publication and tells a story of personal grief in the midst of a national disaster. A short obituary pasted inside its back cover records the death from diphtheria of “John C. youngest son of Jacob and Fanny Bishop aged 7 years, 11 months and 4 days.” The little boy appears to have died during the Civil War. His elder brother, Isaac Thorn Bishop, born in 1844, served in the Union Army and lived to be elected to the Wisconsin State Senate.

Bible New York: American Bible Society, 1861 Front cover Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

New York: American Bible Society, 1861
Front cover
Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Noble Fragments of the Gutenberg Bible

In addition to printed Bibles, The Rare Bible Collection @ MOBIA also holds leaves that illustrate the history of the printed book. That story begins with the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed with moveable type in the west. This Bible is named for Johannes Gutenberg (1395-1468), the innovator of that revolutionary system of printing. Of the 180 copies of the Vulgate Bible completed by Gutenberg and his shop in 1454, only 48 documented copies still exist, most of them incomplete. Due to its large size, the Gutenberg Bible was usually bound in 2 volumes.  Incomplete is a relative term that can mean anything from a single missing page to a whole missing volume, so some of these so-called incomplete copies are only volume I or only volume II.

There are two documented cases of incomplete volumes taken apart by dealers and sold either as individual leaves or small groups of consecutive leaves. The book dealer Gabriel Wells took apart a volume II in 1921, and the publisher and book seller Charles Scribner’s Sons dis-bound another volume II for sale in 1953.  These particular dealers would surely argue that selling smaller fragments was a good thing because more individuals or institutions would be able to see and hold at least one page of this monumental tome. Wells published a large-format pamphlet, fully bound in leather, to accompany the individual fragments he sold. And indeed, the noted collector A. Edward Newton, who wrote the essay published in this fine press edition, describes the pages thus: “Reader: pause a while. For you look—and it may be for the first time—upon an actual page of a Gutenberg Bible, the most precious piece of printing in the world; and, admittedly, the earliest. Truly a noble fragment!”1

Part of the story of the fragmented copy sold by Scribner’s, however, is an example of why most dealers and librarians today disdain the practice of separating pages of a book in order to make more sales. After the fragments were sold, volume 1 of the same copy was discovered in Mons, Belgium.

The Rare Bible Collection @ MOBIA includes four noble fragments, two each from both the Wells and Scribner’s dismantled copies. Printing made the black printed text more or less the same2 but, each individual copy was illuminated for its subsequent owner, making each copy unique. Below is a picture of the headlines from two of the modestly decorated pages. The Wells fragment has the headlines written with alternating red and blue pigments and red rubrication; the Scribner’s fragment is simply written in black ink at the top of the page and has been trimmed on three sides, especially at the foredge. It is hard to tell if the trimming happened before or after the book was taken apart:

These leaves were taken from storage for conservation treatment. The leaves are in good shape, despite one of the Wells fragments having been cut, presumably long ago, when something was sliced out of an adjoining page. The page was repaired with a rather large piece of paper, which partially obscures the text. This repair will be left in place.

The leather pamphlet bindings commissioned for the editions sold by Gabriel Wells were in need of treatment. The bindings hold a single section with A. Edward Newton’s essay, followed by blank pages between which the fragment leaf was hinged (either for the publication or a by a subsequent owner). These bindings are now part of the history of this Noble fragment from the Gutenberg Bible and required treatment in order to retain their function as books. The spine leather and headcaps were abraded and damaged on one copy and the spine was detached on the other. In order to repair the missing leather, the original leather was lifted off the covers and new leather was adhered underneath. The original bindings were by Stikeman & Co. and seemed to be rather frugal, considering what that bindery was capable of.

Not all the bindings for these pamphlets by Stikeman were the same. Another one of these bindings, with a slightly different design, is shown on conservator Jeff Peachey’s website along with additional information about the noble fragments and a description of the conservation treatment performed on the binding:

For a comparison of the two copies of the Gutenberg Bible held by the British Museum and a good description of the working practices of his print shop check out the excellent website “British Library, Treasures in Full, Gutenberg Bible.”

Other examples of Stikeman & Co. bindings, which operated in New York from the end of the 19th through the first quarter of the 20th century can be found here:

If you live in or are visiting New York City, the copy of the Gutenberg Bible owned by the New York Public Library is on continuous display, you can see it, for free, anytime the library is open. Thank you NYC!

1 Newton, A. Edward, A Noble Fragment|Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, Gabriel Wells, New York, NY, 1921. p.1.

2 The practice of printing with moveable type, especially during the early period, required that corrections and changes be made to the text as it was pressed. The result was that even though printed books were meant to be exact copies, corrections to the typesetting and irregularities of imposition made copies similar but not identical. For a brief explanation of some of these irregularities and changes in the Gutenberg Bible (and much, much more) see the British Library’s “Treasures in Full” website (link above).

– C.M. for MOBIA

Real Power. Good News by a man named John

New York: American Bible Society, 1968
John 2

American Bible Society launched its Newark, New Jersey project by printing this special edition of the Gospel according to John.  The text was taken from the Good News Testament and the cover title “Real Power” was meant to stimulate the curiosity of its targeted recipients and point them in the right direction.  The booklet was printed with the original illustration designed by Annie Vallotton.  In 1968 ABS distributed in Newark more than 500,000 copies of this special edition John’s Gospel.  The initial press run of 500,000 copies proved insufficient and another million copies were produced before the end of 1968.

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Currently on view



Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

Photo by Gina Fuentes Walker

American Bible Society started remodeling its vest pocket Scriptures in the early 1920s and by the end of the decade almost all the books of the Bible had been reissued in a new design: the text was reprinted in the traditional two-column format, maps and photographs of the Holy Land were added where appropriate, and beautifully designed paper covers replaced the cloth bindings of earlier editions.  The new booklets were the most affordable Scriptures yet produced by the Society, selling for just one penny.  A Souvenir Edition of the complete Bible consisting of 32 penny volumes placed in three small boxes was offered to visitors at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.

The “penny Gospels” were the most widely read Scriptures during the Mississippi Floor and account for more than half of the volumes distributed at the time.

From the Conservator: Preparing for “Reaching Out”

When preparing a book for exhibition, a conservator’s objective is to ensure that the books exhibited not only represent the collection in the best light, but are in the best condition possible to endure the handling required for display as well as the long term storage that follows the exhibition.

Reaching Out: American Bible Society and the African American Community features the second printing, in 1817, of the first Bible published by American Bible Society (ABS). This Bible was printed with the same stereotype plates made for the first edition in 1816. The Rare Bible Collection includes a copy of the first edition, but the book was rebound in the mid 20th century. The 1817 copy still has its original binding, so it is important to preserve it for the collection as one example of how the book was originally bound.

This copy is missing a thick section of pages, everything from Chronicles 8 to the end of Psalms. The large gap caused the leather to pucker and crease from head to tail along the spine as well as causing more pages to fall out.



The treatment plan was to fill in the gap left by the missing pages with new paper, but do it in such a way that the repair could be easily removed if necessary. New, blank pages could be sewn in; and to ensure they were removable the spine could be reinforced with a linen lining adhered with a reversible adhesive.

A handmade paper was chosen for the blank pages similar in color and thickness to the paper of the 1817 Bible. The paper was folded into signatures, approximately as thick and flexible as the original. The thickness of the new signatures was tested to make sure they would fit snugly into the binding without pulling apart the fragile spine when the book was closed.

After the paper was prepared, the leather was lifted off of the spine so the new pages as well as the other detached sections could be sewn together. The photo shows that the back sections of the book were still attached to the binding.


The new sections were sewn in with linen thread and the spine was lined with thin paper and strong linen. The leather cover was wrapped around the textblock and adhered to the spine over a “hollow” — a folded piece of linen that allows the spine to move freely, without further creasing the damaged leather. The new pages were then trimmed to the exact size of the original and the edges were colored with colored pencil to blend in with the rest of the book. Colored pencil was used because paint, such as watercolor, would cause the edges of the paper to become wavy as they absorbed water.

Now the book was strong enough to withstand being held open for 3 months during the exhibition and would also be able to sit on the shelf indefinitely without losing any more pages.


Our Newest Acquisition: New Testament in Ancient Syriac

Antioch, the capital of Syria, was the third-largest city of the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus’ birth, and it was in Antioch that the disciples of Jesus were first called “Christians.” Between the second and the sixth centuries, more translations and revisions of the New Testament were prepared in Syriac than in any other language.  By the early fifth century a version that was later called Peshitta, that is “the simple” or “the clear” one, was being perceived as the standard text and was gradually replacing the other translations. The Peshitta New Testament does not include the book of Revelation, the four minor Catholic Epistles (2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude), and a few shorter texts from the Gospels. The text of the Peshitta was revised in 508 by Bishop Philoxenus and in 616 by Bishop Thomas of Harkel.

The first book ever printed in Ancient Syriac was an edition of the New Testament published in 1555 in Vienna. The critical edition displayed here was prepared by the theologian Joseph White (1746-1814) based on two manuscripts of the Harkleian text preserved in Oxford libraries. It includes all the canonical books with the exception of Revelation. White added to the Syriac text his own literal Latin translation, a set of prefaces, and some textual notes.

This important edition of the Syriac New Testament was recently added to the ABS Scripture Collection thanks to the generosity of two long-standing Friends of the Library.


New Testament in Ancient Syriac

Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1778-1803

Early American Bibles

Bible. Cambridge, Mass: Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson, 1663

Known as the Massachusetts Bible or Eliot’s Indian Bible, this is the earliest translation of the complete Bible in any of the native languages of America and the first Bible printed in the New World. It was the work of John Eliot (1604-1690), a Puritan minister and early colonist sometimes called the “Apostle to the Indians.” Eliot came to America in 1631 and devoted the remaining years of his long life to evangelizing the Native Americans. The Massachusetts Indians he converted lived around Boston Bay and spoke an Algonquin language. The tribe may have had as many as 21,000 members in the early 1600s, but had been swept by disease and reduced to about half that size by the time of Eliot’s arrival. Their language became extinct in the 1850s.

Eliot’s translation of the Bible was the first text written in the language of the Massachusetts Indians. The New Testament was printed in 1661 in an estimated 1,500 copies. About 1,000 of these were later bound with the Old Testament, which was printed in 1663. Only about 60 of them are still in existence. The printing of Eliot’s Bible was made possible through financial and technical assistance provided by the “Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Indians of New England,” the first missionary society ever established inEngland. The Bible described here is one of the 20 presentation copies sent by Eliot to his supporters in the old country. A second edition, including a revised translation made by Eliot with the assistance of the Rev. John Cotton, was published in 1685.