A few good books

Baker Bible collection offers rare glimpses at sacred history

? John Forbes dims the overhead lights, then points out a brightly colored page from a 550-year-old Bible.

It’s a page from a Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be produced using movable type.

“It’s my favorite,” Forbes says. “Thanks to this, I have a job.”

That particular volume might be Forbes’ favorite part of the William A. Quayle Rare Bible Collection, but he’s got plenty more stories to tell about other Bibles.

For more than 25 years, Forbes has served as curator of the Baker University collection, tending one of the most extensive Bible repositories in the United States.

“It’s like anything with history – it’s important to and interesting to know where we’ve been,” Forbes says. “These (Bibles) were important in shaping the lives of our ancestors. We need to understand where we are in the continuum of time. Sometimes I think with all the electronics – and I’m not complaining – but it’s important not to lose the less strident voices of our past.”

Valuable volumes

For more than 25 years, Forbes has served as curator of the William A. Quayle Rare Bible Collection at Baker University, tending one of the most extensive Bible repositories in the United States.

Forbes partially retired in 1999 but continues to curate the Bible displays open to the public about 12 hours a week.

See for yourself

The Quayle Rare Bible Collection at Baker University is open from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. It also is open by appointment by calling (785) 594-8393.

The collection – it includes about 800 books in all – traces its Baker connections back to Quayle, who attended the university, became its president and served as a Methodist bishop in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

After his death in 1925, Quayle donated his extensive rare Bible collection to Baker, and the university has added to it since then.

“Most rare books libraries own some Bibles, but as far as I know, there are few Bible collections in America as large, carefully compiled and active as that at Baker University,” says Alexandra Mason, a retired librarian at Kansas University.

The collection includes:

¢ Two first editions of the Geneva Bible, the version created by Reformation leader John Calvin.

¢ A copy of the first Bible printed in the United States, in 1743 in German.

¢ A copy of the first Bible printed in English in the United States, in 1782 in Philadelphia. There are only 39 known first-edition copies of this Bible.

“Before the Revolutionary War, we were able to get good-quality Bibles in English from England,” Forbes explains. “Once we went to war with them, that was the end of that.”

The details, Forbes says, fascinate visitors when they’re looking at the Bibles. Middle-school boys on field trips especially are drawn to the blood stains on an 1856 King James Bible carried by a Union soldier during the Civil War.

This third folio edition King James Bible, 1617, carries a fore-edge painting of Jesus with Doubting Thomas and the rest of his apostles after the resurrection.

In addition to the rare Bibles, Baker owns Good Books signed by every U.S. president since Harry Truman.

Forbes says an endowment provides about $3,000 a year to make modest additions to the collection.

He declines to specify how much the books are worth. But in an era when online auctions have created a worldwide market for book dealers, it’s clear they’re valuable.

“We don’t give a value, or say what we tell the insurance company,” he says. “You can’t go down to the local Wal-Mart and replace them.”

Printing history

And that makes the collection valuable to researchers as well.

Mason, the retired KU librarian, used the Quayle collection as part of an international census of 15th-century books conducted by the British Library.

She says that, for researchers, viewing old Bibles can offer insights into the history of printing.

“Each innovation in printing and development in editing methods is visible in the Bible,” she says. “The respect afforded to the text of this work has insured that the greatest attention has been paid to the technical production of the book, making many Bibles among the most beautiful books.”

Rick Clement, who heads special collections at KU’s Spencer Research Library, says he often points researchers toward Baker University when they’re doing research on old books.

This Bible, which consists of two volumes, is the first printed in America in English, with the Old Testament printed in 1782 and the New Testament printed in 1781.

“It’s kind of a landmark collection,” he says. “We don’t generally buy too many Bibles because I know one of the best Bible collections in the country is down the road. It’s a shared resource. That’s the way I look at it.”

‘Spiritual’ experience

Forbes is glad it’s a resource that can be shared. He especially enjoys seeing nonresearching visitors get insight about the Bibles.

The experience can even enhance their faith, he says.

“What people get in coming here is in direct ratio to what they bring,” he says. “If they bring a great spiritual church background, they will notice things.”

Forbes says understanding how people worshiped and seeing the Bibles they read from hundreds of years ago give a sense of tradition to the Christian faith.

“One of the things in understanding myself is to understand my grandfather,” he says. “I think Bibles are like that, too.”