Exhibits Put Spotlight on Priceless Bibles

Few universities can match the caliber of the 60 rare English Bibles on display at Southern Methodist University.

But at least two universities will, as part of a new kind of traveling exhibit showing at SMU's theology school library.

The historical notes and research findings that accompany SMU's "Bible in English: Before and After the Hampton Court Conference, 1604" exhibit will form the foundation of displays at Princeton University and the University of Manchester in England — but with priceless Bibles taken mostly from those universities' own collections.

"There is such a thing as a 'traveling exhibit,' but this is an entirely different concept and easier because you don't want to be shipping your Coverdale Bibles around the world," said Valerie R. Hotchkiss, director of the Bridwell Library at SMU's Perkins School of Theology. Coverdale Bibles date to the 16th century and were the first complete English printed Bibles.

Whole Is Better than Parts

Stella Butler, head of special collections at the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, said she's "delighted to be working with Bridwell Library on such an innovative project."

While all three universities boast extensive collections of rare Bibles, "exhibitions bring together material in such a way as the whole is much more significant than the parts," Butler said.

Curators David Price and Charles C. Ryrie worked for more than three years to create the exhibit, which marks the 400th anniversary of the Hampton Court Conference. That meeting of King James I with English bishops and Puritan leaders in 1604 gave birth to a project to translate the Bible into English.

"It was the first major political act of King James I," said Price, a specialist in Renaissance studies who teaches church history at SMU. "It was a surprising decision because there were excellent Bibles available at the time, and the suggestion came out of nowhere." In the exhibit — and in a new book, Let It Go among Our People: An Illustrated History of the English Bible from John Wyclif to the King James Version— Price and Ryrie offer a detailed political and literary history of the English Bible.

The books on display range from the Wycliffite Bible of the early 1400s to the first edition of the King James Bible, printed in 1611.

A Rare Showing

The SMU exhibit showcases two Wycliffite New Testaments, named after John Wyclif, who instigated the first complete translation from Latin to English.

"To see one is something, but to see two in the same place is remarkable," said Ryrie, professor emeritus at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Among other Bibles in the SMU exhibit:

The first translation of the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Bible — by William Tyndale. He was the first person to translate the Bible's original manuscripts from Hebrew and Greek into English. He was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536 on charges of heresy. He violating Henry VIII's anti-Protestant policies against translating the Bible into English.

The Coverdale Bible of 1535. Miles Coverdale used "beautiful typography and captivating woodcut illustrations" in his Bible, which contains 158 illustrations made from 68 woodblocks, the curators said.

Coverdale's Great Bible of 1539, so named because of its large size — with pages roughly 16 1/2 by 11 inches.

The Geneva Bible of 1560, the most popular English translation until the King James Version. It was small and easy to carry. The Bishops' Bible, a 1570s revision of the Great Bible carried out by more than a dozen bishops and other church officials under the direction of Michael Parker, archbishop of Canterbury. It's considered a typographical masterpiece and the most lavishly illustrated English Bible of the Renaissance.

Steve Ferguson, curator of rare books at Princeton, said the exhibit's significance can't be exaggerated.

"This is one of the great stories of the culture of English-speaking people," Ferguson said.

Better yet, he said, "This is a show you can visit three times and have three different experiences."

If You Go…

BIBLE EXHIBIT AT SMU: Located in SMU's Bridwell Library, 6005 Bishop Blvd., Dallas. Free admission. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through April 16. Closed Sundays. Contact (214) 768-3483 or www.smu.edu/bridwell/. BIBLE EXHIBIT AT PRINCETON: Princeton's version will run from May 2 through Aug. 8 at the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library, One Washington Road, Princeton. Call (609) 258-1470 for more information. BIBLE EXHIBIT AT UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER: A renovation project will delay the opening here until September 2006; at the John Rylands University of Manchester Library, 2004 Oxford Road, Manchester.