Mary Desmond | Staff Writer
The Bible is one of the world’s most read books. People turn through its pages in moments of despair or elation. The holy text is present at baptisms, weddings, funerals and the moments that punctuate life in between.
The Department of Religion of Chautauqua Institution recently received a Bible that has seen many such moments. Earlier this month, Judith Burrows, a retired Episcopal priest, gave a 511-year-old Bible to the institution.
“This wonderful institution was built on a religious foundation. It’s right for it, it’s where it should be,” Burrows said.
Anton Koberger printed the Bible in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1501. Since then, the book, etched with annotations and crossed with the trails of bookworms, has changed hands on many occasions. According to a document delivered with the Bible, the two bookplates that bind the text have been added since its original printing. The first in 1658, and the second was added when Dean Hoffman and Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the book and presented it to the General Theological Seminary, the oldest Episcopal seminary in the United States. From General Theological Seminary, the Bible made its way to the Christ the King Seminary Library at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y.
The book, written in Latin, was printed in March of 1501, so it is not considered “incunabula,” a term which translates to “in the cradle” and is used by book collectors and appraisers to refer to those books which were printed before the year 1500. However, it will make an impact on the Institution’s book collection.
“I believe it will be the oldest book we have,” said the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the director of the Department of Religion. “We’re very, very pleased; it’s an amazing gift.”
Burrows received the book on the occasion of her ordination in 1978. A pioneer in the Episcopal faith, Burrows was the first female priest ordained in her diocese.
“When I went to seminary, there was only one other woman at the Episcopal theological school,” Burrows said.
Following theological school, she was unable to be ordained. It wasn’t until 13 years after she graduated that she was able to take her ordination exam.
At her ordination, the bishop presented her with the holy text.
“The bishop always gives you a Bible, but this one isn’t exactly according to the charge that says read and study the Holy Bible — I could look in it, but I couldn’t study from it,” Burrows said.
“I was overwhelmed,” she said.
Since she received the Bible, she has kept it at her home and flipped through it regularly. Her daughter, Caroline Loncher, now an adult, recalls looking through the antique pages as a child.
“Now, so many people will be able to enjoy it,” Loncher said.
Burrows has long been familiar with the Chautauqua Institution. In the past, she has spent a few weeks as the chaplain of the Episcopal cottage on the grounds at Chautauqua, she said. It was during her last stay, approximately six years ago, that she decided she would donate her Bible to the Institution.
“I looked in the museum and saw that this was older than anything you had, and I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the home for it,’ ” Burrows said. “I love it, and I’m proud of it, and it’s within driving distance, and I can come visit my friend.”
The Bible currently resides in the Hall of Missions and will be appraised and evaluated during the off-season. The Institution’s archivist, Jon Schmitz, said the Bible was an extraordinary addition to Chautauqua’s book collection. His only concern is developing a way to properly display the Bible while protecting it from further damage by the elements.