From Duluth News-Tribune
Saturday, April 8, 1989
UMD Bible collection stacks up among finest
may be one of the finest collections of religious writings in the country --
and one of the best kept secrets in Duluth.
To find it, walk beyond the shelves of magazines and newspapers, behind the stacks of textbooks and research material, to a plain room in the University of Minnesota-Duluth library. There you'll find the Ramseyer collection, nearly 1,400 Bibles, manuscripts and scrolls outlining centuries of religious history.
The collection is named for Henry Ramseyer, executive secretary of the Northern Bible Society, an organization affiliated with the American Bible Society. Over the years Ramseyer amassed a collection of Bibles, which he displayed at the society's office, appropriately called the Bible House, at 715 W. Superior St.
Ramseyer died in 1945 and the society eventually donated his prized collection
to the university. The university has had the collection for 10 years, but outside
of small exhibits in the library display cases, little has been done with it.
So far, Pearce has researched about 1,000 of the volumes, entering information in a growing index card file on a desk tucked in a narrow space behind the stacks.
Organizing the collection has proved a challenge, even for an experienced librarian like Pearce. The collection includes Torahs written in Hebrew and Moslem Korans in Arabic. The Bible translations alone, which make up the bulk of the collection, represent 350 languages-- including 190 African dialects and 32 Native American languages.
"What I'm absolutely amazed at is how many people have given a go at translating
it," Pearce said.
Many of the translations were the work of Bible Society missionaries, Pearce said. It was a missionary, for example, who developed a written version of the Cree language to produce an 1861 Bible for that Indian tribe. Today many Bible Society missionaries in remote areas still work as linguists, creating a written language before they can begin translating the Bible for the people.
Pearce sees the need for periodic revisions of the Bible: "To me that doesn't
destroy the basic message of the Bible. But some of the details may have
to change. We'll have to keep on doing that to make it accessible to people.
That was the point of the collection. Mr. Ramseyer wanted to show the effort
to make the Bible accessible.
Pearce uses his own linguistic skills and a stack of reference publications to track down the history of the volumes. All the information will go into a complete bibliography of the collection, which Pearce hopes to have printed by the end of the year.
Pearce moved away from the tattered books to unroll a 13th century Torah. The
neatly printed Hebrew words still were clearly legible on the soft leather scrolls.
The ink formula sounds primitive --Pearce described it as "a mixture of lampblack,
soot, honey and some other ingredients" -- but it has lasted seven centuries
There's a small but incredibly elaborate version of the Moslem Koran hand- lettered
by a 15th century scribe. The gilt-edged pages are filled with near rows of delicate
black lettering, embellished with gold detailing.
A copy of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas dates to 1490. "That's within 50 years of the invention of the (printing) press," Pearce said. The printed version deliberately copied the look of the more expensive handwritten books treasured by the people of the time. But the early printers couldn't reproduce the elaborately drawn colored letters that illustrated handwritten manuscripts. "They left a space so then you could have a scribe draw in the letter for you, just like a manuscript," Pearce said, pointing to the blank spots on the printed pages. The owner of this copy, he said, obviously hadn't gotten around to adding the illustration work.
Pearce feels part of his job is to make people aware of the collection's existence.
He things the writings will be of interest both to Biblical scholars and to people
interested in the history of Minnesota.
He's planning to stage an exhibit in May and June using Bibles from the area to trace the history of its immigrant groups. In addition, he's willing to bring groups in to view the collection and discuss some of its most interesting items.
Discussing the Bible is quite literally an academic exercise for Pearce, who is a Buddhist, But while he doesn't agree with beliefs that confront him every working day, Pearce deeply respects Ramseyer's work in assembling the collection. "It's something that deserves to be preserved and maintained," he said.
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He did more than just give bibles away
Who was Henry Ramseyer? A Canadian born in 1873, Ramseyer came to the U.S. as a youth, became a minister and devoted his life to missionary work.
That work brought him to Duluth in 1899, where he became superintendent of the Duluth Branch of the Bethel Society for the Homeless. He may be best known, however, for his work in establishing the Northern Bible Society, which he served as secretary for 27 years.
Society members raised enough money by 1932 to build the Bible House, which still stands at 715 W. Superior St. According to one biography of Ramseyer, the non-profit, non-denominational society was created to "spread the word of God among the needy, regardless of race, color or creed."
Bibles were given free to visiting sailors as well as residents of the then-frontier settlements. They were delivered to prisons, logging camps, boarding houses and state schools for the handicapped.
But Ramseyer wasn't content just to give Bibles away. He also collected them, amassing so many that he opened a Bible Museum in the second floor of the Bible House. Ramseyer still was adding to the collection when he died in 1945.
The Bible collection was donated to the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 1979. The Bible House now is the law office of Attorney Daniel Mundt. But Ramseyer's work goes under the leadership of Mundt, who serves as the society's president. Through its affiliation with the American Bible Society and the World Bible Society, the organization still supports the work on international missionaries who translate and distribute Bibles around the world.