From Bible Collectors' World
Vol. 13, No. 2
April-June 1997
Pages 6-8.

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The Ramseyer-Northern Bible Society Museum Collection

By James Vileta, Donald Pearce & Doreen Hansen University of Minnesota, Duluth, Library


In the early days of automobile tourism, the city of Duluth, Minnesota had two attractions to highlight in the AAA Tour Book. One was the Harbor Lift Bridge, and the other was the Bible House.  Many attractions have come and gone, but Rev. Henry Ramseyerthe Bible House still remains among the many numerous and varied attractions in Duluth. The collection, however, which made the Bible House a point of interest to tourists is now held and displayed by the Library of the University of Minnesota on their Duluth campus. It is known as the "Ramseyer-Northern Bible Society Museum Collection.

The Bible House collection was the work and love of the Rev. Henry E. Ramseyer.  Rev. Ramseyer was born in Hamburg, Ontario in 1873. He moved to Michigan as a youth and later studied theology at Bluffton College in Ohio. He became a Minister in June, 1896 and dedicated the remainder of his life to missionary work.  Rev. Ramseyer came to the Duluth area in 1898, and in 1906 he became Superintendent of the Duluth branch of the Bethel Society for the Homeless. He served in that position until 1918, during which time he played a key role in the establishment of the Northern Bible Society. He served as their secretary for 17 years.

According to an article in The Sower, a newsletter edited by Rev. Ramseyer, the  Northern Bible Society was an inter-denominational, non-profit corporation. "Its Board of Directors [is] composed of men from different churches. It exists solely to spread the word of God among the needy, regardless of race, color or creed. It sends out the Bible without note or comment... These scriptures were sent [free] into isolated and religiously-neglected homes in frontier settlements - to sailors on the lakes, men in government camps, cheap boarding houses, logging camps, prisons, to Indian children in government schools, the children in the State School for the Deaf, etc. The Society, from its start, has made a liberal discount on the Scriptures that were bought by the churches and various societies and organizations for their own use."

In carrying out its mission, the Society distributed the Scriptures in English and in the languages of the immigrants to the northern part of Minnesota. Over the years, millions of copies were sent out. The Society's activities were centered in the Bible House located at 715 West Superior Street and built with money raised by the Society from its members and local groups.

The details of Rev. Ramseyer's missionary endeavors in the Northern Minnesota and Great Lakes region are recounted in his autobiography, True Life Stories,  published in 1927.  He relates that he had an intense interest in collecting translations and rare editions of the Holy Scriptures. By 1928, his collection had  become so large that he decided to display it publicly.  In 1932 the Bible Museum was established on the second floor of the Bible House. It immediately became a popular Duluth tourist attraction and a collection of interest to scholars. Rev. Ramseyer continued to collect materials for the museum until his death on May 6, 1945.  His daughters, Pauline and Esther continued his work on the museum, and the Northern Bible Society continued the work for which it was founded.

By 1979. the Society found itself unable to maintain the Bible House, and on May 14, 1979 Rev. Ramseyer's collection was formally donated to the University of Minnesota by the Society and Rev. Ramseyer's heirs. The collection was received and made accessible by the University's library. Since then, the collection has continued to grow through gifts and donations of various kinds. In 1988/89, the University received a grant from the Endowment for Biblical Research of Boston which was used to identify all items in the collection and to produce a detailed bibliography and a promotional brochure. In 1991, WDSE-TV, Duluth's PBS television station, produced and broadcast a 30-minute documentary on the history of the collection. It continues to be the subject of numerous talks and presentations throughout the area. 

The original intent of the collection, first begun by Henry Ramseyer, was to illustrate the history of the translation of the Bible into English. It gradually expanded to included translations of the Bible into all tongues. Religious works, such as hymn and prayer books brought to the mining and timber-harvesting areas of Minnesota by the immigrant laborers, are also included in the collection. 

The collection now consists of over 1,600 volumes, representing the Scriptures in 405 different languages. There are also many rare items, including four scrolls of the Torah dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries, a first edition of the King James Bible, a fifth edition of the Great Bible (which has the blank space on the title page where the coat of arms of Thomas Cromwell was previously pictured),  and a copy of Challoner's 1750 revision of the Douay Bible. There are also copies of Erasmus' 1554 Latin text of the New Testament and the 1545 annotated Vulgate printed by Stephanus, plus a number of early secular works designed to illustrate the status of the printing and bookmaking craft during the time that the Bible was first printed.

Over 60 works in the collection are dated prior to 1700, the oldest printed work being a 1490 edition of the Opuscula of Thomas Aquinas. There are also four versions of the Geneva Bible dating from 1592 to 1775 and an 1862 facsimile of Tyndale's New Testament that was made from the one extant copy that was formerly in the Library of Bristol College and more recently purchased by the British Library. The latter was added since transfer of ownership, along with facsimiles of Gospels in Anglo-Saxon, the Gutenberg Bible, and two examples of the Biblia Pauperum. 

Other interesting items in the collection include a first edition of the New Testament in Cherokee (in the script invented by Chief Sequoia), extracts from the New Testament for the Blind (in the embossed type invented by William Moon) and most of the Bible using the now-discontinued New York Point form of Braille. Some 50 native American languages are represented in complete or partial translations of the Bible, several of which are in the Evans Syllabary. More than 100 languages and dialects from Africa are also represented.

The Northern Bible Society financed the construction of six exhibit cases on the third floor of the Library in which items from the collection are displayed on a thematic basis. Typical themes have included: "The History of the Translation of the Bible into English"; "The Scriptures in the Languages of the Immigrants to Minnesota"; "Translations of the Bible into English in the 1990's"; and "Fourteen Versions of the Story of the Good Samaritan."  In recent years the museum has concentrated on collecting contemporary English translations of the Scriptures.

A third edition of the collection's bibliography was completed in January of this year and copies may be obtained by writing the Library Director's Office, Room 248 Library, University of Minnesota, Duluth, MN 55812. The process of entering the bibliography on computer disk is also now almost complete and electronic access will soon be available.

The Ramseyer-Northern Bible Society Museum Collection continues to be a major cultural resource for Northeast Minnesota and it is a major attraction for both tourists and scholars. Local churches regularly schedule group tours of the museum and scholars travel to Duluth to work with its rare materials. Talks and presentations by the curator or by the Special Collections staff may also be arranged through the Library's administrative office. 

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