Exhibit brings 1613 King James Bible to light

A rare 1613 edition of the King James translation of the Bible has been pulled off the shelves of Western Libraries offering religious patrons and curious onlookers a glimpse at history.

The browning pages of the unassuming text give no indication of its age. Some may expect to see a massive tome resting in the display, however a slightly weathered leather-bound book with small black-inked pages greets visitors instead.

The Bible’s permanent home is in the James Alexander and Ellen Rae Benson Special Collections at D.B. Weldon Library, but it will be on display in the McIntosh Gallery until June 11 as part of the Sacred Space exhibit. It was chosen to be featured, in part, due to the 137th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Canada held through June 11 at The University of Western Ontario. More than 450 delegates are expected to attend.

The King James Bible marks its 400th anniversary this year, with the original print run in 1611. Western’s copy of the King James Bible was printed by London printer R. Barker.

“The origins of how that copy came to arrive here is a bit of a mystery,” says Robin Keirstead, university archivist.

One theory is the Bible was part of a donation John Davis Barnett made in 1918. He donated 40,000 volumes from his personal library. But it is possible the Bible was inherited earlier because there is no accession number on it, which was added to catalogue all library acquisitions after the Barnett donation.

“We think it was either one of a relatively small number of items that was here prior to 1918 or it came in as part of his donation,” Keirstead says. “There wasn’t a lot of detailed library records back then.

“Some of the earliest items we have, have always been here in the sense we are not quite sure where they came from.”

The early edition of Bible, one of many unique and interesting holdings, is the centerpiece of a small collection of early-published versions of the Bible from the late-1600s to 1800s.

The McIntosh Gallery exhibit offers a rare opportunity for members of the public to see one of the most highly cited verses, Psalm 100, printed in beautifully scripted letters in the early edition.

While it heralds no annotations, a handwritten name, G.C. Hale, is inscribed in the book, possibly the initials of the original owner.

“There is something about seeing and holding (in some cases) things that are, well in the case of the Bible, almost 400 years old,” Keirstead says. “In some ways this is a hidden gem. Often there has to be some sort of impetus to pull a particular item out and highlight it and this was just a wonderful opportunity to do that.”

The King James Bible is considered the best-selling book of all time and constitutes a compilation of disparate earlier translations by as many as 50 Anglican divines.

The idea for putting the rare edition temporarily on display in the exhibit was initiated by the Rev. Keith McKee, husband of exhibit co-curator Jan Shepherd McKee.

McKee, who is the convener of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, contacted Kierstead about the Bible, after hearing rumours it was part of Western’s archive collection, and the Archives and Research Collections Centre began working with the McIntosh Gallery to include the piece in the exhibit.

“During that week of the conference we wanted to provide a contemplative space where people could come from the conference … and think and digest what they have learned,” says Shepherd McKee, who co-curated the exhibit with McIntosh Gallery curator Catherine Elliot Shaw.

“It’s so rare to see something like this,” she says of the Bible.

While the exhibit only features two pieces that are overtly religious, the collection intends to create a ‘sacred space’ for patrons to reflect on a metaphysical relationship to nature, people and the cosmos.

“It allows us to look at the collection in a different way,” Elliot Shaw says.