NEW ORLEANS – In 2011, English speakers – and Christians in particular – celebrated the 400th anniversary of the first printing of the King James “Authorized Version” of the Bible.
The KJV, heralded both for its longstanding value as a translation of scripture and for its impact on the English language, was commissioned in 1604. Seven years later, in 1611, royal printer Robert Barker produced the first copies of the new English version of the Bible.
A second printing took place in 1613, with a third in 1617.
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) acquired a copy of the King James Bible from that 1617 printing from a former Primitive Baptist minister and his family in Atwood, Tenn., in August 2011.
The past year of the Bible’s history is meaningful for the family and quite exciting for the seminary, which hopes to display it one day in a museum dedicated to Bible history and biblical archaeology.
But much of the story of this particular Bible remains somewhat of a mystery.
It was printed in Barker’s own London print shop. Due to high demand for the Bible, later printings were done at several London printers and bound at Barker’s shop. Judging from the Bible’s size – 15.5 inches tall by 11.5 inches wide by 5.25 inches deep – it was probably used as a lectern Bible or in some other ministry setting.
Little else is known about the Bible’s history for almost 250 years after its publication. In 1860, according to an inscription near the front, it was presented to Anne Early as “the gift of her beloved father,” Edward Early, on Oct. 24 of that year. No occasion is named for the gift. Members of the Early family lived both in England and the United States in the mid-1800s, so it’s possible the Bible had crossed the Atlantic by then.
Another century-long gap in the Bible’s story sits between the inscription and the 1970s when it reemerged in Atwood, Tenn. Samuel Thomas Tolley, a Primitive Baptist minister, bought another Primitive Baptist pastor’s library, which included the 1617 King James Bible.
“[The previous owner] had been collecting Baptist literature for years and years,” said Mike Tolley, Samuel Tolley’s son. “He was getting old, and my dad bought his whole library. We don’t know what he gave for it.”
Photo by Boyd Guy
A historic copy of the King James Version of the Bible printed in 1617, shown here open to the Gospel of Luke, has been acquired by New Orleans Seminary.
Neither Mike Tolley nor his sister remembers the previous owner’s name or where he acquired the Bible. The 1617 King James Bible, he said, became a treasured part of his father’s library.
During his 50-plus years in ministry among Primitive Baptists, Samuel Tolley published a Baptist newspaper and worked toward building a historical library for Primitive Baptists. His personal collection, besides the 1617 King James Bible, included scores of Primitive Baptist books, records and other documents.
“He devoted his whole life to publishing his newspaper and building his library,” Mike Tolley said.
In the 1990s, Samuel Tolley began to sell his personal library, Mike Tolley said, in hopes that it would benefit Baptists for generations to come.
“It all wound up in the [Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives] in Nashville,” Mike Tolley said. “They got just about everything from Dad’s library.”
Everything, that is, except the 1617 King James Bible, which Samuel Tolley had promised to give to his son and daughter, Ellen Lovett. The Bible passed to Mike Tolley and his sister about five years ago when Samuel Tolley developed Alzheimer’s disease and retired from the pastorate.
By the spring of 2011, Mike Tolley and Lovett decided to sell the Bible, not just to raise extra funds but also to allow other Christians to study and learn from it.
And that’s where New Orleans Seminary comes into the story.
Around May 2011, Mike Tolley offered to show the Bible to his interim pastor, Joey Gowan, a former NOBTS student. Gowan said when he saw the Bible and learned that Tolley and Lovett were interested in selling it, he knew just who to contact.
“At that very moment, Dr. Harsch’s name came to mind,” Gowan said, referring to church history professor Lloyd Harsch. “I went home and emailed Dr. Harsch right away.”
Harsch recalls that email well.
“He said, ‘I had you for Baptist Heritage in 2007, and I remember you talking about all the great books we have in our library. I’m an interim pastor here in Atwood, Tenn., and there’s a member of our church who has some old books, including a third edition of the King James Bible,” Harsch recounted.
Within weeks, Harsch was in touch with Gowan, then Tolley. He received permission in the summer to negotiate a purchase price. In August 2011, the seminary formally acquired the Bible and arranged for it to be stored at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in Nashville. The Bible was brought back to New Orleans the following month.
The seminary was able to purchase the book thanks to a private donation from Tom Messer Jr. and his wife Carol. Messer’s parents, Mary Wheeler Messer and the late Thomas Messer Sr., both NOBTS graduates, have been longtime seminary donors.
Tolley said he was extremely pleased for the Bible to go to New Orleans Seminary.
“I didn’t want it to be in a private collection,” he said. “I wanted it to be in a historical place. For my dad’s memory, I’d rather it be in a library where people will have access to it and learn from it, and not in a private collection.”
Harsch said, “We’re really grateful to Mike and Ellen and their willingness to make this available to us. It’s a great addition to our library for research, particularly with the H. Milton Haggard Center for New Testament Textual Studies. It greatly enhances the ability of our students to do research and understand how God has provided the Bible for us.”
Gowan, the interim pastor, said he is thrilled to be a part of the Bible’s history now.
“I’m a history nut, and flipping through it was like history coming alive,” Gowan said. “That’s a rich history and legacy, and I was happy to be a part of this.”
The 1617 King James Bible at New Orleans Seminary currently is in the rare books collection at the John T. Christian Library along with other rare books and Bibles. Harsch said he and other seminary officials hope to develop an on-campus museum for the Bible and other rare items in the future.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Frank Michael McCormack is a writer for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)