Review: The German Bible in America

The German Bible in America: An Exploration of the Religious and Cultural Legacy of the First European-Language Bible Printed in America by Don Yoder, ed. Patrick J. Donmoyer (Kutztown, PA: Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, 2016)

Few would guess that the first Bible printed in the thirteen colonies was John Eliot’s 1663 Indian Bible produced for the Christian Indians and for missionaries among other Algonquin tribes. Fewer still would guess that the first Bible in a European tongue printed in the colonies was not printed in English. Not until Robert Aitken’s 1782 printing in Philadelphia, after the colonies had broken away from the mother country and its restriction of Bible printing to Oxford and Cambridge, would an English Bible be printed here. Instead, the first European-language Bible and so much of the colonies’ and early America’s religious literature were printed in German. Christopher Sauer Sr.’s 1743 edition of the Luther Bible was printed in Germantown (then just outside Philadelphia and now a part of it) as he stated at the project’s outset in his 1741 Bekanntmachung, “We have also taken notice that people from Germany arrive here in the greatest poverty, and are still coming, who have not even a Bible, and are not able to get one.”

Don Yoder, the late folklorist of Pennsylvania Dutch culture and religion, produced this volume on the Bibles of German America from colonial times down to the nineteenth century and left some of it unfinished at his death. What Yoder did not have opportunity to cover, Patrick Donmoyer of Kutztown University’s Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center has fleshed out. The subject of German Bibles in America deserves far more attention than it has hitherto received, especially from so many American Lutherans whose heritage this is. The Luther Bible was the vastly predominant German translation of the Scriptures even for non-Lutheran Germans. Its competitors like the Swiss Froschauer Bible beloved of the Swiss Anabaptists did not seriously rival the Luther Bible for ubiquity.

Several elements will be of interest to our readers from this visually wonderful volume featuring so many beautiful editions, illustrations, and textual examples from two hundred years of printing. The material form and all the things in a Bible that are not strictly speaking the biblical text affect how we read Scripture, the connections we make, the mental images that impress themselves upon us, and much else about profitably understanding what we read.

  • German Bibles never lacked the Apocrypha.

In colonial and early republican America there are several beautiful examples of printed Bibles like the three editions of the Sauer family or the 1813 Somerset Bible of Frederick Goeb, a Lutheran minister who printed the first Bible west of the Appalachian Mountains in Somerset County, PA. One is unsurprised to find the Apocrypha printed in those texts. Yet even the barebones copies sent to Muhlenberg from the Canstein Bible Society in Halle for distribution to poor Germans contained the Apocrypha. The first edition of the German Bible without the Apocrypha that Yoder discusses was printed by the American Bible Society in 1849, an Anglo-American institution that did not print the Apocrypha in its own English editions.

  • German Bibles were copiously illustrated.

Relatively cheap copies could possess handmade fraktur drawings for bookplates or decoration. Weightier quarto or folio editions were always accompanied by engravings and later drawings, stereotypes, and lithographs. Scripture was always illustrated in great detail. This book is full of ravishing illustrations from the 1704 Merian Bible printed at Frankfurt-am-Main of Jesus’ baptism or unicorns standing next to Adam and Eve and from the 1726 Berleburg Bible brought to colonial Pennsylvania by radical Pietists with elaborate allegorical drawings of the Scriptures as the open door to the vision of the Lamb and of eternal life. This tradition was carried down to what Yoder calls the “Victorian family Bible,” the grandfather of contemporary study Bibles with scholarly articles and lithographs drawn from English Bibles.

  • German Bibles contained much besides the biblical text and illustrations of it.

Almost all copies had what is now called the “one-year” or “historic” lectionary, which one can find even today in all German Bibles printed by and for the Amish, who do not utilize the lectionary system. Such is the power of this tradition of including the readings for each Sunday and festival day that the above-mentioned ABS 1849 German edition sans Apocrypha did contain the standard lectionary readings. From 1805’s Jungmann Bible printed at Reading, PA a family register was included in nearly every Bible as well, and family charts and lists of family events metastasized throughout the nineteenth century as Bibles became repositories of all significant life information. Yoder mentions two court cases in which men established their own ages with reference to what was written in their fathers’ Bibles.

  • Widespread possession and regular use of the Bible were highly valued.

Many of the Amerikabriefe, letters written from the New World back to the German-speaking lands, mention the writer’s desire for a copy of the Scriptures. Lutheran and Reformed ministers in colonial Pennsylvania requested over and again that their overseers in the Old World would provide them with sufficient copies of the Scriptures to sell to the well-off and to distribute freely to the poor. Sauer’s own printing in 1743 sought subscribers so that some of the money raised from subscriptions could cover the cost of printing Bibles to be given away for free. The Bible was the basic text of the Lutheran and Reformed parochial schools that were everywhere in early German America.

And once the Scriptures were in a person’s hands, they were read. Pastor Brunnholtz of Philadelphia reported in 1752 that in his congregation “very many of them keep their hand-Bibles at hand during the sermon and Kinderlehre, and consult them eagerly so that I myself have often been cheered up when I see that through this they have been kept in attention thereby, also with the advantage, that they can repeat the sermon at home and can better remember the cite passages of the truths that are expounded.” Whether read in connection with the sermon or during the family meal, the Scriptures were for early German Americans in the words of Gottlob Jungmann’s Vorrede, “a Word of Atonement – yes, so that it may in the end prove itself the only means by which fallen human creatures may find access again to their GOD, to their Creator, yes, to their Redeemer.”