Religious Small Change | Newberry

Religious Small Change

In keeping with this week’s religious theme (designed to lure you to our big exhibit on religious history) I thought I would check online prices for religious books and artifacts. At first I was impressed by the number of people who collect Pilgrim’s Progress, but then I got to the original rare fifth century religious icon with certificate of authenticity proving it had been painted in 1927, and decided to look elsewhere.

The Book Fair has, after all, had its own wares in the area of religious collectibles. The portable Communion set we were given last year wasn’t put out for sale, not because it was too sacred—they’re readily available online—but because it was incomplete. For some reason somebody had decided not to give us the little bottle for the wine. But we did have an estate once in which not only had the donor written us into her will to receive her boos, but also bequeathed to us her crucifix collection. We have also had our share of statues of Buddha, but whether these were articles of devotion or figurines someone put on the table during Mah Jongg parties is not known to me. (The image of Buddhism in the U.S. is probably fair fodder for a dissertation or two.)

In the world of books, we have come closer to the actual subject of the Religious Change exhibit, as we have had two noted, not to say controversial, donations of books by Martin Luther. One was turned down by two curators of the Newberry because, although in good condition otherwise, at some point in the last 250 years it had lost its cover. A third curator spotted it in our Collectibles section and raised such a ruckus my ears are still ringing. Then there were the massive volumes which arrived WITH their mid-sixteenth century covers, but no title page or colophon. Deducing that these were part of a set of the works of Martin Luther published in Wittenberg not long after his death was a feat of book detection, but it never came to much.

The rare books of Jewish religious studies which came my way are a bit difficult for me to list, my Hebrew being so scanty. And I never did quite find out what was up with that scroll painting so tenderly cared for in one century and so badly neglected in the next. But I suppose the impressive items most often donated are the Bibles, whether they involve one, two, or three Testaments.

These come both big and little, in good condition and absolutely scrap paper shape. They are pristine and unread; they are underlined and crammed with booklets and spiritual bookmarks. (Next year, so help me, I am going to BUY a bookmark with “Footprints” on it, to satisfy the woman who asks every year if we have a copy.)

Now, the Newberry has noted, on Instagram or some other newfangled bulletin board, that it especially likes those with the Family Record pages filled in, especially if the family has kept it up for several generations. I’m sorry there isn’t enough space for them to keep the ones with three or four generations’ worth of memorial cards and funeral programs. Cramming one’s Bible with extra material seems to satisfy some basic human need. There are frequently flowers—Weddings? Funerals? First Communion?—occasionally photographs, crosses made of palm fronds, pressed greenery from the Holy Land, and, once, a golf scorecard. (A different sort of family record…or perhaps a prayer for better putting.)

The small, personal ones, especially, are full of personality, and unique to the owner. Not worth preserving from most historical standpoints, of course: the original owner is gone and can’t explain what the significance and connections of the objects might have been. The tiny pencil from the dry cleaner is there because it fit the space, but why was this phone number on a scrap of paper tucked in at Psalm 24?

Rude of me to inquire, of course. The owner may even now be explaining that to a higher authority than Uncle Blogsy, assuming there is such a thing.

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