Pennsylvania man’s collection of Bibles dates to 1551

‘Biblia Sacra,’ Latin Bible, 1515. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Smythe & Co. Inc.

 

SYBERTSVILLE, Pa. (AP) – Some of the pages in the books are yellowed and brittle from age, while others remain unblemished. But they’re all gently turned by the hands of a Sugarloaf Township man, their safe keeper, offering a quiet swoosh or crinkle each time he turns them.

Each book has its own history and appearance, some more prominent than others, but all the same scared title: The Bible.
All 801 of them.

They’re the best-selling work of nonfiction in the world, according to Guinness World Records, and Duane Hildebrand carefully handles each one in his massive collection.

He collected them over his lifetime of 50 years, many given to him after the owner died. Some he got by chance and others he sought out.

“I’ll give any homeless Bible a home,” he said, as a lot of people don’t know what to do with used Scripture.

Though he can’t remember specifically why he started collecting them, he remembers his first was given as a present.

Duane’s mother, Irene, said he was 10 years old when he told her he wanted a family Bible for his 11th birthday in June 1977.

“And you think, a Bible?” she said softly. “You can’t deny a child a Bible … so we got it.”

She found that first family Bible at a local bookstore. He still has it today, kept safely in its original box.

“This is it,” Hildebrand said as he pulled the Bible from the box.

Like many family Bibles, there is space to write his family history. Between some of the pages are memorabilia, including prayer cards from two of his grandparents’ funerals and a sympathy card. A letter from the Hazleton Area Public Library, when he donated a book in memory of a high school classmate who died their senior year, is also tucked safely inside the hallowed book.

“I put stuff in it, too, just like everyone else,” he said.

It can be an interesting adventure to see what other people have stuffed in their good books for safekeeping.

Hildebrand has found flowers, locks of hair, four-leaf clovers, pictures, newspaper clippings and even an indentureship for what he believes was a Civil War captain, all vestiges of the past someone left behind.

He never takes those artifacts out, because they were important enough for the original owners to keep.

“Someone put them there for a reason so there’s no reason to pull them out,” he said.

Some of the Bibles in his collection are elaborately designed, their front leather covers held together by shiny and sturdy metal clasps. Inside are still-vibrant color picture pages, created lifetimes ago.

He has Bibles printed in Spanish, Greek, Czechoslovakian, Dutch and German. Though not fluent in other languages, Hildebrand said it’s easy to pick out words like “Bible,” “Jesus” and “Testament” in foreign tongue.

Many of the books contain the original owner’s family history, some that date back to the early 1800s, he said.

Hildebrand’s oldest Bible was printed slightly over 100 years after Johannes Gutenberg famously invented the printing press. That Bible, with the publication date of 1551, has the words Biblia Sacra on its title page and despite some damage suspected to have been caused by a hungry worm, the book is in good condition.

“I’m holding a Bible that was printed 466 years ago,” he said, reveling at the significance of a book surviving over four and a half centuries. “That’s impressive!”

His next oldest Bible, printed in 1665, is the Old Testament in Greek.

One of the most elaborate is about 4 inches thick. Two large metal clasps hold the front and back leather covers together. There is no print date on it but a handwritten notation inside says, “to husband from wife, Mary,” for Christmas 1899. Artworks, 2,000 of them, illustrate biblical scenes throughout the holy book. It includes a dictionary of the Bible and a list of proper names contained in its sacred stories.

Hildebrand said he often wonders why someone would get rid of a Bible like that one, or any one for that matter.

Hildebrand serves his community as fire chief for Sugarloaf Township Fire Company and received a gift of a 1865 Greek Bible from one of his junior firefighters that is part of his ever-growing collection.

A member of Christ United Church of Christ in Conyngham, he has been a Sunday school teacher for the past 35 years.

Hildebrand is about three-quarters of the way through reading the entire Bible.

He has promised to read it cover to cover, but the heavy reading has already taken years – though he certainly has his pick of books to read from.
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By AMANDA CHRISTMAN, The (Hazleton) Standard-Speaker

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