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On display - Exhibits focus on children’s books, Civil War Methodism Sam Hodges, Jan 23, 2012
IMAGE COURTESY BRIDWELL LIBRARY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS
This page in an exhibit at Perkins School of Theology’s Bridwell Library—and their accompanying rhyming texts—come from Darton’s 'Scripture Alphabet', published in London in 1858.
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
When better than mid-winter to visit, or at least read about, two library exhibits that can keep attendees warm, dry and absorbed for hours?
Drew University, a United Methodist-affiliated school in Madison, N.J., debuted on Sept. 23 an exhibit on Methodists and the American Civil War. It continues through April 30.
Just opened at Bridwell Library, part of Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, is an exhibit titled “Four Centuries of Religious Books for Children.” It continues at the Dallas campus through May 12.
The Drew exhibit, timed to the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, houses 90 items, spread among 10 cases in two locations—the Drew library and the nearby United Methodist Archives and History Center.
The exhibit carries an intriguing title, “Gladly Laid Upon the Country’s Altar,” which reflects how extensively and enthusiastically Methodists participated in a war that would claim some 600,000 lives.
“The title is actually taken from a speech by [Methodist] Bishop Matthew Simpson,” said the Rev. Christopher Anderson, Methodist librarian at Drew and a staff member of the UMC’s General Commission on Archives & History. “It seemed to fit, Simpson being such a key player in the war and within American Methodism.”
Simpson, whose life story is featured in one case of the exhibit, was born June 20, 1811, in Cadiz, Ohio, and baptized as an infant by Francis Asbury, a key early figure of Methodism in America. Simpson would go on to Allegheny College and a career as an ordained Methodist elder, becoming a bishop in 1852.
As Dr. Anderson notes, Simpson worked in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War and interacted with top administration officials, including fellow Methodist Edwin Stanton, U.S. Secretary of War. Simpson was close as well to President Abraham Lincoln, and preached the burial sermon at Lincoln’s funeral in Springfield, Ill.
After the war, Simpson would serve as trustee of the new Drew Theological Seminary. Two of the exhibit’s cases—the ones in the Drew library—hold items that illustrate connections between Drew and the Civil War.
Other early Drew trustees included John T. Martin, a major supplier of clothing and financing to the Union war effort, and Theodore Runyon, a Union brigadier general who also was a mayor of Newark, N.J., and served as U.S. ambassador to Germany.
The main part of the exhibit deals more generally with the Methodist response to the war and its tortured prelude. John Wesley’s staunch opposition to slavery is highlighted in one case, which includes a copy of Wesley’s death mask and a letter he wrote, six days before his death, to anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce. In it, he describes slavery as “execrable villainy.”
But in America, Methodism would eventually fracture over the slavery issue, with several thousand anti-slavery advocates pulling out of the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in 1842 and 1843. The exhibit explains this move, as well the Methodist Episcopal Church’s 1844 General Conference. That event resulted in a split over slavery, with Southerners withdrawing into the Methodist Episcopal Church South—a move that foreshadowed the national crisis of secession.
Bishop James O. Andrew, the slave-owning Georgia cleric who was at the center of the controversy, is represented in the exhibit with a photograph and letter.
The exhibit also includes diaries kept by Methodists during the war, and one of Dr. Anderson’s favorites is that of Amanda Johnson, a Methodist Episcopal missionary in India.
“She had heard news about Lincoln’s assassination and wrote her response to that, her shock,” Dr. Anderson said. “That was kind of an interesting perspective on that moment.”
Just for kids
One might assume that religious books for children came into play in the 20th century. But the tradition is much older, reports Daniel Slive, head of Bridwell Library Special Collections and curator for the library’s new exhibit.
“The exhibition’s focus on religious books created for children between 1500 and 1900 provides a long historical perspective on how texts were abridged, adapted and illustrated so that the young readers could begin their religious education,” he said.
The exhibit includes 77 items, all drawn from the library’s collection. They include Bibles, catechisms, instructional works, moral stories, devotional literature, psalms and spiritual songs.
“Throughout the exhibition, viewers can see how authors, editors and publishers utilized numerous strategies involving the choice of text, image and physical format to engage young readers,” Mr. Slive said.
As early as the 18th century, Bible abridgements and adaptations for children were popular in England. “Thumb Bibles” were named for their small size, and offered condensed versions of Scripture.
Both Protestant and Catholic authors used catechisms to impart basic religious teachings, often posing questions and providing answers that the young readers were expected to memorize.
The Bridwell exhibit includes one of the earliest Lutheran catechisms, done by German Protestant Johann Agricola and printed in Wittenberg in 1527. Mr. Slive noted that this was two years before the publication of Martin Luther’s catechism for students.
Another item that Mr. Slive considers a standout is The 104th Psalm, a 12-foot-long panorama of 24 connected leaves that illustrate the verses of that psalm. Published in 1870 in London, the work features hand-colored lithographs designed by Susan Maria Ffarington, who illustrated devotional books for children and also designed windows for parish churches.
“The work begins with an image of the psalmist, King David, covering his head in reverence to the Lord,” Mr. Slive said. “At the end, he appears again, wearing a crown and playing his harp within his palace in Jerusalem.”