BALTIMORE — Joseph McGraw had doubts when his friend told him about a first edition of the King James Bible that was sitting in a downtown Baltimore office.
But when the hulking book came off the shelf, the Stevenson University history professor thought, "Wow, that looks pretty old."
Then he opened it and saw the printer's official dedication to the king. "Wow," he said to his friend, "we need to talk."
Almost a year after that conversation, the rare King James edition — there are about 175 in the world — resides in the library at Stevenson, part of a collection of 300 Bibles and related documents from the non-profit Maryland Bible Society.
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The Bibles will serve as a centerpiece collection for the library and as tools for Stevenson students to study such things as historical methods of printing, and the ways churches and laypeople have used the books throughout the last 500 years.
"This is part of what public history is all about," McGraw said, "taking material that can be very dry and bringing it to life. One of the easiest ways to do that is with historical artifacts. They're almost like time machines."
Officials at the Bible Society, based in Baltimore, decided a few years ago that they lacked the space to show off a striking collection of antique editions from across the world. The original King James, for example, was most often kept in the director's office. Other rare Bibles were stashed in out-of-the-way cubbies where no one had seen them for years.
"We realized that the collection needed a better-suited home for its stature," said David Moyer, the Bible Society's executive director.
The society will still own the Bibles under a long-term agreement with the university, which is located in the community of Stevenson, outside Baltimore.
Moyer and McGraw are old friends, so the professor visited the society's office last summer to give the collection a look. That's when he experienced his eureka moment with the King James Bible, which dates to 1611. The Bible is identifiable as a first edition because in the Book of Ruth, a passage refers to Ruth with the pronoun "he" rather than "she." The error was quickly corrected in a second printing.
But the first editions, known as "He" Bibles, are treasured artifacts that sell for six figures on the rare occasions when they hit the open market. Officials from Stevenson and the Bible Society declined to reveal the appraised value of their edition, though they said it was depressed by the presence of repaired and replaced pages that were inserted over the centuries.
"But the very things that would drive down the value are the things I love from a historical standpoint," said Stevenson's chief archivist, Glenn Johnston. "The value to me is that it's not pristine. I can see how it was used."
He flipped to a repaired page to illustrate his point, showing how silk and paste had been used to suture a tear, probably in the 19th century. "I can explain the world better by talking about the imperfections," he said.
The text also features all manner of charming oddities, such as use of the letter "e" at the end of words (the New Testament is the Newe Testament.) Spelling was non-standard at the time, so variations abounded. The front of the Bible features calendars with suggested schedules for daily prayer readings. The famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13, used in many modern weddings, is built around the word "charity" instead of "love."
The Bible Society is 202 years old, and has been chaired by luminaries such as James McHenry, for whom Fort McHenry is named. The society is best known for distributing low-cost Bibles, though its greater mission is to promote the value of God's word in everyday life.
Part of that, Moyer said, is demonstrating the importance of Bibles to societies throughout history. He said that by studying and displaying the collection, Stevenson will aid in that endeavor.
Moyer isn't sure when or how the King James first edition came to the society, though the "He" Bible was mentioned in a 1931 article in the Baltimore Sun. Johnston believes the Bible was owned by someone in Hereford, Md., in the early 19th century. "We just don't know which Hereford," he said with a smile.
Moyer said the book carries great symbolic meaning for him because its physical endurance reflects the enduring power of the words within.
"There is an emotional side to it for us," Moyer said.
The King James and other antique Bibles in the collection clearly excite Johnston, McGraw and other historians at Stevenson, who tend to gush when discussing them.
"It could've been handled," McGraw said of the King James, "by someone who shook Shakespeare's hand."