Long-time minister David Tarbet and his wife, Paula, have spent more than a decade building a collection of rare Bibles and other manuscripts from the 1500s and 1600s. Now, thanks to their generosity, Bibles typically seen only in museums are housed in Freed-Hardeman University’s Hope Barber Shull Academic Resource Center. Much of the David and Paula Tarbet Collection is on public display; some items, however, are kept in the university’s archives.
The Tarbets have collected a variety of antiques through the years. “As our tastes changed, we went from collecting old bottles to rare Bibles,” he said. “Several years ago while preaching in New England, we decided to search for 16th and 17th century Bibles. We narrowed our interest to Bibles printed in English,” he explained.
The couple began pursuing their new interest by contacting antiquarian book dealers in the Northeast. In 2004, a dealer in Boston referred them to a man in western Massachusetts who had purchased a box lot at a local auction. “At the bottom of the box was an old Bible wrapped in a cloth. Since the cover was not in good condition, the dealer was not interested in keeping it,” he said. That Bible turned out to be a 1599 Geneva Bible. “The Pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower in 1620 brought Geneva Bibles printed in 1599,” Tarbet said.
First published in 1535 by Myles Coverdale, the Coverdale Bible was the first complete Modern English translation of the Bible. The Tarbet collection includes the 1550 edition. “It is very difficult to find today,” Tarbet said. “In the last 25 years, only four copies have appeared on the market.”
The largest and most valuable item in the collection in terms of monetary worth is the Great Bible. It was often chained to the lecterns of cathedrals in England. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London had six copies chained to lecterns so, readers would not be able to steal them, Tarbet said. Printed in 1539, it was authorized by England’s King Henry VIII to be used in worship services of the Church of England, thereby making it legal for the masses to have access to the Bible.
John Rogers, building on the work of William Tyndale, published in 1537 the first printed scriptures translated in English from the original Greek and Hebrew. Since he published it under the pseudonym of Thomas Matthew, it became known as the Matthew’s Bible. Rogers was imprisoned and burned at the stake for his efforts. Tarbet prizes this Bible most highly. “The ‘value’ of a rare Bible is in the eye of the beholder,” Tarbet said. “Although the Matthew’s Bible (1549) is not the most expensive Bible in the collection, it is the most valuable to me because of what it cost in terms of human sacrifice to print and distribute it,” he said.
When Mary I became queen of England, she attempted to return England to the Catholic Church. In addition to executing John Rogers, she executed approximately 300 other individuals — clergy and laity, men, women and children — who purchased, read or shared the Bible in English. “People died to own this Bible,” he said. “The Matthew’s Bible was truly a blood-bought Bible.”
Also included are the Bishop’s Bible (1552-1572), the Douay-Rheims New Testament (1600) and a 1613 King James Bible.
The oldest copies of the word of God in the collection are two Latin leaves produced by monks or priests in England circa 1210. Hand-written copies on vellum were taken by priests in their preaching throughout the countryside. The collection also includes leaves of I, II and III John (1552) translated by William Tyndale, often referred to as the “father of the English Bible.”
Most of Tarbet’s Bibles are printed on linen rag paper; the material was abundant because of the large amount of linen rags during the Black Plague, Tarbet said. People took the rags and sold them to paper makers. The paper, fortunately, has maintained its readability over the centuries. The volumes are bound in leather.
Tarbet said he began gathering rare Bibles because it occurred to him that many universities had such a collection, but none of the universities associated with churches of Christ had a significant number of rare Bibles. “I decided to see if I could put such together with a view toward donating it to a Christian university,” he said. The couple chose to give the collection to Freed-Hardeman because three of their four children attended FHU.
“Freed-Hardeman is honored to be the recipient of this rare collection,” William Tucker, a Freed-Hardeman assistant vice president, said. “It carries with it an obligation to protect, maintain, preserve and display it in a worthy manner.”