September 17 - November 23, 1996. So Precious a Foundation: the Library of Leander Van Ess at the Burke Library of the Union Theological Seminary. Curated by Milton McC.Gatch.
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September 17 - November 23, 1996
So Precious a Foundation: the Library of Leander Van Ess at the
Burke Library of the Union Theological Seminary
Curated by Milton McC.Gatch


In September-November 1996 a group of over 100 carefully selected treasures from the Library of Leander van Ess in the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York was exhibited at the Grolier Club in New York. The exhibition commemorated the purchase, in 1838, from the German scholar and biblical translator, Leander van Ess, of this library of more than 13,000 volumes that provided the foundation for one of America's first research libraries.

Although the very survival of this newly established seminary was in doubt because of the severe national fiscal Panic of 1837, its leaders seized the opportunity to bring the collection to the United States, mortgaging the books to raise the funds. Van Ess's store of printed books, manuscripts and documents included what was at the time of purchase the largest collection of incunabula in America.

Leander van Ess has been known in the book world almost exclusively as the seller of a large collection of manuscripts and incunabula to the famous English collector, Sir Thomas Phillipps. The collection at Union Theological Seminary, however, was his personal library: an extensive assemblage of theological books from the eleventh through the early nineteenth centuries, amassed and treasured by a self-taught scholar of modest means.

The exhibition opened with a brief survey of van Ess's life and publications. It was organized in sections devoted to major strengths of the Library of Leander van Ess: manuscripts, incunabula, ecclesiastical documents, Bibles, and biblical studies, publications of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, canon law, history and liturgics. An unusual feature was the section devoted to two almost unknown monastic libraries: those of the Benedictines of Huysburg and the Franciscans of Halberstadt. The earliest item on display was a monastic theological miscellany of the eleventh century; the latest the literature of a nineteenth-century dispute on fasting. The curator of the exhibit was Milton McC. Gatch, Director of the Burke Library.

Although Leander van Ess was a controversial figure in German religious history in the early nineteenth century, he has been nearly forgotten today. Born Johann Heinrich van Ess in Warburg in 1772, he took the name Leander when he joined the Benedictines at Marienmunster, in 1790. He retained that name even after the secularization of 1803. After a period in the pastorate, during which he published a translation of the New Testament into German, he became pastor of the Roman Catholic congregation of the Elisabethkirche in Marburg and Professor of Catholic Theology at the University from 1812 to 1822. He later moved to Darmstadt, where he devoted himself to distributing the translation of the New Testament and translating the Old Testament. His work was supported by the British and Foreign Bible Society. His New Testament, on the Index of Prohibited Books after 1821, is said to have been the most widely distributed German biblical translation after Luther's. At the time of the sale of books to New York, he lived in Alzey. He died in 1847 at Affolterbach in the Odenwald.

A major publication on the exhibition is available, containing essays on the life of Leander van Ess by Johannes Altenberend and on his book collections by Milton Gatch, as well as an essay contributed by Paul Needham on a datable fragment of Dutch prototypography in the binding of one of van Ess's manuscripts. The volume also contains a full catalogue of the exhibition with extensive illustration. It was produced by Stamperia Valdonega in Verona, Italy.

From the Grolier Club, the exhibit traveled to the Gutenberg-Museum in Mainz, Germany (19 February - 27 April 1997), the Erzbischöfliches Diözesanmuseum in Paderborn, Germany, where van Ess lived the earlier part of his life (23 May - 3 August 1977), the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library of the University of Toronto (10 September - 19 December 1997) and the Bridwell Library of the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas (2 February - 25 April 1998). 

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