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German Bible

We have recently discovered a gem in our possession at the museum. We thought it to be a swedish bible, but here's the skinny, thanks to Jacy Rook with the Pottawattamie County Arts Council:

Prior to Lutheranism, Bibles in pre-16th century Europe were printed in Latin or Greek. This meant the common person could not read scripture without a religious leader’s help. Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German making scripture available in “the people’s dialect.” Printed in 1522, his translation was the first published in a style known as a vernacular Bible.

Over two hundred years later, in 1743, the first German Bible (still in Luther’s translation) was printed in America by Christopher Sauer in Germantown, Pennsylvania. It featured a title-page in two colors, with text in double columns. This Bible before you resembles that description and is dated to a similar period.

Unfortunately, with the inside cover pages missing, it’s difficult to determine its origin with accuracy. The Bible displayed may be a Sauer Bible; among the first printed in America in a European language and the first printed using American-made paper and type. The letterpress blocks of each page would be painstakingly organized in a printing press rack and pressed on cotton-fiber pages (a less expensive practice than using traditional vellum (lambskin) pages). The final product was bound in beveled boards, covered in leather, and each Bible took three years to produce. Copies sold for about $2.50 each, equivalent to $116 today.

The first complete, English-language Bible was printed in America in 1782. This illustrates the important role that German immigrants played in the expansion of printing and literacy.

The Sauer Bible

After some research, it was found that this bible was donated to the museum by the Ast family, who were early inhabitants of the town.

Not Swedish

The previous curator had labeled this a Swedish bible.  It is written in Deutsch.

1900 Lewis Harness shop inside v2.jpg

The Ast Family

Daniel and Laura (Engleman) Ast were married in 1883 and had 23 children!  Some died in infancy.  Both Dan and Laura are buried in the Layton Township Cemetery.  This bible was recorded as given to the historical society in 1986, likely by Alta (Ast) Wilson who died that same year.  No other Ast family members remained in the area.

This photo shows the Lewis Harness Shop at the turn of the 20th century.  Dan Ast and his father-in-law, John Engleman, are the two on the left.  Engleman himself had operated a harness shop in Walnut in the 1880s.  Harvey Lewis operated a harness shop in Walnut from 1887 to 1944.


The Gun Wad Bible

More information on the Sauer Bible:  Each of the three printings of Martin Luther’s German Bible made by Christopher Saur and his son was a first. 

The first printing in 1743 was the first European-language Bible printed in America. (The first Bible of any kind printed in America was in an Algonquin dialect.) 

The second printing in 1763 was the first Bible printed on American-made paper. 

And the third printing in 1776 was the first Bible printed from American-made type.  

Christopher Saur, a creative and energetic immigrant in Germantown, now a part of Philadelphia, wanted to help Germans preserve their ethnic culture, and so he published a German-language newspaper, books, and for forty years an almanac. Benjamin Franklin also printed German-language material, but he used a Roman typeface. Sauer gained acceptance for his books by using imported German typefaces. For more than 25 years the Germantown congregation of Brethren met in Sauer’s home.

Sauer’s crowning achievement was 1,200 copies of a Bible printed in 1743 with type large enough so that it “may be easily read even by old Eyes." The cost of the Bible was 18 shillings, “but to the poor and needy we have no price.” He did not have the experience, training, or financial resources for such a large undertaking, but he proceeded with confidence “to the Glory of God and the Good of Mankind,” as a sign in his shop said. 

German Christians in America were divided in their beliefs. In Sauer’s effort to print a Bible that all parties could use, he managed to print a Bible that most parties criticized, in part because Saur was seen as an “arch-Separatist.” Lutheran and Reformed clergy criticized typographical errors. Some objected to a section of Job containing two German versions. Others objected to an appendix to the New Testament written by Saur himself. It took nearly 20 years for the first printing of the Bible to sell out.

His son, also Christopher, made a second printing in 1763 after his father’s death. 

In 1776 sheets for a third printing were ready for the binder when British soldiers invaded Germantown and used the pages as bedding for their horses and to make cartridges for their guns—giving it the nick name “The Gun Wad Bible.”  Christopher’s daughter, Catherine, saved ten copies for her family. Because he was a pacifist, Christopher Sauer refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new state of Pennsylvania. He was unfairly tried and his property, including his printing shop, was seized and sold at auction.

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