College’s Bible a rare find

Published February 1, 2006

Winnipeg’s St. John’s College has no intention of selling its rare Bible.

St. John’s College, a small Anglican college located on the University of Manitoba’s campus in Winnipeg, has discovered it owns a half-million-dollar book: a first edition of the King James Bible, printed in London in 1611.

Shelley Sweeney, head of archives and special collections at the University of Manitoba Libraries, said there were several printings in 1611 of the new English translation, commissioned by King James I and renowned for the power and poetry of its language.

It was only recently, she said in an interview, that scholars discovered St. John’s copy was from the first print run, since it has several distinct errors that were corrected in later printings. English scholar Paul Dyck at Canadian Mennonite University worked with Ms. Sweeney on research. For instance, in Genesis 42, verse 28, “an other” is corrected later to “another,” she said. It is also a so-called “he” Bible that mistakenly refers to Ruth, in the Book of Ruth, as “he,” an error that was corrected in some subsequent editions.

Only about 50 copies of the first edition, first printing of the King James Bible exist. In 2001, one sold at auction for more than $400,000 US (C$466,000), Ms. Sweeney said. The book is a substantial tome, with 1.25-centimetre oak covers, leather binding and metal embossing, she said. It measures 43 cm x 28 cm, is 13 cm thick and weighs about 16 kilograms. “It says, to me, ‘I’m 400 years old and, baby, I’m proud of it,'” Ms. Sweeney remarked. The book also contained a card, which apparently dates from the 1940s or 1950s, noting that it was believed to have been in the possession of King James himself.

However, it is missing its frontispiece – the illustration on the page that faces or immediately precedes the title page of a book. “It could have worn out or somebody razored it out to sell,” she noted. The omission could reduce the value and was, until now, a hindrance to scholars seeking to discover whether it was from the first printing. But it also includes a rare page detailing the genealogy of Jesus.

St. John’s has no intention of selling its treasure, which arrived in Manitoba in 1897. A London priest named Rev. Daniel Greatorex donated a large number of Bibles and other books to the college at about the same time as Bishop Robert Machray was making trips to England, seeking funds for St. John’s College, which had been founded in 1866. St. John’s is one of the founding colleges of the University of Manitoba.

Bishop Machray came to Canada from England in 1865 to oversee the vast western diocese of Rupert’s Land and in 1893 was elected the first primate of the then-Church of England in Canada.

Mr. Greatorex was a well-known clergyman who ministered in the East End of London and was quoted several times in newspapers about social conditions there at the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. “He would have wanted to support the teaching of religious instruction in western Canada,” Ms. Sweeney commented.

The book currently resides in a vault, but is accessible to scholars.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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