Over the summer Lynda Keen visited a little known but important museum in Tower Hamlets….
Tucked away in a side street off the Commercial Road inside a Baptist church is this little-known but very important museum. It contains a large number of Bibles in manuscript and print, along with other interesting texts, books and memorabilia, including ancient cuneiform tablets from Ur of the Chaldees, Torah scrolls and Qoran texts.
There are original manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments by John Wycliffe in the 14th century, the first ever translations into English. Also the first printed edition of Wycliffe’s New Testament.
The earliest complete printed Bible is the Gutenberg Bible of 1455, written in Latin. First and early editions of Martin Luther’s 16th century publications of the Bible and New Testament in German are on display. Also from the 16th century are the New Testament in English by William Tyndale and the first complete printed Bible in English translated by Myles Coverdale.
Another notable early Bible in the collection is a copy of the first edition of the 1539 Great Bible with a preface by Thomas Cranmer and the title page showing Henry VIII giving the Bible to Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell to distribute to the people. The first edition contains Cromwell’s coat of arms. The museum also has a copy of a later edition with Cromwell’s coat of arms removed because by then he had been executed for treason and heresy.
Other important Bibles – some of which are first editions – are the 1560 Geneva Bible, the 1568 Bishop’s Bible commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I, a 1588 Catholic Bible with the coat of arms of King Charles I on the binding and, last but not least, a first edition King James Bible of 1611.
The museum also houses the Bibles of several famous people: John Bunyan, Pope Pius VI, Henry Morton Stanley (the Stanley who found David Livingstone), the British hangman Albert Pierrepoint, Baptist preachers Charles Spurgeon and J. Frank Norris, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin’s wife Emma, T. S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, Reggie Kray, Jack Ruby, President Gerald Ford, Elvis Presley, Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II.
An especially interesting thing in the museum is the WWII story of an American Air Force sergeant Jacob DeShazer and a Japanese Air Force pilot Mitsuo Fuchida who after the war worked together as Christian missionaries. Fuchida’s Bible is part of the display.
Apart from religious texts, there are other manuscripts such as a copy of Thomas Moore’s treatise on the body and blood of Christ being real and present in the sacrament, which he wrote while imprisoned in the Tower and handwritten documents written by John Newton, who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. There is also a complete set of the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials.
Parts of the collection frequently go out on loan to exhibitions worldwide.
This fascinating collection was begun by Dr Jewell E Smith and is now curated by his son David and David’s wife Eva. David is pastor of the Baptist church in which the museum is located – the Church of the Book at 270 Salmon Lane, London E14 7EU.
Guided tours are free immediately after scheduled church services or you can book via the https://www.museumofthebook.com/ website for a paid tour from Tuesday to Friday between 10am and 4pm. The nearest stations are Westferry or Limehouse DLR and buses D3, 15, 115 and 135 all stop at Salmon Lane.