Google Analytics

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Brown’s Self-Interpreting Family Bible

Brown's self-interpreting family bible

Is it a sin to destroy a bible? I fear I may have committed sacrilege, not just once but three times over: to God, to my ancestors and to lovers of old books everywhere.

A few years ago I inherited a small suitcase containing a copy of Brown’s enormous Self-Interpreting Family Bible, which my father in turn had inherited from his Grandad Dunham. “You’d better take this” he was told, so he rode home with it balanced on his bicycle handlebars.

It was in pitiful condition: torn and loose pages, detached spine and end boards, faded gilt titles and tarnished metal stubs where clasps once fastened. It was stuck up with yellow tape where someone had tried to repair it. It smelt old and fusty. It deposited dusty specs of decaying leather and paper wherever you put it down. It seemed to be infested with mites. A metaphor, perhaps, for Christianity in the twenty-first century of the Common Era.

It was like a breeze block: about 13 x 10 x 3¼ inches (33½ x 25½ x 8½ centimetres) with over 1,100 pages. Once it would have been very beautiful book. Grandad Dunham, a devout Methodist, would have kept it constantly on display on a special table in the best room of the house, open at the page he was currently studying.

However, it was not really his. It was his wife’s. The inscription inside reads:

Family Bible Inscription
Miss E Mann
A present from
Her Dearly Beloved Mother
On Her twenty first
Birthday March 30th
1887
Amber Hill
Sutterton Fen
It must have cost a lot of money, a sacrifice, but she herself was unable to read it. When she married Grandad Dunham she could only sign the Register with ‘X’ her mark. It seems unlikely that her parents could read it either. Perhaps they gazed in awe at the beautiful pictures inside, learnt their stories and meanings, and got someone else to write the inscription.

Title Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible

The full title was:
Browns Self-Interpreting Family Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, to which are annexed marginal references and illustrations, an exact summary of the several books, a paraphrase of the most obscure or important parts, explanatory notes, evangelical reflections, &., &., by the late Rev. John Brown, Minister of the Gospel at Haddington, with many additional references and numerous illustrations.
Nothing like a snappy title is there, but how was it self-interpreting? It seems to be down to the copious explanations and cross-references throughout, so thorough they effectively paraphrase the whole thing. For example, on the following page from Genesis, the notes are longer than the actual text:

Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible

God, with most exquisite art and skill, formed man’s body of the dust ... and so made him [human] the Reverend Brown interprets Verse 7 for us, and then cross-references this to similar assertions such as: we are the clay, and thou our potter. He continues in similar vein throughout the whole of the Old and New Testaments, exactly what you might expect from a man who despite minimal formal education taught himself Greek, Latin and Hebrew. His fellow members of the Secession Church in Scotland felt so inadequate they thought his learning must have come straight from the devil. He was like a living computer with the NVivo software.

Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible

Yet there is more. As well as the Old and New Testaments, there is a section on the life of the author (1772-1787), followed by a multi-chapter introduction which includes the geography and history of the biblical nations. He really had it in for Moslems:
About A.D. 608, Mahomet, a crafty Ishmaelite, assisted, it is said, by a villainous Jew and a treacherous Christian monk ... contrived a religious system ... promising to those who embraced it manifold carnal enjoyments, both in time and in eternity.
Mahomet’s followers are likened to locusts and scorpions, with men’s beards, but hair plaited like women’s, who ravaged and murdered the nations. They pretended to a masculine religion but their character was marked by lust for women, revenge and cruelty.

Text from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible
If you think that’s not very complimentary, look at what he says about the Romans. When they weren’t burning multitudes of Christians in heaps for Nero’s nocturnal recreation, they were having them torn to pieces by lions and tigers, or pulling off their flesh with pincers, or mangling them with broken pots, or roasting them between gentle fires, or pouring melted lead through holes into their bowels.

Who needs Game of Thrones? Bring on the heathens and their manifold carnal enjoyments. The Reverend Brown’s fire and brimstone sermons must have left his congregation shocked and awed to the core, wishing they could go out and buy the box set so as not to have to wait a whole week for the next instalment.

But, sadly, the bible is beyond repair and too big and dirty to keep. It has come to the end of its time. I have tried to palm it off to various relatives but none will even entertain the idea of having it. In good condition it might be worth £150 or more, but not this one. So, I have cut out and kept the inscription page, along with the pages between the Old and New Testaments where the details of family marriages, births and deaths have been recorded in various hands between 1889 and the nineteen-fifties. The rest is now in the paper recycling bin – not so different from what my dad imagined as he got older: a skip outside his house piled high with all his most treasured possessions: his books, his stamp album, his Panora school photograph with its frame and glass all smashed up, and the family bible on top. 

Sinful? Yes I suppose it is. My only prayer now is that in the afterlife I won’t have to face the punishment of having melted lead poured into my bowels.

Pictorial Title Page from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Jephthah's Rash Vow Adam and Eve Faicum, Arch of Titus, and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Abraham sending away Hagar Noah's sacrifice Meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt Mount Sinai, Ethan and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible The descent of Moses from Mount Sinai The people of Israel murmuring for water Birds, offerings and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Joshua's defeat of the Amorites Death of Samson David slaying Goliath Animals and birds from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Job rebukes his friends The prophet rebuketh Ahab Baalbeck, Edom, Babylon and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Solomon's judgment Jeremiah lamenting over Jerusalem Daniel interpreting the mysterious handwriting Denarius of Tiberius and Augustus, quadrans, and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible The money changers driven from the temple Christ among the doctors Jesus betrayed by Judas The wise men's offering to the infant saviour Christ and the woman of Samaria Mary anointing the feet of Jesus The woman taken in adultery Bethany, Jerusalem, Nazareth and other images from Brown's Self-Interpreting Family Bible Jesus before Pilate Christ appearing to two Disciples on the way to Emmaus Tyre, Bethseda, Sidon, Samaria and Siloam

2 comments:

  1. I think it would have been worse if it was a Qur'an; I borrowed one of those recently and it too had more accompanying notes than actual text. It's such a shame to see any old book in such a state but to keep some meaningful parts is nice.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Religious scholars must have spent years acquiring all the knowledge to make all these notes and cross references. It seems so odd now that they ever thought it a worthwhile lifetime's work. What would they have thought about it being put in a loft for decades to decompose in the cold and damp?

      Delete

I welcome comments and usually respond the same day.