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gutenberg and collins: A Mississippi congressman championed for one of America's greatest treasures.

Can one person really make a difference? The answer is, of course, a resounding, yes! After all, there was only one Elvis, and my, how William Faulkner could put words on paper. Then there is Frederick Wallace Smith, from the small Quitman County town of Marks, who flew his once-ridiculed idea of delivering packages overnight to all the world into a company he named FedEx. And then there is Laurel's Mary Violet Leontyne Price, who, with her God-given voice, stood at the top of the world of international opera. There are many others, but there was one whose name you may not have heard. Ross Alexander Collins was born in Collinsville near Meridian on April 25, 1880. It was his courage and commitment during the Great Depression of the late 1920s that resulted in his name being forever linked with a Gutenberg Bible and the United States Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The Gutenberg Bible, the first book to be printed with moveable metal type in the Western world, was named for the inventor of the mechanical printing press, Johann Gutenberg (1397-1468) of Mainz, Germany. His invention made it possible for God's holy word to become available to every person with the ability to read.

In his book In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible (2001), author Alister McGrath wrote, "In the early Middle Ages, literacy was rare, and often limited to the clergy. It was common for the courts of Europe to employ clergy to handle their correspondence and archives. This was not because the clergy might bring some special quality or blessing to these matters, but simply because the clergy were just about the only people at the time who could read and write. But the new culture of the Italian Renaissance that spread through much of Western Europe in the 14th century saw literacy as being a social accomplishment, rather than just a useful tool. Being able to read was now seen as the key to personal fulfillment."

Even before the start of the year 1500, Bibles had been in existence for centuries. As far back as 1,600 years ago, there were bound Bibles. However, each one was handwritten and was very expensive. The first complete copy of the New Testament in book form appeared around the year 200 A.D. Today, the earliest complete Bible, known as the Codex Sinaiticus, dates to the 4th century. Early in the 5th century, Catholic priest and theologian St. Jerome (347-420 A.D.) translated both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into Latin, which became and is still known as the Vulgate translation. This translation was given the Latin word "Vulgate," meaning "common," because St. Jerome used the common Latin of everyday speech. He intentionally made this translation so that people of his era could read God's word for themselves. In his words, "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ." By the middle of the 15th century, Johann Gutenberg saw his opportunity to capitalize on the demand for Bibles. So beginning in 1455 he began using his new printing press invention to print Bibles and only Bibles. In total, it is believed that he printed about 180 Bibles, and of that number only about 48 complete Bibles are known to exist today. These now ancient books are very rare, and seldom does one come on the market.

In 1926, German antiquarian book collector Dr. Otto Vollbehr arrived in America with the hope of selling his vast collection of 3,114 rare, 15th-century volumes which he valued at $3 million. For more than two years, he shopped them around with no takers. In 1929, with inflation rampant in his homeland, he made a desperate visit to Washington, D.C. where he exhibited in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress more than 100 of his rarest books. There, he made his final offer. It was, as recorded in Margaret Leslie Davis' book The Lost Gutenberg (2019), "if someone would come up with the funds to buy half the collection, he would donate the other half." At this point, it is well to remember that the timing of Vollbehr's proposed sale was anything but favorable. Funds for any individual, corporation, or even the U.S. government for that matter were in short supply. Before anyone attempted to take Vollbehr up on his offer, America all but stopped in its tracks. On October 24, 1929, the stock market crashed. That date has forever since been known as "black Thursday."

But this isn't the end of the story. A single U.S. Congressman, 49-year-old Ross Alexander Collins, representing the State of Mississippi, took a keen interest when he learned that the real treasure of Vollbehr's collection was a Gutenberg Bible. As a man of faith, he believed strongly that the Holy Bible is God's truth in print. He may not have known that the English word "amen," which is derived from a Semitic word that means truth, is found in the King James translation of the Bible 78 times, but I'm sure he did know that the very last word in the Bible is amen (Revelations 21:21). In Davis' words, "Miraculously, in the crush of the Great Depression, a Mississippi Congressman Collins, rallied support for the purchase, especially the Gutenberg Bible, which he called with Barnum-like enthusiasm 'the Greatest Book on Earth.' "Following Collins' plea, President Herbert Hoover signed the bill to purchase Vollbehr's collection in June of 1930.

Entering the Great Hall of The Library of Congress in Washington is like padding into a cathedral and being encircled by a thousand works of art. Of those, the most prominently displayed is the historic Gutenberg Bible. It is one of only three surviving perfect copies on vellum. It is the shining star of our nation's library, and it is valued today at $50 million. To Mississippi congressman Ross Alexander Collins (1880-1968), the chance to acquire truth was worth more than $50 million, and it wasn't an opportunity he was willing to let slip away.

Caption: The Gutenberg Bible, from the Vollbehr collection of Incunabula, is now permanently displayed in The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. LEFT: Ross Alexander Collins of Meridian championed for the purchase of the Guttenberg Bible. Johan Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, began printing Bibles in 1455 using his invention that utilized moveable metal type. The monks of the Benedictine Order at the Abbey of St. Paul in eastern Carinthia rebound the two volume set into three volumes in white pigskin in the late 16th century.
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Title Annotation:HERITAGE & CULTURE: Looking Back
Author:Cooper, Forrest Lamar
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Nov 1, 2019
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