- The Library of Leander van Ess & the Earliest American Collections of Reformation Pamphlets
In 1838 the Burke Library of Union Theological Seminary in New York City purchased the library of Leander van Ess. A controversial figure in early-nineteenth-century German religious history, van Ess had acquired his massive collections of books in the wake of the monastic dissolutions of the Napoleonic wars (10). In fact, it was the resultant dislocations of the monasteries’ libraries that led many American private and institutional libraries to begin their rare book-collecting practices in earnest, and the van Ess collection can be seen as representative of those practices, if unique in its contents. At the time it was the accepted practice of American connoisseurs and scholars alike “to buy a library, not to build a library” (10). However, even by the often extravagant standards of the age, the Burke Library’s purchase was nothing less than monumental. The addition of the library described by van Ess in his catalogs immediately placed the seminary among the ten largest of 160 American libraries surveyed even some thirty years later (12). At the heart of the collection—and at the heart of Milton Gatch’s book—was “Catalogus D,” a collection of 1,224 Reformation pamphlets. Van Ess himself was keenly aware of the pamphlets’ intrinsic value and drew particular attention to them in an early negotiating letter: “I have taken great pains to assemble this collection; and, indeed, it would not be easy to bring together such a collection again” (12). However, as so often occurred in early American religious scholarship, divergent research missions and inexact cataloging practices meant that many newly acquired collections were perceived as being “somehow out of scope,” if not out of sight altogether (41). Such, indeed, was the fate of the van Ess collection, which “remained both unrivaled in America and also largely unknown” (12).
The Reformation pamphlets themselves deserve some special mention. These Flugschriften(literally, flying papers) were printed tracts, usually quartos, that were quickly produced and disseminated. And though they played an important role in the German Reformation, they were not a distinct genre in form or content (4). Sometimes religious, oftentimes agitating, they were the mass medium of the age of Reformation. However, although the survival of Flugschriftenin significant numbers indicates their importance to early-modern readers, it is also clear that, with the publication of the Wittenberger Ausgabe(1546) and similar collected works, the pamphlets’ ephemeral nature meant that they soon ceased to be primary resources for theological research into the writings of Luther and his contemporaries (5). Eventually, they were regarded as little more than collectors’ items.
As Gatch’s account of the earliest American collectors of Reformation pamphlets bears witness, it was the rare twentieth-century collector who amassed [End Page 227] Flugschriftenmerely to satisfy his own research interests. One such collector was Johannes Mgebroff, whose collection now resides at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (27–29). How this peripatetic pastor from present-day Ukraine came to acquire and transport to his obscure ministry at Giddings, Texas, a collection of some two thousand volumes—including over one hundred Flugschriften—is unknown. What is certain is that the learned Mgebroff was clearly interested in gathering materials toward a history of the role of women in the church. The second of two unique bookplates provided by Gatch depicts a woman reading, in profile, while sitting on a pile of books. It is a rare and oddly affecting artifact of a largely unknown collector and gives even more weight to his remarkable research interests. While perhaps somewhat beyond Gatch’s perceived remit, an even fuller engagement with collecting’s human face would have greatly benefited the book.
What Milton Gatch has done in this book is to reconstruct the van Ess “Catalogus D” and provide a context for his findings. Clearly, the book is nothing less than a labor of love for Gatch, who acknowledges that...