Goshen alumnus restores rare 1564 Ausbund

May 3, 2017 | Web First
Ervin Beck | Goshen College

The Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College owns the world’s only surviving copy of the first printing, in 1564, of songs that eventually became the Ausbund, one of the first Anabaptist songbooks. It is also the Protestant hymnal in longest continuous use—by the Old Order Amish.

The Passau hymns contained in the volume were composed by communitarian Anabaptists when they were expelled from Moravia and imprisoned in 1535 in the dungeon of the castle at Passau, Germany, on the Rhine River.

The book has had a colorful journey over the past 450 years. Its survival is due in part to an unknown owner who, around 1700, chose to put the Passau hymns together with other small song pamphlets into a single binding. Before that binding was 100 years old, it probably had made its way across the ocean to Pennsylvania.  

In 1928, while browsing in a rare book store in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, H. S. Bender, founder of the Mennonite Historical Library and then-professor and later dean at Goshen College, discovered this printing of the 53 hymns composed by Anabaptist prisoners in Passau, Germany. However, it was contained in a binding that included other early texts.

According to the story, since Bender could not afford to buy the entire book, the bookseller offered to sell the part that had the Passau hymns to him, keeping the rest. Bender paid 10 dollars for the hymns. Later, he was indeed able to buy the other half of the volume. For 15 years both parts languished, separated, in the historical library, until Robert Friedmann, a scholar of Jewish background who found work in the Goshen College library after fleeing Nazi Austria, “discovered” them and rejoined them.

Happily, in 2015 a library patron offered to pay for conserving and rejoining the two parts into a sturdy, single volume, or Sammelband, again.

That work was done by Jeffrey Peachey, a Goshen native and 1988 Goshen College graduate, now working as an expert bookbinder in New York City. His work, and the historical background of the Passau songs, are presented in detail in the October 2016 issue of Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage in the article, “Ausbund 1564: The History and Conservation of an Anabaptist Icon,” by Peachey and Ervin Beck. Single copies are available from the magazine.

“This simple volume offers an unlikely but tangible link between that time and our own,” said Joe Springer, MHL curator. “The earthly future imaginable to the prisoners who first composed its texts was short; that some of their texts would still echo nearly five centuries later, unimaginable.”

The rare book room of the historical library also contains a copy of an early edition of the Schleitheim Confession (1527), which is one of only two surviving copies of that edition in the world.

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