by Thomas Power, Theological Librarian, John W. Graham Library
Graham Library’s Rare and Special Collections recently received an 1816 copy of a hieroglyphic bible from donor John Wild. The full title New and complete hieroglyphical Bible: being a careful selection of the most interesting and important passages in the Old and New Testaments; regularly arranged from Genesis to Revelations to which is added the life of our blessed saviour and the holy evangelists. London: Dean and Munday, Threadneedle Street, 1816. Although twelve of the 138 pages are missing from this copy, there are hundreds of woodcut engravings.
Usually miniature in size, hieroglyphic bibles are children’s picture books with short scripture verses. Though the use of hieroglyphics for instruction in reading goes back centuries, as a particular genre of literature, hieroglyphic bibles originate in Germany where Melchior Mattsperger compiled Die Geistliche Herzens-Einbildungen in zweihundert und fünffzig biblischen Figur-Sprüchen vorgestellet, in two volumes published in Augsburg in 1684 and 1692. The first English language edition of this work, A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible, was printed in London in 1783. In 1784, a second printing appeared. The edition had engravings representing particular words, and it was recommended to parents, guardians, and governesses in Britain and Ireland for the instruction of children. Numerous editions with a variety of biblical selections and illustrations were issued through the first half of the nineteenth century.
By introducing children to brief biblical passages combining text and image, it was possible to communicate the story in an appealing and direct way. Replacing some of the words in the biblical text with images, the usefulness of such texts as a means of teaching children biblical passages made them very popular in the late 18th and early 19th century. The popularity of the hieroglyphic bible was reflective of the religious revival of the late 18th century expressed in a renewed engagement with the Bible, increased literacy levels, and the promotion of education.
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