Dust on the Bible

Mars Hill College welcomed a new rarity to its collections last month when Elfreide Ludwig Wilde, formerly of Hendersonville, donated her copy of an 1686 Martin Luther Bible to the school.

The good, old book: Elfreide Wilde with the 1686 Martin Luther Bible she recently donated to Mars Hill College. Courtesy Mars Hill College

Wilde grew up in Germany and has owned the antique text since 1967, when it passed down to her from her grandfather. The book is quite remarkable in light of its age, size and the ornate prints found within it, but the fact that it managed to survive at all is something of a miracle.

“There is every reason to believe that this Bible could have been destroyed many times in the three centuries since its publication,” says Mars Hill College President Dan Lunsford. “The fact that it has now come to us at Mars Hill College means that we are the custodians of a rare treasure.”

While little is known of the book’s early history, its first owner was almost certainly a nobleman. By the 1930s it was situated in the German industrial city of Stuttgart, where it endured both Hitler’s religious purges and Allied bombings. Following the death of a friend in Germany, the Bible passed to Wilde’s grandfather. Upon his death in 1967, it made its way to the United States, arriving on Wilde’s front step in Arkansas with a German customs slip that read merely “Old Books.” Since that date, it has weathered everything from house evacuations to nights spent in a pickup-truck bed.

Wilde’s Bible, which she donated to the college in memory of her husband, Harold, is a reprint of Martin Luther’s translation of the Christian text from Latin to German, which was first published in 1534. Currently the book is under restoration, a process expected to come to an end by late September or early October. In time, the venerable text will be available for public viewing and academic research.

“The time has come for this Bible to find a new and permanent home,” says Wilde, who resides today in Texarkana, Texas. “[It] has been through so many tribulations, but wherever it has been, it has seemed that there was a protection around it. Now, I wish for that protection to rest on Mars Hill College.”

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