The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., has restored Thomas Jefferson’s famous edited version of the Bible and is displaying it as part of a special exhibit that runs through May.
Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and a key advocate of church-state separation during the founding period, produced his own copy of the New Testament for private study. He cut up six copies of the Bible in four different languages and pasted sections into a book that scholars call The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.
Our nation’s third president, Jefferson held deistic views about religion. To produce his version of the New Testament, Jefferson removed all of the stories of Jesus’ miracles and references to his divinity. What was left, he once observed, was “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
Jefferson knew his project would be controversial and never intended the 84-page book to become public. He began working on it in 1820, when he was living in retirement in the Virginia countryside.
The book, bound in red leather, was found after his death in 1826 and stayed in his family’s hands until 1895, when the Smithsonian purchased it from a Jefferson descendant. Congress printed an edition of the work in 1904, and private publishers have put out several other versions since then.
Preservationists at the Smithsonian painstakingly restored the book.
The museum’s website notes, “Time and use caused Jefferson’s volume to become so fragile that the Museum could no longer make it available to researchers or to the public. Because the adhesive Jefferson used to glue the clippings caused the paper to become stiff and inflexible, the pages cracked and tore as the book’s equally inflexible binding was opened. The goal of the conservation project was to physically and chemically stabilize the book and make it accessible once again.”
Preservationists at the museum noted that the book had 12 different types of paper in it and 10 different types of ink.
“To repair the artifact, the cover was removed intact,” reports the museum. “Jefferson’s pages were physically stabilized with conservation repair tissue and reversible adhesives. High-resolution digital images were captured to ensure public access. The pages were rebound in the historic cover in a manner sympathetic to the original, but with slight modifications to prevent the same damage from recurring.”
At the exhibit, visitors can see the restored original of the book and a copy of the 1904 edition produced by Congress. Visitors can also use web kiosks to examine individual pages. Other parts of the exhibit will focus on how the volume was preserved.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Smithsonian has produced a full-color facsimile of the Jefferson Bible using high-resolution digital photographs of the book’s pages. This edition includes all four languages as well as Jefferson’s handwritten notes.
For more information about the exhibit, see americanhistory.si.edu/ JeffersonBible/.