Smithsonian undertakes $225,000 effort to restore the Jefferson Bible

A Smithsonian staffer holds the Jefferson Bible.
A Smithsonian staffer holds the Jefferson Bible. (National Museum Of American History)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2011; 10:42 PM

When Thomas Jefferson was 77, he went back to a project he had been thinking about for decades. Sitting in Monticello, using candlelight and a knife, he cut New Testament verses in four different languages from six books to create his own bible. Jefferson, saying he was selecting his own "morsels of morality," removed verses on any miracles, as well as the Resurrection.

For more than 116 years, the Jefferson Bible, as it is known, has been one of the iconic possessions of the Smithsonian Institution . Now a group of conservators and curators has removed the 86 pages from the original binding and are examining every inch to stabilize its condition, study its words and craftsmanship, and guarantee that future generations can learn more about the artifact and the man.

Standing in the paper conservation laboratory Thursday at the National Museum of American History, the team showed pages from the small red book, put together like a scrapbook.

The pages, with verses glued on each side, are brittle and stiff - 90 percent show some damage. Jefferson used an mix of animal glue and starch as an adhesive. The handsewn binding is tight, making the spine rigid.

On one table in the basement workshop, Jefferson's title page for "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" is elaborately written in his clear hand.

"There are 12 different types of paper and seven different types of ink," said Janice Stagnitto Ellis, the museum's paper conservator. "We took tiny samples of ink from the ruled line. The paper fibers are weak."

Jefferson was meticulous, she said, leaving precise gaps in each book as he removed the verses that supported his religious and moral beliefs. He used two English texts, as well as two French and two Greek and Latin, arranging his selections in chronological order over four columns.

He was also an editor. "Apparently he didn't like the construction here of 'for as in a day,' so he edited out the 'as,' " explained Ellis, pointing with a silver micro-spatula to the little square where he had eliminated the word.

As old as it is, the bible has still held its secrets. This week, the team found a watermark on one of the paper inserts and discovered that the manufacturer was P.A. Mesier, who owned a paper mill in the Bronx, N.Y.

"This is a private document he created for himself," said Harry R. Rubenstein, the chair of the museum's political history division. "He never sold it because he didn't want it to be public. He wanted to avoid bringing back the arguments that he was anti-Christian."

This is the second important conservation project the museum has undertaken in recent years. A team repaired the Star-Spangled Banner in an open laboratory in full view of the public. "This is a smaller object but of equal importance," said Brent D. Glass, the museum director. The bible project "really captures what we do. We collect, we preserve and give access to the public."

The conservation is estimated to cost about $225,000 from public and private funds. Completed in 1820, the book stayed in Jefferson's family until the Smithsonian purchased it from a great-granddaughter in 1895. The Smithsonian librarian paid $400 and displayed it at the 1895 Atlanta Cotton Exposition. In 1904, the Government Printing Office made copies and, for decades, they were distributed to new congressmen.

Once the study and conservation are completed, along with complete color digital scanning of every page, the book will be reassembled, using its original sewing holes and Moroccan leather cover. It will be displayed for four months, beginning in November, and an accompanying Web site will be launched as well.

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