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Thomas Wiltberger Evans

16th Century Bible Collection
On exhibit May 1 -August 2, 2019
Detail from De bibel inhoudende het Oude ende Nyeuwe Testament, 1560. Evans Bible Collection. Folio BS224 1560.
Detail from De bibel inhoudende het Oude ende Nyeuwe Testament, 1560. Evans Bible Collection. Folio BS224 1560.

Franklin lists more than 400 titles in the Thomas Evans Bible Collection. While it has been called a collection of “Protestant Bibles,” that term misrepresents the Evans Bible Collection, which includes Roman Catholic texts and non-Biblical texts to assist understanding Bibles from different times, various traditions, and multiple languages.

Thomas Evans (1823-1897), a Philadelphia-trained dentist, began his practice in Lancaster. He became a famous dentist after moving to Paris in 1847. There he lived and practiced for about three decades. His patients came to include numerous royal persons; his larger circle included such major figures in French culture as Edouard Manet and Stéphane Mallarmé. Although he had no dental degree, in his era, apprenticeships—for Evans, both in metalwork and with a dental practitioner—qualified him to act, quite properly, as a dental professional. He was so good that he changed European perceptions of American dentistry.

His Parisian clientele and social circles gave him both means and incentive to engage in such gentlemanly activities as collecting older printed books, but too little is at present known about his collecting. Many of his books dealt with medical and dental subjects, no surprise for a medical or dental practitioner in his own, earlier, or our times. A conventionally proper nineteenth-century American Christian (albeit a Protestant in Catholic France), Evans also collected non-medical books. He received a collection of almost 400 Bibles from his friend, Dr. Henri Conneau (1803-1877), a physician, surgeon, and political figure in the entourage (like Evans) of France’s Emperor Napoleon III. Evans’s books reached Penn in 1933 as part of the collections of Edward Cameron Kirk (1856-1933), the first Dean of the Dental School and Professor of Dental Pathology, Therapeutics and Materia Medica. In 1990 the books moved from the Dental Library to Van Pelt Library, where they are now housed in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

So much remains unknown about Evans’s collecting or the complicated history of his books that neither numbers nor provenance is clear. What is clear is that the Evans Bible Collection contains numerous significant books. Numerous early modern and modern Bibles, through Evans’s own time, are accompanied by dictionaries and other aids—such as guides to Bolognese dialects, Catalan grammar, or Ethiopian letterforms. Many different illustrated works also appear in the Evans Bible Collection. So do books from the presses of famous European printers—such as Enschede, Estienne, Froben, and Plantin—and commentaries from important scholarly and religious figures—such as Erasmus and Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.

This very small selection from the Collection shows a few of its sixteenth-century printed Bibles. Each is illustrative of something that made collecting such objects of interest to people like Evans and his circle. We hope that each will also indicate why they elicit continued interest today, both from scholars (particularly historians and art historians) and a broad public.

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