Mystery at the museum; a Bible with no provenance but plenty of history

Do you have a family heirloom with a mysterious origin? What about an old book? People often know where their precious family treasures come from, including the stories associated with family antiques.

 The Laramie Plains Museum has a book that clearly has a story.  However, we have no idea what the story is.  Luckily, it did not wind up in the trash (it has no spine covering, some pages and the covers are loose).  Instead, the Harvest Church of Laramie brought it to the museum. 

 The title is The Self Interpreting Bible with an Evangelical Commentary “by the Late Rev’d John Brown, Minister of the Gospel at Haddington.”  Printed in London in 1832, nearly 50 years after John Brown’s death in 1787, it contains 14 booklets called the Apocrypha plus end chapter “Reflections” to further enlighten 18th century Scottish readers. 

 Rev. John Brown

 Quite a lot is known about John Brown who was a well-known Scottish theologian.  Born in 1722, his father was a fisherman, his mother a weaver.  Orphaned at age 12, he had very little formal schooling. Biographers write that after listening to several sermons he experienced a Christian conversion; he taught himself Greek, Latin and Hebrew, though he had minimal classical training. Brown became a member of the Church of Scotland.

 Brown became part of the first secessionist movement—a group of ministers and their followers who left the Church of Scotland because of the old custom that allowed the position of minister to be an inherited position or sold to the highest bidder rather than appointed by the local governing body, the Presbytery. In 1745 Brown volunteered for the Scottish army that successfully warded off the three-year invasion of the pro-Roman Catholic Jacobite “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”

 The First Secessionist Church with other splintered sects later reorganized with the Church of Scotland to create the United Presbyterian Church in 1847, though that didn’t happen in Brown’s lifetime.

After his wartime service, Brown became a minister. (Following the first secessionist separation ministers were needed).  He was ordained at Haddington, a small town west of Edinburgh, where he lived and wrote the rest of his life.  His commentaries to the “Self Interpreting Bible” were first written in 1778.

 So how did this book end up in Laramie?  Published well before Laramie was founded in 1868, it has no inscriptions, dates or names recorded in it as family Bibles often do.

 Laramie’s Harding family

 The only clue to its provenance is a leather bookplate with a commercially printed “Mr. T. Harding” inside the front cover.  There was a Thomas Harding, Sr. in Laramie—first mentioned in the Laramie Daily Sentinel newspaper of April 28, 1878, and in several Laramie US Census reports.

 Harding was married to Margaret (Berry) Harding.  They might have been born in Ireland; all we know for sure is that they were of Irish stock, and lived in Nebraska where their first three children were born. By 1878 they had moved to Laramie where two more children were born.  The children were: John Thomas, 1875; Alice (Harding) Skinner, 1877; Thomas Jr., also 1877; Maggie (Harding) Cook-Murray, 1882; and Stephen Harding, 1882. 

 Thomas Harding, Sr. was a seaman in the US Civil War and a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. In the 1900 census he is listed as a watchman for the flour mill.  By the 1910 census he is listed as a UP railroad shop laborer and was a “lamplighter” at the time of his death in 1911. He was “one of the oldest employees in the city” according to the Laramie Republican newspaper.

 We don’t know if Laramie’s Thomas Harding, Sr. was the original owner of this Bible.  It seems unlikely because it is a Protestant Bible and Harding was buried from the Catholic Church.  Maybe it was passed down in his Irish family but, because it is Protestant, had lost its sentimental value to the Hardings of Laramie.  Or maybe whoever brought it here had no connection at all to anyone named Harding. 

 A Heavy Book

 The Bible would have required some effort to transport—it weighs nearly 18 pounds.  Measuring 17” x 11” and 4 inches thick, it would have had a commanding place on a pulpit.  It is filled with 72 full-page engravings of Biblical scenes that add to its bulk—and to its beauty.

 The Bible wound up in the second building that the Laramie Presbyterians owned, at 520 East Grand Ave., built in 1907 to replace an earlier church that burned (in a different location).  In 1950 the congregation moved to a new building at the corner of 11th and Grand Ave. The old church at 6th and Grand Ave. was sold to the First Christian Church, then to the Horizon Christian Fellowship, and then to the Harvest Church.  When the latter moved to their new building on Laramie’s east edge, the Bible followed that congregation.   

 There is no record of Laramie United Presbyterian church members named Harding but since the Bible is an artifact of that denomination, it might have been theirs once.  It would be wonderful if someone could come forward with the full story of this local treasure. 

Konnie Cronk

Caption:  The title page of a Bible published in London by Thos. Kelly of Paternoster Row in 1832.  Bibles usually have provenance—families know who it came from and how it passed down to the present generation.  But this particular Bible has no provenance; how it wound up in Laramie is an unknown story.  Photo courtesy of the Laramie Plains Museum.