Home for Christian artifacts

June 11, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

How far would you have to travel to see an authentic page of the 15th century Gutenberg Bible?

And if you wanted to see a Roman Catholic indulgence letter written in Latin and sealed with the official wax seal of the pope, where could you go to find such an artifact?

If you lived in Washington, D.C, you'd have to travel about an hour. If you were in Gettysburg, Pa., you would be about 45 minutes away. But if you lived in Hagerstown, all you'd have to do is look in your backyard.

Both items and hundreds more Christian artifacts are housed in one of Washington County's best-kept secrets: the Christian Heritage Museum.

The museum and its vast holdings have resided for the past two years in an unassuming, gray bank barn just south of Hagerstown Regional Airport.


The museum's staff and owners purposefully kept the Christian Heritage Museum - which holds one of the largest private collections of Bibles in the country - hush-hush while the facility was organized and readied for public view, explains Norman Conrad, museum co-curator.

"I feel like I'm in the basement of the Smithsonian," Conrad said, standing in the midst of dozens of rare and unusual Bibles and church history documents. "To have access to something like this you have to be a who's-who."

The Christian Heritage Museum is the pet project of Gene S. Albert Jr., owner of Historical Reproductions, American Classic Limousines and Creative Home Builders, all based in Hagerstown.

Albert began collecting Bibles, famous Christian autographs and original art more than 20 years ago. He became interested in Christian theology and Bible history when he was a student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. It was his dream to share his collection with the public instead of restricting access to only elite scholars and researchers, Conrad said.

"I almost detest the fact that a lot of this material is in large universities like Harvard and Yale," Albert said. "You have to make an appointment and be a scholar to go in and study it and see it. I think it's something that everyone who is interested in Christian history should be able to see, hold, feel and look at. It's not meant to be handled only by people with white gloves."

Albert's collection has grown to include an operable replica Gutenberg printing press, a 1349 medieval Bible handwritten on vellum, dozens of rare Bibles written in Native American languages, a copy of the first and only Bible to be authorized for print and paid for by the U.S. Congress and ancient pottery dating from 500 B.C. to 1000 B.C. The collection is so vast it is still being cataloged, Conrad said.

The breadth and rareness of the museum's holdings is evidenced by the tour that Conrad gives.

Speaking faster than one can process, Conrad points to a series of displays in one corner of the museum: "This is the Bible that the pilgrims brought over on the Mayflower," he said. He then pulls a volume from a shelf and shows the sermon notes of William Seward, considered the first martyr of the Methodist church.

Without hesitation, he moves to an extra-large Bible, published in 1792 for subscribers only. Printing a Bible was such an expensive endeavor in the 18th century that printers often sought buyers for their products before they were published, Conrad explained. The list of subscribers to this particular 1792 Bible include George Washington, John Jay, John Hancock and John Adams.

"People don't get to see these things, and if they do it's usually under glass," Conrad said. "There's so much history here, so much passion. I still get goose bumps talking about it."

The expressed mission of the museum is to preserve and protect historical documents and artifacts that are part of religious history and to educate, motivate and inspire others to live for Christ, Conrad said.

But many people who visit the museum discover new elements of history, he said. The museum shows how the Bible played a role in the development of culture, literature, language and war throughout world history and the role religion had on the development of the United States.

"There's a lot more to the Bible than the greatest story every told," Conrad said. People like Martin Luther, John Wesley and John Calvin - "these guys are very significant in our history," he added. "They are not just founders of church sects, they are movers and shakers that helped mold American history."

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