When I arrived at Boston College three years ago I was very worried about the role that religion would play in my undergraduate studies. I was raised in the Catholic Church, but viewed my confirmation at age 15 as a ticket out. I was fed up with Sunday Mass, catechism classes, and teachings that I thought would have no place in my everyday life or my future. I was angsty, naïve, and narrow-minded. And yet, in the Fall of 2011, I found myself returning to crucifix bearing classrooms, a place where I knew I had the opportunity to excel, if I only I opened myself up to it.
My passion for history has helped me see the beauty in the Catholic, Jesuit education I am receiving. It is the backdrop from which anything can be given not only context, but true appreciation. Working in the conservation lab of the John J. Burns Library I have the opportunity to work with history hands-on, and in line with the University’s Jesuit heritage, many of the books and objects are religiously themed. Recently, I was shown a tremendous relic of history, an embodiment of how religion and history can collide in ways fascinating and remarkable. My supervisor, Barbara Adams Hebard, showed me a Bible printed when the United States was still in its infancy as an independent nation. In a nod to its importance and rarity, it had recently made a very public appearance at the swearing-in ceremony of Massachusetts’ newest Senator, Edward Markey.
The Carey Bible, as it is has come to be known, was the first Catholic Bible printed in the United States. It was the brainchild of Irish immigrant and publisher, Mathew Carey. Carey’s story is equally as interesting as the circumstances under which he would produce his now famous Bible. He had spent his youth as journalist, using his position at a prominent Dublin newspaper to write incendiary articles about British treatment of the Irish. As a result, Carey was forced to live in France for a period, where, ever the opportunist, he rubbed elbows with some of the greatest statesmen and leaders of the late eighteenth century. By the 1780s, he had again relocated, this time to Philadelphia, where he began printing editions of the King James Bible for what was a staggering majority of Protestants in the fledgling nation. It was in Philadelphia that Carey conceived the idea to publish an edition of the 1582 Catholic, English Douay-Rheims Bible within the United States.
However, he had to contend with the small number of Catholics in the nation, and the lack of traditional individual Bible ownership that existed within the Catholic Church. Most Protestants carried the Bible with them and used it throughout the service. Catholics were more likely to rely solely on the Priest’s interpretation of Scripture during Mass. In order to boost the sale of his Bible, he marketed it to Protestants as a superior edition to the King James Bible, a bulwark of many denominations since its introduction almost two-hundred years earlier. Many of the Carey Bible’s supporters viewed it as a way to increase knowledge of the Scripture within the American Catholic Church.
The Carey Bible that resides at the Burns Library is one of less than 500 known to have been printed. The first few pages include a list of all the subscribers who ordered copies of that edition. The list is riddled with the names of important historical figures, and provides something of a who’s-who of the late eighteenth century American Catholic Church. The copy preserved by Boston College was originally purchased and owned by Jose de Mello, a key advisor to the Queen of Portugal.
It is clear why Edward Markey chose the Carey Bible for his swearing-in. The book is entwined in history, both religious and national. It is an important thread in the fabric of the United States and the branch of the Catholic Church contained therein. As a budding historian, I am constantly trying to gain new perspective on events that occurred in the past. The story of the Carey Bible has given me a new lens with which to observe the conclusion of the colonial period and the emergence of the United States as a body politic. It also fits into my expanding understanding of my Catholic faith, and role as a student at a Jesuit institution. The Catholic Church has a fantastically interesting history, and I get a tremendous satisfaction knowing that my choice to attend Boston College places me within that still evolving history. For more information or to peruse the Carey Bible yourself, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- James Heffernan, A & S, Boston College Class of 2015