Monthly Archives: December 2012

The End of the World, Past and Present

Still waiting for the world to end?  Perhaps you need a different apocalyptic prophecy. Don’t worry, Special Collections has plenty!  They may not be Mayan, but here’s a small sampling of various ways the world could have ended over the past 350 years.

Joseph Mede (1586–1638) was a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and a recognized authority on the Bible, Hebrew language, and ancient Egypt.  In his Clavis apocalypseos (Key to the Revelation), Mede claimed that the book of Revelation should be interpreted literally as a prophecy of world history.  An ancient Near Eastern text on dream interpretation, he argued, provides the key to interpreting the book’s symbolism. Mede identified Rome as the Antichrist and the source of the apostasy supposed to come with the end times.  He thought the biblical Apocalypse would occur sometime prior to 1716, and suggested 1654 as a probable date.  Mede’s work had broad influence, and its translation into English after his death renewed interest in the apocalypse among English scholars and religious leaders.

The daughter of a farmer, Joanna Southcott (1750–1814) proclaimed herself a prophet and visionary in her early 40s.  She saw herself as a champion of the poor, and she gained credibility and a large following when some of her public predictions came true.  In 1814, at the age of 64, Southcott believed herself to be pregnant with the second incarnation of God.  The child, named Shiloh, was supposed to usher in the Millennium, the thousand years of peace that some Christians believe will occur before the Last Judgement.  Rather than giving birth, Southcott died on December 27 of that year.  Her followers preserved her legacy, including a box of sealed prophecies, into the twentieth century.

John Cumming (1807-1881) was a Presbyterian preacher whose career was initially built on popularizing established forms of worship.  By the 1840s, his congregation numbered over 4,000, and he was patronized by members of the peerage and social elite. At the height of his popularity, Cumming turned increasingly to the study of biblical prophecy.  His interpretations of the books of Genesis and Daniel led him to believe that the second coming would occur in 1867.  Even after that year passed, Cumming continued to publish pamphlets with apocalyptic and prophetic themes, despite the decline of his congregation and popularity.

Very little is known of David Pae (1828-1884), but he seems to have been a contemporary of Cumming.  His pamphlet The Coming Struggle among the Nations of the Earth laid out a detailed sequence of world events Pae claimed would take place over a fifteen-year span, starting in 1853, and ending with Britain dominant over most of the world.  This hegemony, Pae argued, would set the stage for the end times, in which those of Anglo-Saxon descent would feature as God’s chosen people.  Pae published at least two follow-ups to The Coming Struggle to counter objections and answer questions about his very Anglo-centric prophecies.

Special Collections has dozens of other works on eschatology.  Some attempt to interpret contemporary events as signs of the end; others are works of prophecy. Many are serious treatises written by theological scholars, while others are perhaps better characterized by this manuscript note, from a nineteenth-century reader: “The author is half crazy & all his trash is only fit to throw into the fire.”

But don’t take that reader’s word for it; you be the judge!  Search the MERLIN catalog under the keywords Eschatology, Apocalypse, and End of the World, and find your own favorite work of impending doom.

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Posted in Rare Book Collection

A Visit From St. Nicholas (and other tales of Santa Claus)

The legend of St. Nicholas of Myra has taken so many twists and turns over the centuries that he is barely recognizable to us anymore.   Instead, he has been replaced by a jolly, bearded, portly man in a red suit and cap and coal black boots.  For this installation of Scripta Manent, we will trace the history of St. Nicholas/Santa Claus/Father Christmas/Kris Kingle, just in time for Christmas.  The real St. Nicholas was born in Asia Minor during the third century in the city of Myra (in present-day Turkey). He was the only son of wealthy Christian parents named Epiphanius and Johanna according to some accounts and Theophanes and Nonna according to others.  His wealthy parents died while Nicholas was still young and he was raised by his uncle—also named Nicholas—who was the bishop of Patara.

In 325, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea. There, Nicholas was a staunch anti-Arian and defender of the Orthodox Christian position that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, and one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed.  Legend holds that he was so angry with Arius (who taught that Jesus was only a man) that Nicholas punched him in the face.  However, the most famous legend associated with St. Nicholas is that of the poor man with three daughters.  In the tale, the man could not afford a proper dowry for his daughters.  Hearing of the poor man’s plight, Nicholas decided to help him, but being too modest to help the man in public, or to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity, he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man’s house.  There are different variations of the story.  One has Nicholas throwing the bags down a chimney.  Another embellishes the story and has a daughter’s stocking hanging over the embers of the fireplace to dry, where the bag of gold dropped straight in.

The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas by Josiah King, 1686

In the ensuing centuries, the story of St. Nicholas has evolved.  Beloved by children all over the world, St. Nicholas/Santa Claus/Father Christmas/Kris Kringle brings gifts to good boys and girls on Christmas (and sometimes coal to bad children).  However, he has not always been the most beloved of figures.  In 1686, Josiah King published a pamphlet called The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas.  In the pamphlet, Father Christmas is put on trial by those who worry that Christmas is becoming too materialistic and too much of an excuse to party and commit debauchery.  In the end, Father Christmas is acquitted of his charges, and yet he is admonished by the judge to remember that Christmas is about Jesus.

Although Father Christmas was usually thinner and wore a green coat, the modern idea of a rotund jolly man in a suit came about with the publication of A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore in 1823.  However, Moore’s Santa was an elf with a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.  It was Thomas Nast’s subsequent illustrations that helped cement the image of the modern Santa Claus in the minds of most Americans.  The idea that Santa Claus resides at the North Pole may also be attributed to Nast.  One of his illustrations is entitled “St. Claussville, N.P.”  Another depicts two children drawing Santa’s route to their house from the North Pole.

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1889.

One of the most famous writings involving Santa Claus came from a newspaper column in the New York Sun.  Little 8-year old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor asking if there really was a Santa Claus.  As her letter says, her father told her that “if [it is] in the Sun, it’s so.”  Her letter was answered eloquently and reassuringly by Francis Pharcellus Church, whose line “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” is often quoted more than a century later.  It remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.


Christmas Overseas Gifts by Graves, 1945.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the image of Santa Claus has been used for all sorts of advertisements.  The most famous may be the Coca-Cola Santa Claus, which debuted in the 1920s.  During World War II, Santa was depicted with a helmet to ask Americans at home to send Christmas gifts overseas to soldiers fight in Europe and the Pacific.  However, not everyone is thrilled with the overexposure of Santa Claus.  Fred Rinne’s hand drawn artist book, God Santa Christ depicts Santa Claus as a creation of a consumer culture.  As he writes:

Santa Christ/is the protecting god/of the consumerist economy/Belief in Santa Christ/is crucial to that/vague entity known as/”our way of life”.

God Santa Christ by Fred Rinne, 2003


However, it is the spirit of giving to those in need that the original St. Nicholas represents. It is our hope here at Special Collections that this spirit touches you, dear reader, and that you intently research local and national charities before giving to those in need this season.  By doing so, you keep the spirit of St. Nicholas and Santa Claus alive.  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone.  See you in 2013!

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Posted in Artist's Books, Rare Book Collection

Teacher spotlight: December 2012— Dr. James Terry, Art History professor from Stephens College

Today our guest in Teacher Spotlight is Dr. James Terry, professor of Art History at Stephens College. Professor Terry regularly brings his Renaissance and Baroque class to Special Collections. We were delighted when he agreed to step into our Spotlight today. We’ve queried him about his teaching philosophy, inspirations, academic interests, and put to him our standard question about the way he incorporates Special Collections into his teaching. Here is his response:

James Terry. Art History class

I like to get my art history students out of the classroom as often as I can–whether that’s a visit to the MU Museum, the local mosque, the Christopher Wren church in Fulton, or an artist’s studio, art gallery or exhibition. A visit to Special Collections at Ellis Library is always a highlight for the students in my Renaissance and Baroque Art course at Stephens College.

Most of them have never handled a 500-year old book–or any fine, handmade, pre-industrial object. It puts them in touch with the material (quite literally). Of course, they are amazed by the engravings and woodcuts, and even the quality of the paper and bindings. I expect that many of them had never considered the possibility that a book can also be a work of art–but they certainly understood that by the end of our recent visit.

Students today spend so much time looking at digitized *pictures* of things, but they don’t have nearly enough experience interacting with real objects.

I would recommend that all college instructors–whether in the humanities, sciences, business or whatever–visit Special Collections at Ellis and find out what treasures the library holds that might relate to your field. Then find a way to get your students over for a visit.  All librarians in Special Collections are very generous and accommodating, and will work with you to set up an eye-opening experience for your students.


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