The Oldest Book at the Woodrow Wilson Library

Here in the Library and Research Center, we have quite a few books that are older than you might expect. Not only have there been efforts to acquire volumes that represent what President Wilson’s father, Joseph R. Wilson, would have had in the Manse when working as a Presbyterian minister in Staunton in the 1850s, but donations have come in to us from the wider Wilson family and from collectors of anything ever owned by Woodrow Wilson.

Most of our oldest books come from two donations by theological seminaries that sought to help the museum represent the study of a nineteenth century theologian. You can still see many of them on display there.

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However, the oldest book, donated by Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, probably in 1989, resides in the Rare Book Collection in the library for safe keeping. Cruden’s Concordance, printed in London in 1738, was one of the earliest copies produced of a concordance that has not been out of print since then. It first appeared sometime around November of 1737, when one of the books was presented to Queen Caroline.

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Working entirely by himself in his bookshop, Alexander Cruden spent two years tracking down every reference in the King James Bible, so that now you look up biblical names, terms, and concepts in his book.

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As he himself says, it is a dictionary, or index of the bible, arranged alphabetically.

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Our copy of the book has enough notes in it to determine that it was used by theology students working on their scholarship, but it is very hard to make out the signature on the endsheet.

Just as interesting for us now, however, are the loose items captured between the pages. There are several sheets with more detailed notes from students, and some sort of long frond used as a book mark that might be a memento from a Palm Sunday service.

The largest piece discovered in the book when it was recently inspected was a full page of newsprint from the Louisville Daily Commercial of 1870. The concordance reader probably had more interest in the long article on a recent Presbyterian General Assembly than the advertisement for 2,000 barrels of Kentucky whiskies.