Roots & Branches is an award-winning, weekly newspaper column begun in 1998 that currently is published in the Altoona Mirror. It’s the only syndicated column on genealogy in Pennsylvania!

Posted October 16, 2017 by  |  1 Comment

I mentioned in passing a month ago in this column the wonderful presentation that Patrick Donmoyer, director of the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center, made at a genealogy conference at Kutztown University.

The lecture was centered upon the evolution and meaning of German-language Bibles published in Europe and America and had some interesting takeaways for genealogists seeking German roots.

Donmoyer inherited the study of the German-language Bible from his late mentor Don Yoder, the godfather of so many things Pennsylvania Dutch – Yoder was in many ways the founder of folklife studies and some of his genealogical methodologies were groundbreaking (He helped initiate crossovers between German and American genealogists and pioneered dovetailing German and American records to prove the immigrant origins of 18th century German-speaking immigrations).

Yoder believed that the translation of the Bible into the languages of the people – particularly Martin Luther’s translation into high German – was crucial to bringing about the individualism of the modern world.

Donmoyer noted that the Roman Catholic Church had used a Bible in Latin – the language of the church and scholars, but not the common people.

The so-called Lübeck Bible, published in 1494, was the first Bible published in a vernacular language. According to Donmoyer, it was a Low German translation made straight from Latin (as opposed to consulting the original Hebrew texts of the Old Testament and Greek of the New Testament).

It was left to Luther to go back to those original texts when he made his translation of the Bible into High German starting in the 1520s, which some people say was the beginning of a more standardized German language that still to this day has many regional dialects.

Since Cambridge and Oxford were given exclusive rights to print an English-language Bible in the British Empire, it was once again a German-language Bible that was the first vernacular Bible published in the Colonies when Christopher Sauer produced his in Germantown in 1743.

The first German-language Bible printed outside greater Philadelphia was Reading publisher Gottlob Jungmann’s 1805 edition, which was the first to feature a template page for bookplate information as well as a family register (Though it’s certainly the case that families had scrawled names and dates into the flyleaves of Bibles much earlier).

When illustrations were added to Bibles later in the 19th century, some of those illustrations became inspirational models for the large altar paintings that became popular in churches around this time period.

Finally, Donmoyer noted that the publication of first Pennsylvania Dutch dialect Bible didn’t happen until the late 1990s with an edition of the New Testament used by the Amish.

“The story of the German Bible is not over,” he concluded.

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