The Man  |  The Book Collections of Leander van Ess  |  The Reformation Pamphlets


Portrait of Leander van Ess engraved by John Roffe, (1769-1850) [London, c.1822]. 120/180mm. [Copied from the engraving of Konrad Westermmayr after a portrait in oil by Felix Maria Diogg (1762-1834), which was printed in van Ess's Auszüge über das nothwendige und nützliche Bibellesen… (Sulzbach, 1816). The copperplate was probably made for the British and Foreign Bible Society, which was supporting efforts of van Ess to distribute his translation of the New Testament at the time.] Collection of MMG.

Leander van Ess: the man
The library and other book collections of Leander van Ess have been a major subject of my research and publication since the late-1990s.

The man himself is, however, of interest for more than his book collections. Born at Warburg in the archdiocese of Paderborn, he became a member of a nearby Benedictine community Marienmünster in 1790 and remained there until 1803, in the Napoleonic era, when the monasteries were dissolved. He became the Catholic pastor of a small nearby town, Schwalenberg (Lippe), where he prepared and published a translation of the New Testament (with some contribution from his cousin Carl, also an ex-Benedictine). This translation was to become, in copies printed, second only to Luther's among Bibles in German. Imbued with the tolerant spirit of the Enlightenment, he had from his years at Marienmünster argued for the broader education of churchmen. Now he became passionate about the importance of Bible-reading for the laity, and he made contact with and sought support from the (largely Protestant) Bible Societies. In 1812, he was appointed by the Kingdom of Westphalia to serve as Catholic professor at the Protestant University of Marburg and concurrently pastor of a Catholic congregation at the church of St. Elizabeth—an unprecedented "Simultaneum" of Catholic and Protestant congregations under the same roof. During the Marburg years, he continued to be active in distribution of the Bible, founded the Christliche Bruderbund zur Verbreitung der heiligen Schriften (Brotherhood for Propagation of the Scriptures), and was awarded a doctorate in theology by the University of Freiburg im Breisgau in 1818; but the New Testament was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1821, symbolic of dissention about his writing and activities promoting wide dissemination of vernacular Bibles. Beset by controversy and perhaps suffering from a nervous breakdown, he resigned his posts in Marburg in 1822 and moved to Darmstadt, a Protestant city, where he continued his work for Bible-distribution with support from the British and Foreign Bible Society. (His relationship with the Society was to fall apart in a controversy over his insistence on following the Catholic biblical canon.) In 1824 he published editions of the Clementine Vulgate and the Septuagint—the latter remaining in print throughout most of the twentieth century.


Leander Heidenreich and Leander van Ess.
Watercolor by Wilhelm Trautschold, c. 1838

Leander van Ess maintained an interesting household. At Marburg he had virtually adopted Heinrich Joseph Wetzer (1801–1853) the future professor of oriental studies at Freiburg im Breisgau, who was to help Leander complete a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures for a complete Bible in 1836 and addressed his benefactor as "Father." Also in Marburg, he had taken into his household and educated two sons of his sister: Andreas August Heidenreich (1801–1880), who became a physician and married one of the first women physicians, the gynecologist Charlotte von Siebold (1787–1859), reputed in the family as the midwife at the birth of the future British queen, Victoria; and his namesake and godson Leander Heidenreich (1814–1881), with whom Leander would live the rest of his life. Also in the household from at least the time of the move to Darmstadt were Elisabeth von Elliott (1782-1838), reputedly the widow of an English seaman, and her son, Leo (1816–1890), later an artist and book-designer. Frau von Elliott knew English and French and was able to assist van Ess with correspondence in those languages and to greet visitors from Britain and America who came to visit the well-known biblical translator. In 1835, household—the two Leanders, Frau von Elliott, and Leo—moved to Alzey west of the Rhine, where a farming property was acquired. Elisabeth von Elliott died three years later, triggering the last of a series of health crises for van Ess. In 1843, the household moved to Affolterbach in the Odenwald, where Leander van Ess died and was buried in 1847.

Literature: On the life of Leander van Ess, see Johannes Altenberend, Leander van Eß (1772 1847): Bibelübersetzer und Bibelverbreiter zwischen katholischer Aufklärung und evangelikaler Erweckungsbewegung, Studien und Quellen zur Westfälischen Geschichte, 41 (Paderborn: Bonifatius, 2001). For a shorter (bilingual) sketch with chronological table, see Altenberend, "Leander van Ess," in 'so precious a foundation': The Library of Leander van Ess at the Burke Library of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York / 'welch kostbarer Grundstock': Die Bibliothek von Leander van Ess in der Burke Library des Union Theological Seminary in New York [exhibition catalogue], ed. Milton McC. Gatch  (New York: Union Theological Seminary and the Grolier Club, 1996), 21-45.