ancient Lutheran books

Adam Morton, associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, holds a 1518 collection of writings by Martin Luther. The other book is an illustrated collection of writings about Lutheranism from 1571.

When Adam Morton arrived at his office in Trinity Lutheran Church’s parish house on South Duke Street one morning, he found on his desk an over-sized, well-used, leather-bound book. Trinity’s associate pastor and resident scholar wondered what this was all about.

The book a church archivist had brought to Morton’s desk, “Corpus Doctrinae Christianae,” was a collection of early Lutheran writings. Most of them eventually entered the “Book of Concord,” which is more widely known.

But this book from Trinity’s archives was published in Germany in 1571 —  a quarter of a century after the death of Luther, author of the Protestant Reformation. Why is it at Trinity in 2019?

A Trinity minister’s note, dated 1883, explained the book was a gift from D.M. Swarr, who requested it be kept with other books Swarr had previously given the church.

That book and the note with it launched Morton on a joyful journey into the church archives. The 40-year-old scholar with a seminary degree and a solid start on a Ph.D. in theology eventually discovered five more rare books chronicling the early years of Lutheranism.

The archives are kept in a basement vault. Morton began looking through boxes that were not fully archived. He found one box labeled “Luther.” He dug to the bottom.

“I flipped open a book and nearly dropped it on the floor,” he says. “What I had found represents the very beginning of Lutheranism.”

This book contains the first-ever published collection of writings by Luther. “Ad Leonem X, Pontificem Maximum” (“To Pope Leo X”), including Luther’s famed “Ninety-five Theses,” was written in Latin and published by Johann Froben in Switzerland in October 1518, the year after Luther challenged the Catholic church with his theses.

The book is extremely rare. About 15 other copies are known to exist.

“It’s so rare because most copies were ordered destroyed when Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated,” Morton explains. But this book survived and was held in a Catholic area with a warning in Latin, “Beware,” written across its pages.

In an accompanying letter, Swarr said he had ordered the book from Berlin and had given it to Trinity Lutheran in 1883, the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth.

Morton found four more slim books that include accounts of Luther’s death and orations given at his funeral in 1546. Swarr also had donated these materials in 1883.

Then Morton found an 1882 letter from Swarr discussing a book published in 1455 — earlier than all the others — that Swarr had only loaned to Trinity. The book consisted of an oration of Aeneus Silvius, who later became pope. It is, exclaims Morton, “staggeringly rare.”

“I would love for someone to show up who knows what happened to that book,” Morton says.

Morton also would like to know more about Swarr. This is what he does know.

D. Mellinger Swarr grew up in the Mennonite church. He had limited formal education. He failed at several businesses. But he knew enough to recognize the importance of these early writings by and about Martin Luther, order them from German booksellers and give them to Trinity.

Swarr died early in the 20th century at the Lancaster County Home. He is buried in Quarryville.

So how did this plain, largely self-educated man from rural Lancaster obtain the expertise to recognize the value of these books and muster the foresight to give them to a church that would preserve them?

Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Wednesday. He welcomes comments and contributions at scribblerlnp@gmail.com.