Little Rock church receives grant to preserve Bible used by Dr. Martin Luther King

It is believed that the Bible originally belonged to a Union soldier named Cornelius Timber

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The First Missionary Baptist Church in Little Rock is on a mission to preserve a 19th-century Bible once used by civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To help with the effort, the church has received a $3,500 grant from the Black History Commission, and congregation members intend to use a majority of the funds to restore the leather-bound book, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.  

“The spine is completely separated from the cover,” said Brian Rodgers, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center’s historian and liaison. Rodgers will serve as the project’s historical consultant.

“It needs some considerable conservation work,” he said.

First Missionary Baptist Church / Shane Vaughn

According to Ann Ballard Bryan, president of Bryan & Devan Conservation in Little Rock, the metal hinges have decayed on the brittle Bible, which also needs a new spine and front cover.

Additionally, the back cover is not secure, torn pages need mending and separated pages must be reattached. 

Once the Bible is restored it will be displayed inside a newly designed enclosed case with a stand. The sacred tome is currently protected by clear plexiglass and is located in the same pulpit that Dr. King used nearly six decades ago, per the report. 

“It’s King James. A large Bible; very large,” said Paul Williams, chairman of the board of deacons.

It is believed that the Bible originally belonged to a Union soldier named Cornelius Timber, whose name is inscribed on one of the blank pages. After the civil war, Timber or his heirs donated the book to the congregation, according to the report. 

The church plans to include reference to the Bible’s historical significance as part of a forthcoming exhibit. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking before crowd of 25,000 Selma To Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marchers, in front of Montgomery, Alabama state capital building. On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)

“Oh, my goodness, it’s a huge piece of history. … Even going to see it was just a really neat experience,” said Bryan.

The restoration is expected to be completed this year. “Conservation is kind of a very slow and meticulous job, so nothing goes quickly,” Bryan said.

Dr. King reportedly used the Bible to deliver a memorable sermon at First Missionary Baptist Church on April 28, 1963, which coincided with the church’s 118th anniversary. 

Renee Hubbard was 12 years old at the time and recalled being among the roughly 600 people who packed into the church that Sunday to hear King preach. 

“It was electric,” she said. “The atmosphere was just unbelievable. There were more folks than the church could really hold. There was all kinds of folks outside.”

In his sermon, Dr. King referenced Luke 11:5-8, the parable of the friend at midnight, which describes a friend visiting another at midnight to plead for bread to feed a guest. In his message, King condemned segregationists and Black churches that “fail to answer the knock at midnight.”

“It’s like I can see him right now, behind that pulpit and using that Bible to take his Scripture for the day,” Hubbard said.

“He was so dynamic, but yet so personable,” she said.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported a formal rededication of the Bible is expected to be held next year in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of Dr. King’s sermon.

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