A Reader’s Reward

IMG_20180601_130550089_HDRA sampling of prize books housed in the Menno Simons Historical Library at EMU


The beauty of old and rare books is that through studying some of them we can learn not just about the ideas of the writer, but also the life of their reader.

We are fortunate in the Menno Simons Historical Library to have some rare books that give us an insight into the work of Dutch Mennonites in the eighteenth century. These books were given as prizes to children who did well in their catechism classes. The prize encouraged children to learn scripture and the books that were given taught them about the faith of the Mennonite church. Topics ranged from martyr books to histories of the Bible and Mennonite doctrine. We have at least eight examples of prize books in our collection, and I will highlight a few here.

The first is a book of Mennonite history and doctrine by Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan given to Jacob Beukenberg, an orphan living in the Weehuis in Amsterdam, on April 23, 1710.


Another is an emblem book of poems, scripture, and illustrations given to Gerardus de Wind on the 22nd of April 1753.


The third is and final one I will highlight is a small book of martyr stories by Thielman van Braght (best known as compiler and author of the Martyrs Mirror) presented to Pieter Corver on the 26th of February 1774.

Keith Sprunger, emeritus professor of history at Bethel College, studied these books twenty years ago during a research trip to the Menno Simons Historical Library. He notes that “the provider of the books was usually a church member who was a printer or ran a book store”1. Many Dutch Mennonites had warmly embraced this new printing technology, with some becoming quite rich from the enterprise. Sprunger writes that “This era was . . . the heroic age of Dutch Mennonite printing” and that “the Mennonite churches made great use of the printed word for advancing their religion”2.

Is the printed word still valued by Mennonites? The existence of Herald Press, MennoMedia, and the various Mennonite libraries and archives scattered around North America are hopeful indicators to me that as Mennonites we still make great use of the printed word to transmit our faith, heritage, and the good news of Jesus to the next generation. Many congregations today maintain traditions of giving their young people Bibles or books when they are baptized or reach other milestones.

But the news is full of stories of traditional forms of media struggling to maintain viability in the face of a population becoming ever-more reliant on instant access via the internet, social media, and smartphones. And while I believe technology is a fantastic tool to meet many communication and learning needs, it is clear that when it comes to leaving a long-term record it is not as enduring or reliable as print media. The prize books I mentioned above have been preserved in their original form for nearly three hundred years; computers from twenty years ago have long been relegated to the trash heap. Just as technology has enabled us to preserve through digitization and increase access through web content, it also presents major problems of preservation and access of records based in formats that are now obsolete. 

While it is tempting to continue chasing the new and best technology trends, I think it is wise to take a step back and consider how we can also continue to support and use print resources to leave a record and transmit our traditions to future generations of believers. There is value in possessing tangible resources that we can peruse and return to years later without worrying about data migration, file format compatibility, and URL stability. The young people who received these books appreciated them as the prize they were and we would do well to remember in our ever-changing and fast-paced world that there are still many rewards to be found between the covers of a good book.

Sprunger, Keith L. 1999. Mennonitism in print : EMU and the history of Dutch Mennonite printing. n.p.: [1999]., 1999. Menno Simons Historical Library Vertical File.

  1. Sprunger, 17. 
  2. Sprunger, 13. 

3 thoughts on “A Reader’s Reward

  1. Hi Simone,
    Ever since the late 17th century it became quite common for the larger and more well-off ‘Doopsgezind’ congregations in the Netherlands to present awards in the form of edifying books to the young adolescents (ca 12 to 17 year olds) that succesfully had finished bible and catechism classes during the previous winter season. Look at the dates of donation, running from February to April. In the church records of the congregations of major cities, like, for instance, Amsterdam, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Leiden, Leeuwarden, Utrecht and Zaandam you will find each year mention of proposed book titles that may serve for this purpose. In Amsterdam, for instance, each year, at the end of January it was decided by the church board to whose bookshop the order was given. In Amsterdam there were generally at least some four to six publishers/book sellers who were a church member of the two major doopsgezind congregations, either the Lamist or the Zonist congregation. So every time the choice was given to an other candidate. And so also economically the church board was an important client on the local book market – during the hay-days at least some 50 to 60 books were ordered each time.
    From the perspective of reading and book culture this typically Dutch phenomenon of ‘prijsbandjes’, or ‘prize bindings’ (predominantly of so-called ocatavo-size) is also interesting. Questions like: what type of titles were considered suitable for this purpose, and why? What type of social and cultural standards does this aspect reflect? How come that the Dutch ‘doopsgezinden’ were the only Protestant denomination in the Netherlands applying this system of reward system and encouragement in reading? The phenomenon as such is not unique: ever since the late 16th-century it was a habit at the so-called Latin schools of the Netherlands (the educational system giving access to academic studies) to donate books (in Latin) to graduates with the highest marks – to the happy few, not to all students, like the Dutch doopsgezinden did!
    The Doopsgezinde Bibliotheek (Mennonite Library), founded in 1680 and which is the permanent loan of the Doopsgezind Congregation of Amsterdam at the Amsterdam University Library holds dozens of these ‘prize bindings’. Occasionally, yet rearely, these books still pop up at book auctions – as a private collector of so-called ‘Mennonitica’ I have more than thirty. There is no doubt that late Irvin Buckwalter Horst, a most ardent book collector when he lived in the Netherlands – I keep good memories of him – must have acquired those volumes which you traced at EMU, If you want to have a more extensive listing of doopsgezind prize-book titles, see appendix 15 (‘Prijzen toegekend aan catechisanten 1713-1815’ – Prizes awarded to catechism students) of A.M.L. Hajenius, Dopers in de Domstad. Geschiedenis van de Doopsgezinde Gemeente Utrecht 1639-1939 (Hilversum, Uitgeverij Verloren, 2003), pp. 261-264. Note that only a small percentage of those titles actually deal with doopsgezind doctrine, religion or history – there ‘s a substantial number of edifying poetry books as well, such as the emblem books enrgaved and written by the most famous Jan Luyken.


    • Thank you for this response, Piet! It helps to broaden my understanding of the practice and gives more context for these books in our collection. I find this topic fascinating and am grateful to Irvin Horst for having enriched our collection with these unique works.


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