I read only reference books. Or so I say when asked if I still am a book reader when others discover that we have collected our way into a full-time book business. Perhaps I should say that these books, here, are not for sale, at present. It is the only section of shelves that I turn to regularly, the last remnant of an assortment of books that eventually collapsed under its own weight, was swept up, and offered for sale to other eager seekers of the Colossal Collection.
Two of the reasons my collection of books (may its memory be eternal) spilled off of its shelves, trickled down stairs, stacked itself in the corners of our home and made itself repugnant to the other members of my family were its continual growth and its ugly appearance. These were not pretty books and there were too many of them. This was a theological book collection, an assembled assortment of American Christian religious views, separated into diverse stacks of opposite and conflicting opinions.
You may have such an assemblage in your store. You may have given it some prominence and sought to find out how to turn it into money or you may have banished it to the basement like a crazy uncle at the family reunion. Whatever your present estimation is of “religious books” you will find that reference works are particularly useful in turning a profit with this material. It is also helpful to have an overview of the theological book-collecting field and to know exactly what you need reference materials to do for you.
Religion in America is a very complex topic. Our focus is on Christian churches and sects in the U.S. before the year 1920. All Christian material in the U.S. is a result of immigrants bringing their church with them to America, later divisions of these churches, or sects that sprang up afterwards by their descendants. These later sects may be native to America or they may be imports from abroad.
The original immigrants came at various times and include Anglicans, Armenians, Baptists, Catholics, Christadelphians, Dunkers, Eastern Orthodox Churches, Huguenots, Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, Old Catholics, Pilgrims, Plymouth Brethren, Presbyterians, Puritans, Quakers, Reformed, River Brethren, Schwenkfelders, Swedenborgians, Unitarians, etc. They came at many times and to different places. Some of these churches came to the New World as a single body while others came as competing versions of the same denomination. Many later merged or further split forming new bodies.
Many churches are native to America and are wildly different in theology, practice, and organization. There are Adventists, the Apostolic Faith Movement, Assemblies of God, “Christians,” Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of God or Winebrennerians, Church of the Nazarene, Disciples of Christ, Hicksites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Metropolitan Church Association, Mormons or Latter Day Saints, Shaker, and various communal societies. Some of the earlier immigrant churches and these later native churches have been prone to further divisions. There are many different “Apostolic,” Baptist, Holiness, Mennonite, Methodist, and independent churches in the U.S.
The complexity of this genre will stymie the most patient of booksellers.
But you should realize that each of the categories listed above, and many more besides, represent potential avid – some might say rabid – customers. Collections of religious books run along a couple of common threads. They often are either denominational or movement oriented, bibliographical, or Biblical. The denominational or movement collections are composed of material relating to a particular church or cross-church movement such as Temperance, Revival, Holiness, or Fundamentalism. Bibliographical collections are varied. Collections may be based on such things as 18th-century American imprints, imprints from a particular publishing house, hymnals from a specified time period, all of the writings of a favorite author, or any other whimsical infliction of the Hoarding Gene. What I call “Biblical” collections are those often found in ministers or students libraries: Bibles; Bible commentaries; Greek, Hebrew and Latin lexicons; descriptive travelogues of Palestine; records of archaeological discovery attesting to Biblical history.
If you are interested in marketing your books to those building the collections above you will be greatly helped in cataloging by the use of a few basic references.
There are so many churches and movements that many of their authors are now obscure. They may have only published a single book or pamphlet. In order to be successful in this field you must identify the author. You will also want to discover the context and importance of the book itself and share your discovery with an appropriate customer.
A good reference library will help you to identify the author and place him or her within a church or denomination. It may also help you to discern the theological topic or position, the relationship the author may have had with more prominent individuals, and any impact this work may have had on the theological discussion of its day.
Author Identification References (General)
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature
There are three sets that we turn to constantly for author identification. The first is Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, prepared by the Rev. John M’Clintock D.D., and James Strong, S.T.D. This reference was originally published in parts from 1867 to 1887. Our set was published in New York by Harper & Brothers in 1896. Baker Books recently reprinted this work. You are looking for the complete 12-volume set. Older sets are sometimes found as ten volumes but a two-volume supplement was issued to complete the work. Try to get a set that includes this supplement. There are many authors contained in those two volumes. The entire set includes biographies of prominent authors along with theological articles. The biographies contained in M’Clintock & Strong are often more complete than elsewhere. This set is not a bibliographical record – you will find much more of that sort of information in the next two sets below. It is, however, the best comprehensive biographical reference for this time period in American and often contains quotations regarding the manner of life and character of the subject. Our set cost $220.00 a few years ago. The reprint sets run $250-300.
We use Austin S. Allibone’s A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors Living and Deceased as often as we use M’Clintock & Strong. There are more authors in this work but the biographies of the less prominent theological writers are often thin. The subtitle to the set is …from the earliest accounts to the latter half of the nineteenth century. Containing forty-six thousand articles (authors), with forty indexes of subjects. This is found as three volumes with a two-volume supplement. Again, you want the entire five volumes for your reference library. You will use this set for many more authors than only theological ones.
Our edition was published in 1891 in Philadelphia by the J. B. Lippincott Company. We paid $185.00 for it about 4 years ago. Shop around for prices. We do use the two-volume supplement constantly and recommend you try to find all five volumes. The entries for the first three volumes end in 1858. The two supplemental volumes continue the literary record of authors begun in the former part and add a considerable selection of new authors to the mix.
Allibone’s A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors Living and Deceased
The last spade used on a regular basis to root out authors is Cyclopaedia Bibliographica: A Library Manual of Theological and General Literature, and guide to books for Authors, Preachers, Students, and Literary Men. Analytical Bibliographical, and Biographical. By James Darling, 2 vols. London: 1854 & 1859. It is a mismatched set in ¾ leather. The authors are primarily English. The biographies are unadorned. The bibliographical information is terrific and will help you identify early editions and such. The first volume of the set is a bibliography of theological writers. The second volume is a subject index the bulk of which pertains to commentaries on the Bible. Expect this to cost $500-700 for the pair.
Several more books or sets deserve mention. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, etc. published by Funk & Wagnalls in twelve volumes (1908) is handy for authors appearing in the later 19th century. The author has to be rather prominent to appear in this set but it does fill in some gaps for us. I think this set runs $200-250 today.
In the 1850’s and 60’s William B. Sprague authored the Annals of the American Pulpit; or Commemorative Notices of Distinguished American Clergymen of Various Denominations, from the early settlement of the country to the close of the year eighteen hundred and fifty-five. This set is in nine volumes and is very valuable for the detailed biographical information it contains. If your man is in Sprague you will have all of the information you could possibly need to write an informative biography of him. The Annals are difficult to find complete and you may need to assemble the nine volumes individually as you can find them. Expect to pay $75-100 per volume. Two volumes are Trinitarian Congregational ministers, two are Presbyterian, and there are one each of Episcopalian, Baptist, Unitarian, Methodist, and Associate (Presbyterian). Each volume has its own index that is not particularly helpful if you do not already know the denominational affiliation of the author. You will want to pick up Marie Lamourex’s Index to William Buell Sprague’s ‘Annals of the American Pulpit’ reprinted by the American Antiquarian Society in 1994 if you wish to make sense of this set.
Colonial Clergy of the Colonial Churches of New England
The Colonial Clergy of the Colonial Churches of New England by Frederick Lewis Weis, published in Lancaster, Massachusetts (1936) is helpful in identifying unknowns not found elsewhere. The information given for each minister is spartan but you will have set him in a valuable context nevertheless. It has recently been reprinted and many copies are available in the $25-35 range on the Net.
Author Identification References (Denominational & Movement)
Denominational or movement references are also very useful. Most authors can be located in the above references but some are only known as associated with particular churches or religious movements and these can often be located by looking in the right place. Or you may know the denominational association of an author but wish to discover if they are associated with other important historical events or genres. A few examples follow:
The Encyclopedia of Missions. Descriptive, Historical, Biographical, Statistical. With a full assortment of maps, a complete bibliography, and lists of Bible versions, etc. Edited by Rev. Edwin Munsell Bliss. 2 volumes. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1891. Missionaries and authors found here that are not found easily elsewhere. The histories of missionary stations are given. These allow you to see how early a particular work or mission author is relative to any country or people. This work is somewhat difficult to find at present.
A Guide to the Study of the Holiness Movement. By Charles Edwin Jones. Published by The Scarecrow Press and The American Theological Library Association, 1974. This is a 918-page bibliography mainly covering the century 1850 to 1950. It contains brief biographies but an extensive bibliography of each author. The index is somewhat clunky but worth the aggravation. We found our copy priced at $55.00.
A Baptist Bibliography: Being a register of printed material by and about Baptists; including works written against the Baptists. Edited by Edward C. Starr. 1947-1976. 25 volumes. A comprehensive bibliography and very helpful when specializing in this denomination. Starr gives all known editions at the time as well as locations. Single volumes run $30-50; complete sets may be available at a local university.
Comprehensive Bibliography of Mormon Literature: including some review information & price history. Compiled by Bret A. Eborn. Published by Eborn Books in Peoria, Arizona, in 1997. Available for $95-150 on the Net. There is a strong collector interest in this genre and this single reference will give you all you need for a start in identifying and pricing these books.
Early Catholic Americana. A List of Books and other Works by Catholic Authors in the United States 1729-1830. By Wilfrid Parsons, S. J. New York: MacMillan Company, 1939. 282 pages with an index. Catholic writers are often not included in the larger 19th-century author references mentioned above which makes this an essential reference tool for this specialty. Expect to pay $75-100 for it.
Revival Literature. An Annotated Bibliography with Biographical and Historical Notices. By Richard Owen Roberts. Published by the author, 1987. A large reference of 575 pages with 5939 entries and available from the publisher for about $70.00. Their phone number is (630) 752-4122. This contains very useful information with brief biographies of authors and will remain a standard reference in the field. The compiler considers “Revival” to be the First and Second Awakenings in America in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
A History of Fundamentalism in America. By George W. Dollar. Bob Jones University Press, 1973. This has brief biased biographies of the leaders of Fundamentalism, 1900-1973. This was written by a fundamentalist and is helpful for identification with this movement. You should be able to find this for $20-30.
Cyclopaedia of Temperance and Prohibition
The Cyclopaedia of Temperance and Prohibition. A Reference Book of Facts, Statistics, and General Information on All Phases of the Drink Question, the Temperance Movement and the Prohibition Agenda. New York etc.: Funk & Wagnalls, 1891. Something to peruse over a pint of stout. This does include the key figures and authors and is useful. You can find these priced anywhere from $40-100.
The above brief list is only a sample of the many denominational and movement histories and bibliographies available. We suggest that if you wish to pursue a religious topic or church in some depth that you begin with something specific and acquire those works necessary for that specialty.
References suggested for Biblical studies.
Commenting and Commentaries: Two Lectures addressed to the students of The Pastor’s College, Metropolitan Tabernacle, together with A Catalogue of Biblical Commentaries and Expositions. By C. H. Spurgeon, President. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1893. Often reprinted. We use this constantly. Rev. Spurgeon lists 1437 commentaries with annotations and recommendations, all are in English and many antiquarian titles are included. Any commentary recommended by Spurgeon is a quick sale.
Volume 2 of Darlings’ Cyclopaedia Bibliographica. See above.
An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. By Thomas Hartwell Horne. Commonly found in two or four volume sets, usually published before 1850. The last book in this set contains a Bibliographical Appendix that is extremely useful for books published on Biblical research printed before 1840. This includes Bible versions, translations, commentaries, lexicons, grammars, harmonies, etc. This volume is relatively unknown as a reference and can probably still be found for under $50. The entire set can be had for under $200.
The standard English Bible references – Darlow & Moule, Hills’ English Bible in America, Rumball-Petre’s Rare Bibles – are all in print or common enough that you should have them if you are interested in specific Bible imprints. The standard Evans’ American Bibliography or the Short-Title Evans will help you as well when identifying old Bibles.
We have begun a list of reference materials on American Christian religion at our website if you would like to pursue this further. The link is
You will find that collectors of “religious books” are generally intelligent, well-informed on their specialty, and loyal buyers. Help them find what they want and show them why they want it. This will result in you turning over your stock and extra grocery money for your budget.
And don’t forget to pass down some potato salad to the basement – your uncle is hungry.
By Stephen P. Wurth Copyright – S. P. Wurth Books. 2002. http://www.spwurthbooks.com