From Parchment to Pixels

When University of Mobile alumnus Dr. Leslie Holmes ’75 first saw the 400-year-old “bits of a Bible in a box” at his uncle’s home in northern Ireland, it was the beginning of a four-year passion project that would span Ireland, Scotland and England – and bring Holmes and his wife, Barbara, back to Mobile, Alabama, and the university that took him in when nobody else would.

Holmes shepherded the box filled with pieces of centuries-old brittle pages through the challenges of a global pandemic in a collaborative process with world-renowned restorationists who used techniques and materials common in the early 1600s to preserve the book’s historical integrity.

The couple presented the restored 1627 King James Bible to the University of Mobile during a reception in J. Maury Lyon Chapel on Sept. 26, 2023. It is the oldest Bible in a university collection that includes a Hebrew Torah Scroll dated to 1820, a 1901 Norwegian Bible, and an early 20th century Braille volume of the New Testament. The collection is housed in the Center for Christian Calling in the School of Christian Studies.

“I am honored and delighted and thrilled that Barbara and I can give this to the school and say, ‘Thank you.’ Because if you hadn’t taken us in, our lives would have been a whole shape different than what they have been,” said the retired senior pastor, seminary professor and author who was called “one of America’s foremost scholar-pastors” by former U.S. Senate Chaplain Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie.

A native of Belfast, Ireland, Holmes had been turned away from three other universities because his Belfast credentials weren’t recognized by U.S. colleges. As he was applying to then-Mobile College, his Belfast accent sparked an encounter with retired Col. Ira Matthews, assistant to the Mobile College president, who had flown out of Belfast over Germany during World War II with the U.S. Army Air Force’s 40th Bombardment Group.

A conversation about Belfast, and a longer conversation about Holmes’ desire to preach the gospel – coupled with Matthews’ belief that the university “could not turn away a man God has called to preach” – paved the way for Holmes to enroll on academic probation. He thrived, graduated in 1975, then pursued graduate training in theology and psychology.

Sharing another connection to the university, Holmes spoke of his salvation story, his call to ministry and his wife’s initial reluctance to “be a preacher’s wife.” When the young couple went to a concert in Mississippi and heard the gospel, Barbara committed her life to Christ. The concert featured one of the very first contemporary Christian groups – TRUTH. The person sharing that message was TRUTH’s founder, Dr. Roger Breland, who now serves as executive director of UM’s Roger Breland Center for Performing Arts.

In a ministry career of more than 40 years, Holmes led congregations from 30 to 4,300 members across 6 states, served as provost/ CEO and professor of preaching and pastoral theology at Erskine Theological Seminary, was moderator of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, spoke at university campuses and churches on six continents, and has been published on both sides of the Atlantic. His latest book is “Leading the Way: Principles of Leadership Excellence for All Believers.”

Holmes said his uncle and aunt, the Rev. John and Molly Batchelor, came across the old Bible years ago and had been trying to decide what to do with it.

“When he offered it to me, I immediately decided that I would take it to an antiquarian book restorer in Belfast,” said Holmes. The project eventually required the work of three restorationists.

“I said to Barbara, I want to give this to the University of Mobile. They took me in when nobody else wanted me. And I want to give it in honor of Col. Ira Matthews.”

Translating the Gospel Message

The arduous task of preserving and binding fragile pages from a centuries-old Bible is one way to ensure that future generations have access to the life-changing message of eternal salvation. Another is by developing graduates who have a Great Commission passion for sharing the Good News throughout the nations.

“The School of Christian Studies provides Christ-focused, hands-on, personalized instruction from committed faculty members who equip Christians for a lifetime of ministry service,” said Dr. Doug Wilson, professor of biblical studies and executive director of the Center for Christian Calling.

In addition to majors in Christian ministry, intercultural studies and theological studies, the program offers a variety of minors including Bible translation and biblical languages. Rigorous courses in New Testament Greek and Biblical Hebrew give UM students an advantage in seminary studies while adding a depth of understanding that enriches their ministries.

The combination of majors, minors, university ministries and mission experiences in the School of Christian Studies prepares graduates like Claudia Hall ’23 and Sara Lansford ’07 to pursue their passion for translating the gospel message in unique ways to reach people groups who may never have heard of Jesus Christ.

Claudia’s Calling

Claudia Hall discovered her calling to become a Bible translator during a Christian Studies class at UM. She graduated in Spring 2023 with a Bachelor of Arts in Intercultural Studies and is pursuing a master’s in applied linguistics with a concentration in Bible translation at Dallas International University.

“I had known for a long time that I was called to missions in some capacity, but I wasn’t sure exactly how that would look for me. When
I got to UM, I was very quiet and struggled with social anxiety. One day in class we were talking about some of the challenges we were facing in ministry, and I expressed that I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to be a missionary if I could hardly even talk to people.

“My professor for this class was Dr. Doug Wilson, and I was also taking Biblical Hebrew

with him that semester. Dr. Wilson said that I was doing well in Hebrew and that I should consider Bible translation. Later in the semester we watched a video called ‘Ee-Taow’ about the Bible translation for the Mouk tribe. I immediately knew that was the type of work I wanted to do.

“Since that day, my passion for Bible translation has continued to grow. I cannot express how upset it makes me that I can access the Bible in hundreds of versions in my own language, yet there are hundreds of people groups that have never even heard
of the Bible. Bible translation is important because we have been commanded to share the Good News, and I believe there is no better way to do that than to bring people the Word of the Lord in their mother tongue.

“After my first semester, I got involved volunteering with the international students on campus and it really brought me out of my shell. I no longer struggle with social anxiety at all – it was like God used that to call me to Bible translation and then set me free from it shortly after. “

Sara’s Mission

Sara Lansford traveled with UM’s University Missions teams to West Africa and prepared class presentations on Muslim evangelism and chronological Bible storying. After graduating from UM in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology, she served in Timbuktu as a Journeyman for two years with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“My team of three produced a set of 25 oral Bible stories in Songhai from creation to the promise of the return of Christ. The stories were strategically picked so that if this happened to be the only Scripture someone ever heard, he would recognize that: he is a sinner, he needs a Savior, and Jesus is that Savior.

“We used an oral strategy because the vast majority of the Songhai people in Mali learn orally and do not read the language. We began our work in 2007 and completed it in 2009. The story set has since been distributed on cassette tapes, SD cards, Bluetooth, solar players, and broadcast on the radio throughout the country.

A teammate and I had the privilege of hand-delivering a few cassette tapes and listening to God’s Word with some of our closest friends from our village, just months before the village went under Sharia law for a period of time. The day we handed our friend the cassette, we sat and listened to half of the stories before we needed to leave. We returned the next day and she had finished listening to the stories and had then gone to her neighbors, playing the stories for them as well.

“While we do not know the exact impact of our work, we do know that our village mom and sisters made decisions to follow Jesus. We have heard of others recognizing that these stories are truth. To my knowledge, these stories are still being shared even today.”

Bridging Past and Present

Bible translation is a passion for Professor Wilson, who serves on the Old Testament translation committee for the “New Tyndale Version” (NTV), named for the earliest printed translation of the Bible into English. Wilson is translating three books and serves as a sectional editor for a portion of the Old Testament during the multi-year project.

The Tyndale Bible is named for William Tyndale who was martyred in 1536 after being charged with heresy for translating the Bible into English from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek – an action that was punishable by death at that time.

The translation process itself bridges the past and present, from parchment to pixels, as scholars use new technologies in research.

The new translation Wilson is working on utilizes documents that were unknown 500 years ago and are now accessible via the internet. Wilson brings his experiences as a Bible translator into the classroom, giving students a behind-the-scenes look at the process of translating the Bible from its original languages into modern ones.

“As a professor, I love teaching students about translation work, because I know that God is going to use some of them to reach people I will never reach, in places I will never go, in languages I will never learn. When we are all gathered to worship around the Throne from every tribe, tongue, nation and language, I will meet brothers and sisters I have never known on this earth, who came to faith in Jesus because of the witness of my former students at the University of Mobile,” Wilson said.

About the Author

Kathy Dean

Kathy Dean uses her passion for storytelling and "playing with words" to share the stories of people, place and purpose that make the University of Mobile unique. As associate vice president for university communications, she manages media relations, edits the TorchLight alumni magazine, and oversees university communications. A former award-winning journalist, she is a two-time recipient of the Baptist Communicators Association grand prize for feature writing. Kathy and her husband, Chuck, live with three extremely loud miniature schnauzers.