DENVER — A book once revered by white people and put on proud display at a Denver seminary later became an object of such shame and bitterness that it has taken its custodians decades to come to terms with it.
The book is a history of Christianity in Latin, published in 1752. At some point, the volume acquired a grotesque cover — the flayed, tanned skin of a murdered Native American.
For 129 years, the book has been kept at the Iliff School of Theology, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, a school that describes itself as being “recognized nationally and internationally for its emphasis on peace, justice, and ethics.” Its alumni include ministers, chaplains, scholars and political leaders across the country.
In 1893, a Methodist minister presented the book as a gift to the then-new school on the University of Denver campus. For decades, the book was displayed in a glass case at the entrance to Iliff’s library.
"It's deeply ironic that they would cover that book of Christian history with human skin taken from a murder victim, … an Indian,” George “Tink” Tinker, professor emeritus of American Indian cultures at Iliff and a citizen of the Osage Nation (Wazhazhe), told Rocky Mountain PBS.
Nearly 50 years ago, facing pressure from students and finally seeing the book as an embarrassment rather than a treasure, Iliff officials had the cover of human skin removed and took the book off display. School leaders at the time wanted to silence the controversy, and swore to secrecy those with knowledge of the situation.
Decades later, Iliff began to see things differently. “It was time for us to tell the truth about this book,” said Thomas Wolfe, the current school president and CEO.
Now the book and its gruesome history have spawned a gathering of cultures to share perspectives and search for a path forward. It’s a journey that participants hope will lead to accountability and understanding.