The Genesis of the CCEL

It was a surprising feat for a 3-year-old. Peter understood his mother's words, even though he was outside, Pam was inside, and there was a closed glass door between them. And, Pam had only mouthed the words. Peter didn't speak very well for a 3-year old; in fact, he could say only a few words, and he didn't understand very many words either. But here he was, not hearing but understanding what his mother had said. Peter is our first child, so we didn't think anything of the way Peter would stare intently at our lips while we were speaking. But now we could see it—Peter could read lips.

I had read some Bonhoffer before going to bed a few days later. The passage was about fasting, and it came into my mind to fast—not a usual practice for me. So, the next morning, I didn't eat breakfast. In my devotional time, I happened to be reading from James 5, and I pondered the idea that we as a church ought to pray for those who are sick and anoint them with oil. I didn't eat lunch or dinner that day, either. I didn't feel particularly hungry.

The next morning I was still pondering that passage. I thought of a friend's child who had disabilities. But it occurred to me that the passage says that if anyone is sick, "he" should go to the elders—or perhaps his parents, but it would not be the elders' place to go to the child. I didn't eat that day.

The following morning I again pondered that passage and wondered who the elders ought to pray for. But it was still a shock, that meeting with Pam and the audiologist. "Not deaf by my definition," she said. By some people's definition, Peter is deaf!? And then it came to me: I should ask the elders to pray for Peter. My fast was done. And when we learned that our 14-month-old daughter Anna, too, was hard of hearing, I knew we should pray for her, also.

Just as God had prepared me to depend on him for my kids' health, he showed me something of his love for the world—love that is inexpressible and incomprehensible—an experience that still molds me today. But despite these unique supports, this deafness was still a crisis for me and Pam. How could God let them both be hard of hearing? What can his love mean for us, if it doesn't protect us from severe difficulties such as handicaps? Oh, sure, friends tried to assure us that God didn't intend for them to be hard of hearing—it was an attack of Satan, or whatever. But we knew who was responsible in the end.

It was in dealing with this crisis that I found an electronic edition of The Imitation of Christ on the Internet. It was a HyperCard stack, an electronic book for the Macintosh that I could put on my laptop computer and take with me to the place I went to hide out from my office in the morning to get some work done. Now, I could start out the day reading some of the Imitation . I found it to be wonderfully deep and sincere and challenging to the point of making me angry at times. It helped me a great deal. And I had found it on the Internet! I hadn't even heard of this book before, having no interest in dusty old theological books, but there it was, freely downloadable on the Internet. I wondered how many others have found it there as well. I copied the text out of the HyperCard stack, corrected it, and formatted it in Microsoft Word for printing as a book.

Upon contacting the person who made this edition of the Imitation, I learned that he was selling a more recent version and didn't want this original free version redistributed in another form. But I knew that this was a valuable book to have on the Internet, so I bought a scanner and some OCR software, looked around in used bookstores for public domain versions of the Imitation, and scanned one. Actually, I scanned about 3 different versions until I found one that had relatively modern language and was really in the public domain. My pastor also showed me a book called Masterpieces of Christian Literature in Summary Form, and I wrote down several titles of books that sounded interesting to me to find in used bookstores, to scan, proofread, and put on the Internet.

The love of those old classic Christian books, the deep appreciation for their continuing value, and a desire to "pay back the net" for benefits accrued motivated me to continue to scan books and put them on the Internet—first on an FTP site, and then on the World Wide Web, when it arrived on the scene. And the careful proofreading of those great texts was always beneficial to me. I scanned around 40 volumes.

After about three years, all of the time I had set aside for the CCEL was used in maintaining it, adding books from other sources, and answering email. But by this time volunteers had started contributing books, so the growth of the library continues, with more than 200 of the most important books in English Christian literature on line as of 9/97. Currently, around 4,000 people make 40,000 accesses of the library per day, for a total of more than 10,000,000 accesses per year, downloading information equivalent to about 1,000,000 books per year. These users come from more than 100 countries from Aruba to Australia, China to Chile, Kuwait to Korea, Tonga to Thailand, Uruguay to Ukraine, Zimbabwe to Zambia.

The CCEL CD-ROM developed last summer has also proven popular, especially with ministers, missionaries, and seminary students in locations where there are no theological libraries. Hundreds have been distributed to places such as India, Nepal, Costa Rica, Russia, the Czech Republic, Mexico, New Zealand, Lithuania, Indonesia, Poland, Lebanon, and other countries. And the CD-ROM has only been available for 11 days. I wonder what the next 20 years will bring.

I hope in the future to bring together scholars, pastors, and missionaries to develop two lists of books, one of about 500 and one of about 2500, selected as the most important public domain Christian books for theological study and ministry. The smaller number would fit on one CD-ROM; the larger on one DVD. My hope continues: these books would be scanned, marked up for use by computer, placed on a disc, and sent to every minister, missionary, and seminary student in the third world who speaks English and has a CD-ROM drive. It seems unlikely, but then again four years ago I didn't expect to be working with dusty old theological books let alone sending CD-ROMs around the world. I'm still not sure I can thank God that Peter and Anna are hard of hearing, but much good has surely resulted.

Harry Plantinga
July, 1997


Addendum of August, 2003

It can now be added that we were concerned for our kids' vision, too. Our pediatrician tried to identify the syndrome that might be responsible for our kids' hearing loss, and after about a year the most likely remaining possibility was Usher Syndrome, which involves hearing loss and Retinitis Pigmentosa, a form of progressive blindness. RP causes retinal cells to die and take on a pigmented appearance. It leads to night blindness, tunnel vision, loss of visual perspicuity, and eventual blindness. People with RP usually are blind by the time they are 30-50 years old. We believe that God told us that they have RP, but that he would preserve their vision.

A couple of years ago, our oldest son, Peter, then 13, complained that "one of his eyes is darker than the other" at night, and we thought this is the start. Examining Peter and Anna, our ophthalmologist called in a couple of others to consult, and they agreed that there was unusual pigmentation. A field of view test had abnormal results. Our ophthalmologist sent us to a specialist in Ann Arbor for the definitive test for RP.

After a day of unpleasant testing, the specialist told us that our children are not losing their vision. Though some of the tests came back abnormal, they are not exhibiting the symptoms of the death of retinal cells associated with RP. He told us that they need to be checked again—never and that they are not losing their vision in the typical course of RP. Praise God! (However, since their case is unique in exhibiting symptoms of RP but apparently not vision loss, they would like to keep seeing the kids once in a while if they are willing.)

Addendum of August 26, 2003.

They just had their ophthalmological check-up, and the ophthalmologist would like to perform a field of vision test as well. The form he gave back to us had "diagnosis: retinitis pigmentosa" on it.

Addendum of September 25, 2003.

The field of vision tests have been completed, and they show some gaps at the periphery. But they are deemed unreliable, and they must be re-done next summer. Sigh. Always more opportunity to learn patience.

User Comments

Email messages arrive daily containing questions or comments on the CCEL. Most comments are simple "thanks" from users who don't have other easy access to theological libraries. We appreciate the feedback that we get, and we'd like to share a few of those comments here.

"I just wanted to let you all know at Wheaton College that I love the online library. It is such a blessing to me as I try to research things. I love reading the thoughts of Wesley, Calvin, and many others. It is such an encouragement and wonderful resource. I am 18 years old and have been teaching Wednesday Bible studies at our local church and your server has become very helpful to me. I visit it often to research. I enjoy being able to find much information on basically any topic. Keep up the good work and God Blessings upon you and yours."
(4/26/97)

"As a new comer to cyberspace permit me to say (as I am sure thousands have already done) THANK YOU to you and to Wheaton College for making available these wonderful resources. As one who for health reasons can no longer attend public lectures, conferences, etc, you gift to the whole Church of these classics is a great blessing. My deepest gratitude. Many blessings!"
(7/29/97)

"As a visually impaired net user studying at a bible college I have found the library invaluable and do hope you will be able to extend the service in the future. Praise the Lord for computers!"
(2/18/97)

"God bless you for all eternity for all the marvelous things you have put on this site. I have been disabled for several years and have not had a lot of money to spend on books, but have always wanted to read the classics and the books by all the great saints. And you have made that possible!! I can not thank you enough. May God reward you in this life and bless you beyond measure in heaven!!"
(7/1/97)

"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I feel so blessed to have discovered your site. I am an Interim Minister that has to travel "light." In other words, I can't carry my whole pastoral library with me in my travels around the country. Your site is a definite #1 on my list of valuable resources in my work. . . . God is blessing you now for your tremendous efforts and the others who have joined you in the Quest."
(4/23/97)

"Just wanted to let you know how excited I am to find your website with all these books on it. This is an answer to prayer for me! I have been sick for the last year with multiple chemical sensitivities and severe allergy problems. I am unable to leave my home for very long and can't be near ink or paper which means little activities, no bible reading, no books, magazines, etc. Being able to access books on computer will surely help me from going crazy. God Bless You for this service!!!"
(4/26/97)

"WOW! A friend just introduced me to this wonderful resource and I just tuned into it. Living in a very poor country without libraries [Zambia], this is a tremendous assistance for research! Thank you for your service."
(3/20/97)
"Sincere greetings and thanks for the useful work you do providing Christian Classics on the Internet. I have spent much time every week on your site reading, copying out from it now nearly a year. I have distributed your address here in Latvia and once a month I am invited to speak to the people interested in Christian Classics in the downtown [...] Christian bookstore. My personal opinion is that NO AMERICAN MISSION EVER HAS BEEN SO EFFECTIVE in spreading the Christian message in our Eastern European countries and Russia than such ministry as yours. These devotional testimonies from Madam Guyon, Fenelon, St. John of the Cross and many others opened for me the depth of the life in Christ. We still have no other source where to get these books, and if we would like to order them from the US — than for me who [...] gets $200 US per month (and it is above medium in our country) it would be very difficult. But nearly every state office, school, and many businesses in our country has the Internet access, and it is for free for the employees. Maybe I am talking too much, but I just feel bad to use so long your ministry without thanking for it. May our Lord Jesus strengthen and encourage you."
(7/1/97)

Hey thanks for this. As a Pastor, I'm incredibly excited about all that CCEL has to offer - rescuing these masterpieces of church history and making them available to us today for such a nominal fee. I hope that the easy pdf pormat enables me to access this treasure trove in a way that I can incorporate them far more often into my worship services, email communications and orders of service. Once again, thanks for this. I'm incredibly excited about CCEL and already know a number of fellow pastors that I have to recommend it to. One thing I appreciate about CCEL is it's generous and broad theological base - there's Calvin and Arminius, Wesley and Whitefield, St John of the Cross and Lawrence. I'm actually considering buying a Kindle just so I can access these works on the go.
(11/8/2010)

I am writing a series of lessons for our Monday Evening bible study at Cottonwood CRC Church. To read and breath John Calvin's commentary on the psalms is to be blessed. You therefore; by your work, are streams of living water, to the participants in our class studying the Psalms. (7/14/2011)