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THERE are three great Book-religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism. Other religions have their sacred writings, but they do not hold them in the same regard as do these three. Buddhism and Confucianism count their books rather records of their faith than rules for it, history rather than authoritative sources of belief. The three great Book-religions yield a measure of authority to their sacred books which would be utterly foreign to the thought of other faiths.
Yet among the three named are two very distinct attitudes. To the Mohammedan the language as well as the matter of the Koran is sacred. He will not permit its translation. Its original Arabic is the only authoritative tongue in which it can speak. It has been translated into other tongues, but always by adherents of other faiths, never by its own believers. The Hebrew and the Christian, on the other hand, but notably the Christian, have persistently sought to make their Bible speak all languages at all times.
It is a curious fact that a book written in one tongue should have come to its largest power in other languages than its own. The Bible means more to-day in German and French and English than it does in Hebrew and Chaldaic and Greek—more even than it ever meant in those languages. There is nothing just like that in literary history. It is as though Shakespeare should after a while become negligible for most readers in English, and be a master of thought in Chinese and Hindustani, or in some language yet unborn.
We owe this persistent effort to make the Bible speak the language of the times to a conviction that the particular language used is not the great thing, that there is something in it that gives it power and value in any tongue. No book was ever translated so often. Men who have known it in its earliest tongues have realized that their fellows would not learn these earliest tongues, and they have set out to make it speak the tongue their fellows did know. Some have protested that there is impiety in making it speak the current tongue, and have insisted that men should learn the earliest speech, or at least accept their knowledge of the Book from those who did know it. But they have never stopped the movement. They have only delayed it.
The first movement to make the Scripture speak the current tongue appeared nearly three centuries before Christ. Most of the Old Testament then existed in Hebrew. But the Jews had scattered widely. Many had gathered in Egypt where Alexander the Great had founded the city that bears his name. At one time a third of the population of the city was Jewish. Many of the people were passionately loyal to their old religion and its Sacred Book. But the current tongue there and through most of the civilized world was Greek, and not Hebrew. As always, there were some who felt that the Book and its original language were inseparable. Others revealed the disposition of which we spoke a moment ago, and set out to make the Book speak the current tongue. For one hundred and fifty years the work went on, and what we call the Septuagint was completed. There is a pretty little story which tells how the version got its name, which means the Seventy—that King Ptolemy Philadelphus, interested in collecting all sacred books, gathered seventy Hebrew scholars, sent them to the island of Pharos, shut them up in seventy rooms for seventy days, each making a translation from the Hebrew into the Greek. When they came out, behold, their translations were all exactly alike! Several difficulties appear in that story, one of which is that seventy men should have made the same mistakes without depending on each other. In addition, it is not historically supported, and the fact seems to be that the Septuagint was a long and slow growth, issuing from the impulse to make the Sacred Book speak the familiar tongue. And, though it was a Greek translation, it virtually displaced the original, as the English Bible has virtually displaced the Hebrew and Greek to-day. The Septuagint was the Old Testament that Paul predominantly used. Of one hundred and sixty-eight direct quotations from the Old Testament in the New nearly all are from the Greek version—from the translation, and not from the original.
We owe still more to translation. While there is accumulating evidence that there was spoken in Palestine at that time a colloquial Greek, with which most people would be familiar, it is yet probable that our Lord spoke neither Greek nor Hebrew currently, but Aramaic. He knew the Hebrew Scriptures, of course, as any well-trained lad did; but most of His words have come down to us in translation. His name, for example, to His Hebrew mother, was not Jesus, but Joshua; and Jesus is the translation of the Hebrew Joshua into Greek. We have His words as they were translated by His disciples into the Greek, in which the New Testament was originally written.
By the time the writing of the New Testament was completed, say one hundred years after Christ, while Greek was still current speech, the Roman Empire was so dominant that the common people were talking Latin almost as much as Greek, and gradually because political power was behind it, the Latin gained on the Greek, and became virtually the speech of the common people. The movement to make the Bible talk the language of the time appeared again. It is impossible to say now when the first translations into Latin were made. Certainly there were some within two centuries after Christ, and by 250 A.D. a whole Bible in Latin was in circulation in the Roman Empire. The translation of the New Testament was from the Greek, of course, but so was that of the Old Testament, and the Latin versions of the Old Testament were, therefore, translations of a translation.
There were so many of these versions, and they were so unequal in value, that there was a natural demand for a Latin translation that should be authoritative. So came into being what we call the Vulgate, whose very name indicates the desire to get the Bible into the vulgar or common tongue. Jerome began by revising the earlier Latin translations but ended by going back of all translations to the original Greek, and back of the Septuagint to the original Hebrew wherever he could do so. Fourteen years he labored, settling himself in Bethlehem, in Palestine, to do his work the better. Barely four hundred years (404 A.D.) after the birth of Christ his Latin version appeared. It met a storm of protest for its effort to go back of the Septuagint, so dominant had the translation become. Jerome fought for it, and his version won the day and became the authoritative Latin translation of the Bible.
For seven or eight centuries it held its sway as the current version nearest to the tongue of the people. Latin had become the accepted tongue of the church. There was little general culture, there was little general acquaintance with the Bible except among the educated. During all that time, there was no real room for a further translation. One of the writers 1 says: “Medieval England was quite unripe for a Bible in the mother tongue; while the illiterate majority were in no condition to feel the want of such a book, the educated minority would be averse to so great and revolutionary a change.” When a man cannot read any writing, it really does not matter to him whether books are in current speech or not, and the majority of the people for those seven or eight centuries could read nothing at all. Those who could read anything were apt to be able to read the Latin.
These centuries added to the conviction of many that the Bible ought not to become too common, that it should not be read by everybody, that it required a certain amount of learning to make it safe reading. They came to feel that it is as important to have an authoritative interpretation of the Bible as to have the Bible itself. When the movement began to make it speak the new English tongue, it provoked the most violent opposition. Latin had been good enough for a millennium; why cheapen the Bible by a translation? There had grown up a feeling that Jerome himself had been inspired. He had been canonized, and half the references to him in that time speak of him as the inspired translator. Criticism of his version was counted as impious and profane as criticisms of the original text could possibly have been. It is one of the ironies of history that the version for which Jerome had to fight, and which was counted a piece of impiety itself, actually became the ground on which men stood when they fought against another version, counting anything else but this very version an impious intrusion!
How early the movement for an English Bible began, it is impossible now to say. Certainly, just before 700 A.D., that first singer of the English tongue, Caedmon, had learned to paraphrase the Bible. We may recall the Venerable Bede’s charming story of him, and how he came by his power of interpretation. Bede himself was a child when Caedmon died, and the romance of the story makes it one of the finest in our literature. Caedmon was a peasant, a farm laborer in Northumbria working on the lands of the great Abbey at Whitby. Already he had passed middle life, and no spark of genius had flashed in him. He loved to go to the festive gatherings and hear the others sing their improvised poems; but, when the harp came around to him in due course, he would leave the room, for be could not sing. One night when he had slipped away from the group in shame and had made his rounds of the horses and cattle under his care, he fell asleep in the stable building, and heard a voice in his sleep bidding him sing. When he declared he could not, the voice still bade him sing. “What shall I sing?” he asked. “Sing the first beginning of created things.” And the words came to him; and, still dreaming, he sang his first hymn to the Creator. In the morning he told his story, and the Lady Abbess found that he had the divine gift. The monks had but to translate to him bits of the Bible out of the Latin, which he did not understand, into his familiar Anglo-Saxon tongue, and he would cast it into the rugged Saxon measures which could be sung by the common people. So far as we can tell, it was so, that the Bible story became current in Anglo-Saxon speech. Bede himself certainly put the Gospel of John into Anglo-Saxon. At the Bodleian Library, at Oxford, there is a manuscript of nearly twenty thousand lines, the metrical version of the Gospel and the Acts, done near 1250 by an Augustinian monk named Orm, and so-called the Ormulum. There were other metrical versions of various parts of the Bible. Midway between Bede and Orm came Langland’s poem, “The Vision of Piers Plowman,” which paraphrased so much of the Scripture.
Yet, the fact is that until the last quarter of the fourteenth century, there was no prose version of the Bible in the English language. Indeed, there was only coming to be an English language. It was gradually emerging, taking definite shape and form so that it could be distinguished from the earlier Norman French, Saxon, and Anglo-Saxon, in which so much of it is rooted.
As soon as the language grew definite enough, it was inevitable that two things should come to pass. First, that some men would attempt to make a colloquial version of the Bible; and, secondly, that others would oppose it. One can count with all confidence on these two groups of men, marching through history like the animals into the ark, two and two. Some men propose, others oppose. They are built on those lines.
We are more concerned with the men who made the versions, but we must think a moment of the others. One of his contemporaries, Knighton, may speak for all in his saying of Wycliffe, that he had, to be sure, translated the Gospel into the Anglic tongue, but that it had thereby been made vulgar by him, and more open to the reading of laymen and women than it usually is to the knowledge of lettered and intelligent clergy, and “thus the pearl is cast abroad and trodden under the feet of swine”; and, that we may not be in doubt who are the swine, he adds: “The jewel of the Church is turned into the common sport of the people.”
But two strong impulses drive thoughtful men to any effort that will secure wide knowledge of the Bible. One is their love of the Bible and their belief in it; but the other, dominant then and now, is a sense of the need of their own time. It cannot be too strongly urged that the two great pioneers of English Bible translation, Wycliffe and Tyndale, more than a century apart, were chiefly moved to their work by social conditions. No one could read the literature of the times of which we are speaking without smiling at our assumption that we are the first who have cared for social needs. We talk about the past as the age of the individual, and the present as the social age. Our fathers, we say, cared only to be saved themselves, and had no concern for the evils of society. They believed in rescuing one here and another there, while we have come to see the wisdom of correcting the conditions that ruin men, and so saving men in the mass. There must be some basis of truth for that, since we say it so confidently; but it can be much over-accented. There were many of our fathers, and of our grandfathers, who were mightily concerned with the mass of people, and looked as carefully as we do for a corrective of social evils. Wycliffe, in the late fourteenth century, and Tyndale, in the early sixteenth, were two such men. The first English translations of the Bible were fruits of the social impulse.
Wycliffe was impressed with the chasm that was growing between the church and the people and felt that a wider and fuller knowledge of the Bible would be helpful for the closing of the chasm. It is a familiar remark of Miss Jane Addams that the cure for the evils of democracy is more democracy. Wycliffe believed that the cure for the evils of religion is more religion, more intelligent religion. He found a considerable feeling that the best things in religion ought to be kept from most people, since they could not be trusted to understand them. His own feeling was that the best things in religion are exactly the things most people ought to know most about; that people had better handle the Bible carelessly, mistakenly, than be shut out from it by any means whatever. We owe the first English translation to a faith that the Bible is a book of emancipation for the mind and for the political life.
John Wycliffe himself was a scholar of Oxford, master of that famous Balliol College which has had such a list of distinguished masters. He was an adviser of Edward III. Twenty years after his death a younger contemporary (W. Thorpe) said that “he was considered by many to be the most holy of all the men of his age. He was of emaciated frame, spare, and well-nigh destitute of strength. He was absolutely blameless in his conduct.” And even that same Knighton who accused him of casting the Church’s pearl before swine says that in philosophy “he came to be reckoned inferior to none of his time.”
But it was not at Oxford that he came to know common life so well and to sense the need for a new social influence. He came nearer to it when he was rector of the parish at Lutterworth. As scholar and rector he set going the two great movements which leave his name in history. One was his securing, training, and sending out a band of itinerant preachers or “poor priests” to gather the people in fields and byways and to preach the simple truths of the Christian religion. They were unpaid and lived by the kindness of the common people. They came to be called Lollards, though the origin of the name is obscure. Their followers received the same name. A few years after Wycliffe’s death an enemy bitterly observed that if you met any two men one was sure to be a Lollard. It was the “first time in English history that an appeal had been made to the people instead of the scholars.” Religion was to be made rather a matter of practical life than of dogma or of ritual. The “poor priests” in their cheap brown robes became a mighty religious force and evoked opposition from the Church powers. A generation after Wycliffe’s death they had become a mighty political force in the controversy between the King and the Pope. As late as 1521 five hundred Lollards were arrested in London by the bishop. Wycliffe’s purpose, however, was to reach and help the common people with the simpler, and therefore the most fundamental, truths of religion.
The other movement which marks Wycliffe’s name concerns us more; but it was connected with the first. He set out to give the common people the full text of the Bible for their common use, and to encourage them not only in reading it, if already they could read, but in learning to read that they might read it. Tennyson compares the village of Lutterworth to that of Bethlehem, on the ground that if Christ, the Word of God, was born at Bethlehem, the Word of Life was born again at Lutterworth. 3 The translation was from the Vulgate, and Wycliffe probably did little of the actual work himself, yet it is all his work. And in 1382, more than five centuries ago, there appeared the first complete English version of the Bible. Wycliffe made it the people’s Book, and the English people were the first of the modern nations to whom the Bible as a whole was given in their own familiar tongue. Once it got into their hands, they have never let it be taken entirely away.
Of course, all this was before the days of printing, and copies were made by hand only. Yet there were very many of them. One hundred and fifty manuscripts, in whole or in part, are extant still, a score of them of the original version, the others of the revision at once undertaken by John Purvey, Wycliffe’s disciple. The copies belonging to Edward VI. and Queen Elizabeth are both still in existence, and both show much use. Twenty years after it was completed copies were counted very valuable, though they were very numerous. It was not uncommon for a single complete manuscript copy of the Wycliffe version to be sold for one hundred and fifty or two hundred dollars, and Foxe, whose Book of Martyrs we used to read as children, tells that a load of hay was given for the use of a New Testament one hour a day.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the influence of this gift to the English people. It constitutes the standard of Middle English. Chaucer and Wycliffe stood side by side. It is true that Chaucer himself accepted Wycliffe’s teaching, and some of the wise men think that the “parson” of whom he speaks so finely as one who taught the lore of Christ and His apostles twelve, but first followed it himself, was Wycliffe. But the version had far more than literary influence; it had tremendous power in keeping alive in England that spirit of free inquiry which is the only safeguard of free institutions. Here was the entire source of the Christian faith available for the judgment of common men, and they became at once judges of religious and political dogma. Dr. Ladd thinks it was not the reading of the Bible which produced the Reformation; it was the Reformation itself which procured the reading of the Bible. But Dr. Rashdall and Professor Pollard and others are right when they insist that the English Reformation received less from Luther than from the secret reading of the Scripture over the whole country. What we call the English spirit of free inquiry was fostered and developed by Wycliffe and his Lollards with the English Scripture in their hands. Out of it has grown, as out of no other one root the freedom of the English and American people.
This work of Wycliffe deserves the time we have given it because it asserted a principle for the English people. There was much yet to be done before entire freedom was gained. At Oxford, in the Convocation of 1408, it was solemnly voted: “We decree and ordain that no man hereafter by his own authority translate any text of the Scripture into English, or any other tongue, by way of a book, pamphlet, or other treatise; but that no man read any such book, pamphlet, or treatise now lately composed in the time of John Wycliffe … until the said translation be approved by the orderly of the place.” But it was too late. It is always too late to overtake a liberating idea once it gets free. Tolstoi tells of Batenkoff, the Russian nihilist, that after he was seized and confined in his cell he was heard to laugh loudly; and, when they asked him the cause of his mirth, he said that he could not fail to be amused at the absurdity of the situation. “They have caught me,” he said, “and shut me up here; but my ideas are out yonder in the streets and in the fields, absolutely free. They cannot overtake them.” It was already too late, twenty years after Wycliffe’s version was available, to stop the English people in their search for religious truth.
In the century just after the Wycliffe translation, two great events occurred which bore heavily on the spread of the Bible. One was the revival of learning, which made popular again the study of the classics and the classical languages. Critical and exact Greek scholarship became again a possibility. Remember that Wyclif did not know Greek nor Hebrew, did not need to know them to be the foremost scholar of Oxford in the fourteenth century. Even as late as 1502 there was no professor of Greek at the proud University of Erfurt when Luther was a student there. It was after he became a doctor of divinity and a university professor that he learned Greek in order to be a better Bible student, and his young friend Philip Melancthon was the first to teach Greek in the University. 5 But under the influence of Erasmus and his kind, with their new insistence on classical learning, there came necessarily a new appraisal of the Vulgate as a translation of the original Bible. For a thousand years, there had been no new study of the original Bible languages in Europe. The Latin of the Vulgate had become as sacred as the Book itself. But the revival of learning threw scholarship back on the sources of the text. Erasmus and others published versions of the Greek Testament which were disturbing to the Vulgate as a final version.
The other great event of that same century was the invention of printing with movable type. It was in 1455 that Gutenberg printed his first book, an edition of the Vulgate, now called the Mazarin Bible. The bearing of the invention on the spread of common knowledge is beyond description. It is rather late to be praising the art of printing, and we need spend little time doing so, but one can see instantly how it affected the use of the Bible. It made it worthwhile to learn to read—there would be something to read. It made it worthwhile to write—there would be some one to read what was written.
One hundred years exactly after the death of Wycliffe, William Tyndale was born. He was eight years old when Columbus discovered America. He had already taken a degree at Oxford and was a student in Cambridge when Luther posted his theses at Wittenburg. Erasmus either was a teacher at Cambridge when Tyndale was a student there, or had just left. Sir Thomas More and Erasmus were close friends, and More’s Utopia and Erasmus’s Greek New Testament appeared the same year, probably while Tyndale was a student at Cambridge.
But he came at a troubled time. The new learning had no power to deepen or strengthen the moral life of the people. It could not make religion a vital thing. Morality and religion were far separated. The priests and curates were densely ignorant. We need not ask Tyndale what was the condition. Ask Bellarmine, a cardinal of the Church: “Some Years before the rise of the Lutheran heresy there was almost an entire abandonment of equity in ecclesiastical judgments; in morals, no discipline; in sacred literature, no erudition; in divine things, no reverence; religion was almost extinct.” Or ask Erasmus who never broke with the Church: “What man of real piety does not perceive with sighs that this is far the most corrupt of all ages? When did iniquity abound, with more licentiousness? When was charity so cold?” And, as a century before, Wycliffe had felt the social need for a popular version of the Bible, so William Tyndale felt it now. He saw the need as great among the clergy of the time as among the laity. In one of his writings he says: “If you will not let the layman have the word of God in his mother tongue, yet let the priests have it, which for the great part of them do understand no Latin at all, but sing and patter all day with the lips only that which the heart understandeth not.” So bad was the case that it was not corrected within a whole generation. Forty years after Tyndale’s version was published, the Bishop of Gloucester, Hooper by name, made an examination of the clergy of his diocese. There were 311 of them. He found 168, more than half, unable to repeat the Ten Commandments; 31 who did not even know where they could be found; 40 who could not repeat the Lord’s Prayer; and nearly as many who did not know where it originated; yet they were all in regular standing as clergy in the diocese of Gloucester. The need was keen enough.
About 1523 Tyndale began to cast the Scriptures into the current English. He set out to London fully expecting to find support and encouragement there, but he found neither. He found, as he once said, that there was no room in the palace of the Bishop of London to translate the New Testament; indeed, that there was no place to do it in all England. A wealthy London merchant subsidized him with the munificent gift of ten pounds, with which he went across the Channel to Hamburg; and there and elsewhere on the Continent, where he could be hidden, he brought his translation to completion. Printing facilities were greater on the Continent than in England, but there was such opposition to his work that very few copies of the several editions of which we know can still be found. Tyndale was compelled to flee at one time with a few printed sheets and complete his work on another press. Several times copies of his books were solemnly burned, and his own life was frequently in danger.
There is one amusing story which tells how money came to free Tyndale from heavy debt and prepare the way for more Bibles. The Bishop of London, Tunstall, was set on destroying copies of the English New Testament. He, therefore, made a bargain with a merchant of Antwerp, Packington, to secure them for him. Packington was a friend of Tyndale, and went to him forthwith, saying: “William, I know thou art a poor man, and I have gotten thee a merchant for thy books.” “Who?” asked Tyndale. “The Bishop of London.” “Ah, but he will burn them.” “So he will, but you will have the money.” And it all came out as it was planned; the Bishop of London had the books, Packington had the thanks, Tyndale had the money, the debt was paid, and the new edition was soon ready. The old document, from which I am quoting, adds that the Bishop thought he had God by the toe when, indeed, he found afterward that he had the devil by the fist. 7
The final revision of the Tyndale translations was published in 1534, and that becomes the notable year of his life. In two years he was put to death by strangling, and his body was burned. When we remember that this was done with the joint power of Church and State, we realize some of the odds against which he worked.
Spite of his odds, however, Tyndale is the real father of our King James version. About eighty percent. of his Old Testament and ninety percent. of his New Testament have been transferred to our version. In the Beatitudes, for example, five are word for word in the two versions, while the other three are only slightly changed. 8 Dr. Davidson has calculated that nine-tenths of the words in the shorter New Testament epistles are Tyndale’s, and in the longer epistles like the Hebrews, five-sixths are his. Froude’s estimate is fair: “Of the translation itself, though since that time it has been many times revised and altered, we may say that it is substantially the Bible with which we are familiar. The peculiar genius which breathes through it, the mingled tenderness and majesty, the Saxon simplicity, the preternatural grandeur, unequaled, unapproached, in the attempted improvements of modern scholars, all are here, and bear the impress of the mind of one man, William Tyndale.”
We said a moment ago that Wycliffe’s translation was the standard of Middle English. It is time to add that Tyndale’s version “fixed our standard English once for all, and brought it finally into every English home.” The revisers of 1881 declared that while the authorized version was the work of many hands, the foundation of it was laid by Tyndale, and that the versions that followed it were substantially reproductions of Tyndale’s, or revisions of versions which were themselves almost entirely based on it.
There was every reason why it should be a worthy version. For one thing, it was the first translation into English from the original Hebrew and Greek. Wycliffe’s had been from the Latin. For Tyndale, there were available two new and critical Greek Testaments, that of Erasmus and the so-called Complutensian, though he used that of Erasmus chiefly. There was also available a carefully prepared Hebrew Old Testament. For another thing, it was the first version that could be printed, and so be subject to easy and immediate correction and revision. Then also, Tyndale himself was a great scholar in the languages. He was “so skilled in the seven languages, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, English, and French, that, whichever he spoke, you would suppose it was his native tongue.” 10 Nor was his spirit in the work controversial. I say his “spirit in the work” with care. They were controversial times, and Tyndale took his share in the verbal warfare. When, for example, there was an objection to making any English version because “the language was so rude that the Bible could not be intelligently translated into it,” Tyndale replied: “It is not so rude as they are false liars. For the Greek tongue agrees more with the English than with the Latin, a thousand parts better may it be translated into the English than into the Latin.”11 And when a high church dignitary protested to Tyndale against making the Bible so common, he replied: “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that drives a plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.” And while that was not saying much for the plowboy, it was saying a good deal to the dignitary. In language, Tyndale was controversial enough, but in his spirit, in making his version, there was no element of controversy. For such reasons as these, we might expect the version to be valuable.
All this while, and especially between the time when Tyndale first published his New Testament and the time they burned him for doing so, an interesting change was going on in England. The King was Henry VIII., who was by no means a willing Protestant. As Luther’s work appeared, it was this same Henry who wrote the pamphlet against him during the Diet of Worms, and on the ground of this pamphlet, with its loyal support of the Church against Luther, he received from the Roman pontiff the title “Defender of the Faith,” which the kings of England still wear. And yet under this king this strange succession of dates can be given. Notice them closely. In 1526 Tyndale’s New Testament was burned at St. Paul’s by the Bishop of London; ten years later, 1536, Tyndale himself was burned with the knowledge and connivance of the English government; and yet, one year later, 1537, two versions of the Bible in English, three-quarters of which were the work of Tyndale, were licensed for public use by the King of England, and were required to be made available for the people! Eleven years after the New Testament was burned, one year after Tyndale was burned, that crown was set on his work! What brought this about?
Three facts help to explain it. First, the recent years of Bible translation were having their weight. The fugitive copies of the Bible were doing their work. Spite of the sharp opposition, fifty thousand copies of Tyndale’s various editions had actually been published and circulated. Men were reading them; they were approving them. The more they read, the less reason they saw for hiding the Book from the people. Why should it not be made common and free? There was strong Lutheran opinion in the universities. It was already a custom for English teachers to go to Germany for minute scholarship. They came back with German Bibles in Luther’s version and with Greek Testaments, and the young scholars who were being raised up felt the influence, consciously or unconsciously, of the free use of the Bible which ruled in many German universities.
The second fact that helps to explain the sudden change of attitude toward the Bible is this: the people of England were never willingly ruled from without, religiously or politically. There has recently been considerable controversy over the history of the Established Church of England, whether it has always been an independent church or was at one time officially a part of the Roman Church. That is a matter for ecclesiastical history to determine. The foundation fact, however, is as I worded it a moment ago: the people of England were never willingly ruled from without, religiously or politically. They were sometimes ruled from without, but they were either indifferent to it at the time or rebellious against it. Those who did think claimed the right to think for themselves. The Scots of the north was peculiarly so, but the English of the south claimed the same right. There has always been an immense contrast between the two sides of the British Channel. The French people during all those years were deeply loyal to a foreign religious government. The English people were never so, not in the days of the fullest Roman supremacy. They always demanded at least a form of home government. That made England a congenial home for the Protestant spirit, which claimed the right to independent study of the sources of religion and independent judgment regarding them. It was only a continuance of the spirit of Wycliffe and the Lollards. The spirit in a nation lives long, especially when it is passed down by tradition. Those were not the days of newspapers. They were instead the days of great meetings, more important still of small family gatherings, where the memory of the older men was called into use, and where boys and girls drank in eagerly the traditions of their own country as expressed in the great events of their history. Newspapers never can fully take the place of those gatherings, for they do not bring men together to feel the thrill of the story that is told. It must be remembered that the entire population of England at that time was only about three million. And that old spirit of independence was strongly at work in the middle-class villages and among the merchants, and they were a ruling and dominant class. That was, second, that in those ten years there asserted itself the age-long unwillingness of the English people to be ruled from without.
The third fact which must be taken into account to explain this remarkable change of front of the public English life is Henry VIII. himself. There is much about him that no country would willingly claim. He was the most habitual bridegroom in English history; he had an almost confirmed habit of beheading his wives or otherwise ridding himself of them. Yet, many traits made him a typical outstanding Englishman. He had the characteristic spirit of independence, the resentment of foreign control, satisfaction with his own land, the feeling that of course it is the best land. There are no people in the world so well satisfied with their own country as the people of England or the British Isles. They are critical of many things in their own government until they begin to compare it with other countries; they must make their changes on their own lines. The pamphlet of Henry VIII., which won him the title of Defender of the Faith, praised the pope; and, though Sir Thomas More urged him to change his expressions lest he should live to regret them, he would not change them. But that was while the pope was serving his wishes and what he felt was England’s good.
There arose presently the question, or the several questions, about his marriage. It sheds no glory on Henry VIII. that they arose as they did; but his treatment of them must not be mistaken. He was concerned to have his marriage to Anne Boleyn confirmed, and there are some who think he was honest in believing it ought to be confirmed, though we need not believe that. What happened was that for the first time, Henry VIII. found that as sovereign of England he must take commands from a foreign power, a power exercising temporal sovereignty exactly as he did, but adding to it a claim to spiritual power, a claim to determine his conduct for him and to absolve his people from loyalty to him if he was not obedient. It arose over the question of his divorce, but it might have arisen over anything else. It was limitation on his sovereignty in England. And he let it be seen that all questions that pertain to England were to be settled in England, and not in another land. He would rather have a matter settled wrong in England than settled right elsewhere. That is how he claimed to be head of the English Church. The people back of him had always held to the belief that they were governed from within, though they were linked to religion from without. He executed their theory. That assertion of English sovereignty came during the eventful years of which we are speaking.
Here, then, are our great facts. First, thoughtful opinion wanted the Bible made available, and at a convention of bishops and university men the King was requested to secure the issuance of a proper translation. Secondly, the people wanted it, the more because it would gratify their English instinct of independent judgment in matters of religion. Thirdly, the King granted it without yielding his personal religious position, in assertion of his human sovereignty within his own realm.
So England awoke one morning in 1537 to discover that it had a translation of the Bible two of them actually, open to its use, the very thing that had been forbidden yesterday! And that, one year after Tyndale had been burned in loyal France for issuing an English translation! Two versions were now authorized and made available. What were they? That of Miles Coverdale, which had been issued secretly two years before, and that known as the “Matthew” Bible, though the name has no significance, issued within a year. Details are not to our purpose. Neither was an independent work, but was made largely from the Latin and the German, and much influenced by Tyndale. Coverdale was a Yorkshire man like Wycliffe, feminine in his mental cast as Tyndale was masculine. Coverdale made his translation because he loved books; Tyndale because he felt driven to it. But now the way was clear, and other editions appeared. It is natural to name one or two of the more notable ones.
There appeared what is known as the Great Bible in 1539. It was only another version made by Coverdale on the basis of the Matthew version, but corrected by more accurate knowledge. There is an interesting romance of its publication. The presses of England were not adequate for the great work planned; it was to be a marvel of typography. So the consent of King Francis was gained to have it printed in France, and Coverdale was sent as a special ambassador to oversee it. He was in dread of the Inquisition, which was in vogue at the time, and sent off his printed sheets to England as rapidly as possible. Suddenly, one day the order of confiscation came from the Inquisitor-General. Only Coverdale’s official position as representing the King saved his own life. As for the printed sheets on which so much depended, they seemed doomed. But in the nick of time a dealer appeared at the printing-house and purchased four great vats full of waste paper which he shipped to England—when it was found that the waste paper was those printed sheets. The presses and the printers were all loyal to England, and the edition was finally completed. The Great Bible was issued to meet a decree that each church should make available in some convenient place the largest possible copy of the whole Bible, where all the parishioners could have access to it and read it at their will. The version gets its name solely from the size of the volume. That decree dates 1538, twelve years after Tyndale’s books were burned, and two years after he was burned! The installation of these great books caused tremendous excitement—crowds gathered everywhere. Bishop Bonner caused six copies of the great volume to be located wisely throughout St. Paul’s. He found it difficult to make people leave them during the sermons. He was so often interrupted by voices reading to a group, and by the discussions that ensued, that he threatened to have them taken out during the service if people would not be quiet. The Great Bible appeared in seven editions in two years, and continued in recognized power for thirty years. Much of the present English prayer-book is taken from it.
But this liberty was so sudden that the people naturally abused it. Henry became vexed because the sacred words “were disputed, rimed, sung, and jangled in every ale-house.” There had grown up a series of wild ballads and ribald songs in contempt of “the old faith,” while it was not really the old faith which was in dispute, but only foreign control of English faith. They had mistaken Henry’s meaning. So Henry began to put restrictions on the use of the Bible. There were to be no notes or annotations in any versions, and those that existed were to be blacked out. Only the upper classes were to be allowed to possess a Bible. Finally, the year before his death, all versions were prohibited except the Great Bible, whose cost and size precluded secret use. The decree led to another great burning of Bibles in 1546—Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew—all but the Great Bible. The leading religious reformers took flight and fled to European Protestant towns like Frankfort and Strassburg. But the Bible remained. Henry VIII. died. The Bible lived on.
Under Edward VI., the boy king, coming to the throne at nine and dying at fifteen, the regency with Crammer at its head earned its bad name. But while its members were shamelessly despoiling churches and enriching themselves they did one great service for the Bible. They cast off all restrictions on its translation and publication. The order for a Great Bible in every church was renewed, and there was to be added to it a copy of Erasmus’s paraphrase of the four gospels. Nearly fifty editions of the Bible, in whole or in part, appeared in those six years.
And that was fortunate, for then came Mary —and the deluge. Of course, she again gave in the nominal allegiance of England to the Roman control. But she utterly missed the spirit of the people. They were weary with the excesses of rabid Protestantism, but they were by no means ready to admit the principle of foreign control in religious matters. They might have been willing, many of them, that the use of the Bible should be restricted if it were done by their own sovereign. They were not willing that another sovereign should restrict them. So, the secret use of the Bible increased. Martyr fires were kindled, but by the light of them, the people read their Bibles more eagerly. And this very persecution led to one of the best of the early versions of the Bible, indirectly even to the King James version.
The flower of English Protestant scholarship was driven into exile and found its way to Frankfort and Geneva again. There the spirit of scholarship was untrammeled; there they found material for the scholarly study of the Bible, and there they made and published a new version of the Bible in English, by all means, the best that had been made. In later years, under Elizabeth, it drove the Great Bible off the field by sheer power of excellence. During her reign, sixty editions of it appeared. This was the version called the Genevan Bible. It made several changes that are familiar to us. For one thing, in the Genevan edition of 1560 first appeared our familiar division into verses. The chapter division was made three centuries earlier, but the verses belong to the Genevan version and are divided to make the Book suitable for responsive use and for readier reference. It was taken in large part from the work of Robert Stephens, who had divided the Greek Testament into verses, ten years earlier, during a journey which he was compelled to make between Paris and Lyons. The Genevan version also abandoned the old black-letter and used the Roman type with which we are familiar. It had full notes on hard passages, which notes, as we shall see, helped to produce the King James version. The work itself was completed after the accession of Elizabeth, when most of the religious leaders had returned to England from their exile under Mary.
Elizabeth herself was not an ardent Protestant, not ardent at all religiously, but an ardent Englishwoman. She understood her people, and while she prided herself on being the “Guardian of the Middle Way,” she did not make the mistake of submitting her sovereignty to foreign supervision. Probably Elizabeth always counted herself personally a Catholic, but not politically subject to the Roman pontiff. She had no wish to offend other Catholic powers, but she was determined to develop a strong national spirit and to allow religious differences to exist if they would be peaceful. The dramatic scene which was enacted at the time of her coronation procession was typical of her spirit. As the procession passed down Cheapside, a venerable old man, representing Time, with a little child beside him representing Truth—Time always old, Truth always young—presented the Queen with a copy of the Scriptures, which she accepted, promising to read them diligently.
Presently it was found that two versions of the Bible were taking the field, the old Great Bible and the new Genevan Bible. On all accounts, the Genevan was the better and was driving out its rival. Yet there could be no hope of gaining the approval of Elizabeth for the Genevan Bible. For one thing, John Knox had been a party to its preparation; so had Calvin. Elizabeth detested them both, especially Knox. For another thing, its notes were not favorable to royal sovereignty but smacked so much of popular government as to be offensive. For another thing, though it had been made mostly by her own people, it had been made in a foreign land and was under suspicion on that account. The result was that Elizabeth’s archbishop, Parker, set out to have an authorized version made, selected a revision committee, with instructions to follow wherever possible the Great Bible, to avoid bitter notes, and to make such a version that it might be freely, easily, and naturally read. The result is known as the Bishops’ Bible. It was issued in Elizabeth’s tenth year (1568), but there is no record that she ever noticed it, though Parker sent her a copy from his sick-bed. The Bishops’ Bible shows the influence of the Genevan Bible in many ways, though it gives no credit for that. It is not of equal merit; it was expensive, too cumbersome, and often unscholarly. Only its official standing gave it life, and after forty years, in nineteen editions, it was no longer published.
Naming one other English version will complete the series of facts necessary for the consideration of the forming of the King James version. It will be remembered that all the English versions of the Bible thus far mentioned were the work of men either already out of favor with the Roman pontiff, or speedily put out of favor on that account. Thirty years after his death; Wycliffe’s bones were taken up and burned; Tyndale was burned. Coverdale’s version and the Great Bible were the product of the period when Henry VIII. was under the ban. The Genevan Bible was the work of refugees, and the Bishops’ Bible was prepared when Elizabeth had been excommunicated. That fact seemed to many loyal Roman churchmen to put the Church in a false light. It must be made clear that its opposition was not to the Bible, not even to popular use and possession of the Bible, but only to unauthorized, even incorrect, versions. So, there came about the Douay version, instigated by Gregory Martin, and prepared in some sense as an answer to the Genevan version and its strongly anti-papal notes. It was the work of English scholars connected with the University of Douai. The New Testament was issued at Rheims in 1582, and the whole Bible in 1609, just before our King James version. It is made, not from the Hebrew and the Greek, though it refers to both, but from the Vulgate. The result is that the Old Testament of the Douay version is a translation into English from the Latin, which in large part is a translation into Latin from the Greek Septuagint, which in turn is a translation into Greek from the Hebrew. Yet scholars are scholars, and it shows marked influence of the Genevan version, and, indeed, of other English versions. Its notes were strongly anti-Protestant, and in its preface it explains its existence by saying that Protestants have been guilty of “casting the holy to dogs and pearls to hogs.”
The version is not in the direct line of the ascent of the familiar version, and needs no elaborate description. Its purpose was controversial; it did not go to available sources; its English was not colloquial, but ecclesiastical. For example, in the Lord’s Prayer we read: “Give us this day our supersubstantial bread,” instead of “our daily bread.” In Hebrews xiii: 17, the version reads, “Obey your prelates and be subject unto them.” In Luke iii:3, John came “preaching the baptism of penance.” In Psalm xxiii:5, where we read, “My cup runneth over,” the Douai version reads, “My chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly it is.” There is a careful retention of ecclesiastical terms, and an explanation of the passages on which Protestants had come to differ rather sharply from their Roman brethren, as in the matter of the taking of the cup by the people, and elsewhere.
Yet it is only fair to remember that this much answer was made to the versions which were preparing the way for the greatest version of them all, and when the time came for the making of that version, and the helps were gathered together, the Douai was frankly placed among them. It is a peculiar irony of fate that while the purpose of Gregory Martin was to check the translation of the Bible by the Protestants, the only effect of his work was to advance and improve that translation.
At last, as we shall see in our next study, the way was cleared for a free and open setting of the Bible into English. The way had been beset with struggle, marked with blood, lighted by martyr fires. Wycliffe and Purvey, Tyndale and Coverdale, the refugees at Geneva and the Bishops at London, all had trod that way. Kings had fought them or had favored them; it was all one; they had gone on. Loyal zest for their Book and loving zeal for the common people had held them to the path. Now it had become a highway open to all men. And right worthy were the feet which were soon treading it.
By Cleland Boyd McAfee