THE BIBLE IN ENGLAND AND AMERICA
by Ken Connolly
The Elizabethan pests
When Elizabeth came to the throne, the Catholic policies of
Mary were abruptly ended. During the unstable and uncertain
period before Elizabeth had established her authority, she faced
two threats from abroad; both threats were of a religious nature,
and they came from opposite extremes.
One was the Catholic threat. Philip II of Spain and the pope
wanted to see the restoration of Catholicism in England, and many
influential families would have welcomed another Catholic
monarch. However the threat of her overthrow increased popular
support for her.
The second threat came from Englishmen who had fled to the
continent from the fury of Queen Mary. When they returned, they
called for a stricter morality, for a reformed theology and for
new policies in church government. The characteristics of this
movement were, first, that it originated in Geneva. Strongly
influenced as they were by Luther, Calvin and other reformers,
these returning exiles were dissatisfied with the Church of
England's practices in baptism and the communion service. They
also upheld Calvinist ideas of church government which were based
on the primacy of the church over the state, and the rule of a
body of presbyters rather than individual bishops. Every attempt
was made to find a compromise between episcopacy and
presbyterianism, but they were fundamentally incompatible.
Moreover Elizabeth saw any attack on the power of
bishops-even from Parliament-as a threat to the monarchy itself.
She felt that if the laity could dictate to a bishop, they would
soon start dictating to her!
Second, this strongly Protestant outlook soon dominated the
academic world. Works of Reformed theology began pouring off the
presses. Cambridge had already been flooded with underground
publi cations, and now Calvin's works, especially his Institutes
of the Christian Religion, became, in effect, textbooks for a
rising generation of opposite: Cambridge-trained clergymen. By
the middle of Elizabeth's reign the position was the same in
Oxford. Since all theologians and preachers studied at Oxford or
Cambridge, Protestant ideas soon dominated the pulpits of
Third, Protestant thinking also infiltrated the homes. As we
have seen, the officially approved Great Bible (and later the
Bishops' Bible) were intended for use in church, and attempted to
influence the nation through the church, but the Geneva Bible,
smaller and cheaper, was the Bible that was found in people's
homes. Its notes and comments brought the influence of
Calvinistic theology straight to the people, bypassing pulpits
and thus diminishing the sovereign's control over the minds of
The movement for reform gained ground within the Church of
England and threatened Elizabeth's control over the Church. Its
adherents, dubbed "Puritans," were angered by anything that
savored of Roman Catholicism-the wearing of vestments (in fact,
the use of any distinctive clerical dress at all); kneeling at
the reception of the holy communion; the ceremony of the ring at
weddings; and the sign of the cross at baptism. But when the
Puritans pressed for the abolition of these things, Elizabeth
turned a deaf ear to their arguments.
In 1570, Pope Pius V published a Bull of excommunication and
deposition against Elizabeth, and asked the French and the
Spanish to carry it out. It was akin to a declaration of war
against the Queen, and it called for all Catholics to resist her
authority. From 1574 to 1581, Catholic missionaries poured into
England from France. The Society of Jesus, known as the Jesuits,
entered the fray, planning to place Mary Queen of Scots on the
throne and assassinate Elizabeth. This called for drastic
measures. An oath of allegiance was imposed on all known Roman
Catholics, and on all suspected of disloyalty. Anyone who denied
the queen's right to the throne was guilty of high treason. This
turned the tables on the pope, and forced his subjects to deny
his authority, at peril of their lives. From 1571 to 1606, a
series of statues were passed which not only denied religious
liberty to Catholics, but also robbed them of the ordinary rights
of citizens. About 200 Roman Catholics, including clergy, laymen
and women, were executed. It strengthened the Elizabethan grip on
the church, and this in turn frustrated puritan ambitions.
Puritans who were dissatisfied with the established church now
fell into two groups: those who wanted to see Church of England
reformation carried further; and the independents, or
separatists, who saw no possibility of satisfaction in the Church
of England and sought freedom to worship in their own
independently organized churches.
In the late 1580s and early 1590s there was a fresh outbreak
of hostility to the establishment following the publication of
tracts by the fictitious "Martin Marprelate." These called
bishops "incarnate devils" and the Archbishop of Canterbury "the
Beelzebub of Canterbury" or the "Canterbury Caiaphas." The group
of extreme Puritans, among whom these tracts had originated, were
led by Thomas Cartwright (c:15351603). Some went to prison rather
than take the oath of loyalty which had been designed for
It was clear even to the Catholic faithful of Europe that
renewal was necessary in the Catholic Church. As part of that
movement, later to be known as the Counter-Reformation, the great
Council of Trent was held at Trent in Italy. It met in three
sessions between 1545 and 1563. It had been summoned to deal with
the unity of the church (which the emperor Charles V and others
saw as inseparable from political unity), and to define dogma.
The Council was adamant on the use of the Bible by the laity:
"The Holy Scriptures, though truly and Catholikely translated
into vulgar tongues, may not be indifferently read of all men,
nor by any other than such as have express license thereunto of
their lawful ordinaries, with good testimony from their curates
and confessors that they be humble, discreet, and devote persons,
and like to take much good and no harm thereby." In other words,
to buy a Bible required a license from the priest, and to read it
required an admission in the confessional.
But Protestants were becoming familiar with their Bible in
their own language, and were quoting it in defence of their
doctrine. Catholics needed to be equipped to answer them, and
Catholics in England needed an English translation of their own
instead of reading versions which incorporated Protestant
Just as there had been a migration of reformers from England
when Mary Tudor came to the throne, so there was a migration of
Catholics at the appearance of Queen Elizabeth. The three men who
were responsi ble for the Catholic translation were all refugees
from Oxford. The chief among them was William Allen, a
distinguished priest who was canon of York during the reign of
Mary. It is believed that if the Spanish Armada had succeeded
Willam Allen would have been nominated Primate of all England.
In 1568 Allen had gone to Douai, in France, where Philip II of
Spain had founded a university a few years earlier. Here he
determined to build a college for the training of English
Catholics-there were already Irish and Scottish colleges,
preparing priests for an immediate takeover in England, should
the opportunity present itself again. Allen encouraged Gregory
Martin, who knew both Greek and Hebrew, to do the translating. In
turn, Martin involved Robert Bristow, who was the main
contributor of the marginal and foot notes.
In 1578, a political disturbance required Allen to move the
college from Douai to Rheims, and in 1593, for similar reasons,
to move it back to Douai. There was a space of nearly
twenty-eight years between the publication of the two Testaments.
The New Testament was completed and published in 1582, from
Rheims. The Old Testament was not finished until 1609-1610,
because of "a lack of good means" and the revisers' "poor estate
in banishment." Because it was eventually published in Douai, the
entire Bible has been designated the Douai Version.
It is a translation from Jerome's Vulgate, which had been
commended by St Augustine and declared authentic by the Council
of Trent. As we have seen, the Roman Church considered the
Vulgate to be the purest form of the original Bible. They
believed that the Greek and Hebrew documents had been corrupted
by the Jews and the early church. Some use of the Greek and
Hebrew was made in the translation, but only slight traces of it
can be found. According to the translators' own admission it was
"translated ... out of the authentic Latin, diligently conferred
with the Hebrew, Greek, and other editions of divers languages."
The use of the original languages was for the "discovery of the
corruption of divers late translations." The Douai Version was
thus a revision of the Latin Vulgate rather than a translation of
the original languages.
The Douai Old Testament had fifty books, including eleven of
the Apocrypha. In the Psalms, the translation was one further
stage removed from the Hebrew original because Jerome had
translated the Psalms from the Greek Septuagint version. The
Psalms therefore had started in Hebrew, been translated into
Greek, and from Greek into Latin, and now from Latin into
The notes were used to press Catholic interpretation and
dogma against the "false and vain glosses of Calvin and his
followers." Martin even went so far as to say that the English
Bible was "not indeed God's book, worde, or Scripture, but the
Devil's worde." But while the footnotes clash violently with
those of the reformers, the translation does not differ greatly
from the Protestant version. It was more literal, more Latinate,
less easy for people with little education to understand, but it
had some influence on the translators of the King James Version.
The jewel in the crown
On the death of Elizabeth, a childless queen, the reign of
the Tudors came to an end. James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary
Queen of Scots, became the next king of England. Unlike his
mother, he was brought up with strong Protestant convictions, and
a new day dawned for the puritan cause. Scotland, reformed by
John Knox, was presbyterian to the core, so before he even
arrived in London, James was met by a deputation which presented
him with the "Millenary Petition." Signed by more than 800
puritan clergy, this petition requested the abolition of
confirmation, an end to the sign of the cross in baptism and of
the ring in marriage, and the elimination of the terms "priest"
and "absolution" in the Prayer Book. The petitioners assured the
king, however, that they did not want to end the ecclesiastical
state, merely reform it.
This led to a conference at Hampton Court in 1604, called by
James to address the "things pretended to be amiss in the
church." The first meeting was held on January 14, 1604, though
the man who was thought to be the leader of the puritan group, Dr
John Reynolds, had not been invited. Reynolds was an influential
educator who has been described as the "third university of
England." When he did meet with the conference members, on
January 16, Reynolds argued, from the fact that the Bishops'
Bible had ever been undertaken, that the Elizabethan bishops
considered no translation (other than the Geneva version with its
suspect notes) to be good enough for general use. The Great Bible
was cumbersome, the Geneva spoiled by Calvinist notes, and the
Bishops' of inferior quality. His logic was inescapable: either
make the Geneva Bible the authorized version of England, or set
about the task of creating a better translation.
The latter suggestion appealed to the king's vanity. On July
22, 1604, he announced that he had appointed fifty-four men to
work on a new translation of the Bible under the guidance of
Richard Bancroft, the Bishop of London, soon to become Archbishop
of Canterbury. Bancroft was a high churchman, unsympathetic to
puritan objectives, and it was nearly three years before the work
started in earnest. By this time only forty-seven translators
were named, but they represented the cream of England's
A set of fourteen rules was drawn up for their guidance. The
Bishops' Bible was to be followed with as few alterations as the
Greek and Hebrew would permit. Other English translations were to
be used only when they were more accurate. The chapter divisions
were not to be altered, unless considered absolutely necessary.
The old ecclesiastical terms were to be retained (such as
"church", in preference to "congregation"). There were to be no
marginal notes, except to explain a Hebrew or Greek word where
the translation might be considered inadequate. (It is
interesting to note that these marginal references numbered about
9,000 in the early editions, but later grew to over 60,000.)
The revisers included some scholars who were proficient in
Hebrew, and some in Greek. They were divided into six committees,
two meeting in Oxford, two in Cambridge and two in Westminster.
Each committee was responsible for translating a section of the
Bible. The sections were then sent to a select committee of
twelve, composed of two scholars from each of the six committees.
Lastly, two men, Thomas Bilson and Miles Smith, carried out final
revision before the manuscript was sent to Robert Barker, the
The basis for the translation of the Old Testament was the
Massoretic (Hebrew) text which had been printed in 1514-1517 in
the Complutensian Polyglot. This was an edition which had Hebrew,
Aramaic, Greek and Latin versions printed side by side. The
translators also had a more recent polyglot, printed in Amsterdam
in 1572, and other recent scholarly Latin translations. For the
New Testament, they used the critical editions of the Greek text
published in Geneva from 1550 onwards by Estienne and by Beza.
There are at least three reasons why this Bible should be
considered the greatest translation up to that date. First, it
was not the labor of one man, so it did not incorporate one man's
weaknesses and blind spots; it was the effort of six committees,
consisting of men who were the most learned scholars of their
generation. Second, knowledge of Greek and Hebrew had greatly
increased during the forty years which had elapsed since the last
translation. Third, this was the age of Shakespeare, Spenser and
Marlowe. The flowering of poetry and drama that took place during
the Elizabethan age resulted in a Bible that was a masterpiece of
Unfortunately, typographical mistakes appeared in the first
edition. In fact, there were two 1611 editions, with many
hundreds of differences, and the 1613 edition differed from the
edition of 1611 in as many as 400 places. All of this required
numerous revisions, and led Dr John Lightfoot to encourage the
House of Commons to consider "a review and survey of the
translation of the Bible." It is reported that a committee for
the British and Foreign Bible Society, examining six separate
editions of the King James Bible, discovered nearly 24,000
variations in text and punctuation. A Cambridge Bible revision
made in 1762 introduced 383 changes in the text and marginal
notes; and a 1769 Oxford Bible introduced 76 changes in weights,
measures and coins. These two editions are considered to be as
nearly perfect in mechanical execution as human skill can make
The saga of Brewster
The village of Scrooby is about 146 miles north of London on
the main road between London and Edinburgh. According to the
Domesday Book, its manor house once belonged to the archbishops
of York. In the reign of Elizabeth I this manor provided a
stopping place for travelers, and a post office for the royal
In the 1570s, the office of postmaster was held by a man
named Brewster. His son, William Brewster, matriculated at
Peterhouse, Cambridge, on December 3, 1580. Though we do not know
what he studied there, we do know that he was converted to
In 1583 William Brewster was at home when William Davison
arrived at the manor on the Queen's service. He stayed for an
evening on his way to Edinburgh, his assignment, to frustrate the
efforts of a French envoy who was trying to establish friendly
relations between France and Scotland. Sixteen-year-old Brewster
was so captivated by their conversation that he persuaded Davison
to make him his assistant. The job took them overseas and
introduced William Brewster to several important people; William
Davison, in 1585, became secretary of state with Sir Francis
Brewster might have climbed the ladder in politics, had it
not been for an incident in 1587. Queen Elizabeth had a death
warrant for Mary Queen of Scots on her desk, awaiting her
signature. She vacillated for a long time, but at last when
Davison was present she quickly signed it and handed it to him,
leaving him in charge of carrying it out. When she heard of
Mary's execution, she called for the arrest of Davison, for
"exceeding" her instructions. A jury fined him ú6,666 (though his
fine was subsequently remitted) and he was confined to the Tower
for eighteen months. His collapse left William Brewster without a
job, and he returned to Scrooby.
In the summer of 1590, when William was twenty-three, his
father died, and after some controversy, William was appointed to
assume his father's responsibilities.
That same year a child was born three miles away, whom his
parents named William Bradford. Brewster was to have a lifelong
friendship with William Bradford. In 1602, they started walking
twelve miles to Gainsborough, to worship at the first separatist
church in the north, which was meeting at the Old Hall. The
church had just called John Smith, a Cambridge-educated man, to
be their pastor.
Robert Browne was also educated at Cambridge before settling
at Norwich. He strongly criticised the episcopal order, believing
that the church should be separate and independent, accountable
only to the local congregation. He became the founder of the
Congregationalists. Though there was no link between Smith and
Browne, the Gainsborough assembly was persecuted as "Brownists,"
and by 1606, Smith and several of his congregation were obliged
to flee into exile. They escaped to Amsterdam, where Smith became
a physician. After they had left, Brewster invited the remaining
members of the church who still wished to meet, to use his manor.
In the absence of a pastor, he became their spiritual adviser.
John Robinson was a member of this new assembly. He had been
minister of a congregation in Norwich, the birthplace of
Brownisrn, and had had to flee from there for his own safety.
This subjected the new assembly to further suspicion and
persecution. Many members lost their property, paid heavy fines
and suffered stiff prison sentences, without "any liberty or
conference." It soon became apparent that they would have to go
into exile if they were to retain their freedom of worship.
Emigration was difficult. A law dating from Richard 11's time
forbade emigration without a license, so passages abroad were
clandestine and expensive. To compound the problem, a subpoena
had been issued on September 15, 1607, for the apprehension of
William Brewster. The authorities, however, were unable to locate
The group negotiated with a Dutch captain to meet them in
the marshy waters near Fishtoft, outside Boston. They had loaded
their goods and their families, and were waiting for the tide,
when they were surrounded by catchpoles-sheriff's officials,
usually responsible for tax collecting. The men were robbed, the
women immodestly searched, and they were brought to the Guildhall
in Boston. Seven of the leaders were imprisoned in two cells, and
the records show that William Brewster "was the chief of those
that were taken at Boston, and suffered the greatest loss."
Because the records are lost, we do not know how long the
imprisonment lasted, or when they were liberated. Their next
attempt to emigrate was in the early summer of 1608. This time a
Dutch captain agreed to meet them at the mouth of the River
Humber, sixty miles north of Boston. The women and children were
to travel by boat while the men journeyed overland. The men were
the first to arrive and were in the boat, waiting for the others,
when the authorities came. The frightened captain immediately
took off and headed for the open sea, leaving the women and
The authorities were frustrated, embarrassed, and sensitive
to public opinion. They therefore allowed the women to go free,
and by winter the families were united again in Amsterdam. This
was the first stage in the harassing of the Puritans known as the
The Pilgrims had surrendered their land and livings, and
endured threats to their lives, all for the sake of liberty in
worship. Joining a group who had emigrated to Amsterdam before
them, they now numbered about a hundred. Amsterdam was an asylum
for freedom fighters, but they nevertheless had a difficult time.
All of them had left behind a farming life, but they were now
forced to compete and survive in a world of trade and commercial
transactions, an alien world to plain folk, who were utterly
honest, hard working and conscientious to a fault.
Moreover, this readjustment in their lives had to be
accomplished through a foreign language.
The Brewster group, under the spiritual leadership of John
Robinson, stayed in Amsterdam for one year, and then moved to
Leyden, about thirty-five miles to the south. There they lived an
exemplary life for the next eleven years. Their numbers grew to
about 300, the size of the church in Amsterdam. Their pastor
became an honorable member of the university; their products were
sought and used by other tradesmen, and any member of the church
was given credit when it was needed. In fact, traveling English
tradesmen such as Edward Winslow, Thomas Brewer, John Carver and
Myles Standish cast their lot in with them, and even sailed the
Atlantic to the new world in their company.
By 1620 it became obvious that they had to move once more.
First, some were in financial difficulties. Second, their
children were being conscripted into the Netherlands army, and
some were submitting to the temptations of the city. Third, it
was difficult to avoid assimilation into the Dutch community.
Fourth, their safety was threatened by the war with Spain.
Finally, they were threatened once more with persecution.
William Brewster and Thomas Brewer had written books which had
reached England, and James I wanted them brought before the
They considered emigrating to Virginia-the leading merchant
in the Virginia Company was a personal friend of Brewster's-but
rejected this option because the company's charter enforced
strict conformity to the Church of England. Absence from daily
church service, for example, was punishable on the third offence
by six months in the galleys, and the third absence from a Sunday
service carried the death penalty. Loss of wages and whippings
were common punishments for nonconformity. Eventually the
Pilgrims accepted a proposal from a group of seventy London
merchants who had obtained a tract of land from the Plymouth
Company, with the right to self-government for settlers. The
shares in this company were sold for ú10 each. The Pilgrims were
to take their earnings after seven years, and divide them between
the shareholders. A contingent from England were to join the
Leyden group, and they were to cross the Atlantic in two vessels:
a 60-ton pinnace called the Speedwell, and the 180-ton Mayflower,
mastered by Thomas Jones. The Speedwell went to Holland to
collect the Pilgrims, and bring them to Southampton before facing
The journey to the new world began on August 5, 1620. There
were thirty passengers on the Speedwell and ninety on the
Mayflower. After battling against contrary winds for three days,
the Speedwell sprang a leak, and had to pull into Dartmouth for
repairs. There was a complete overhaul, and then they put to sea
again. This time, 300 miles past Lands End, the Speedwell had
another serious leak, and both ships returned to the closest
port, Plymouth. Eighteen passengers became so frightened that
they decided to stay behind, but the remaining 102 passengers
crowded on to the Mayflower and took their chance.
Voyages across the Atlantic were exceedingly perilous. Of 180 men
and women from the Amsterdam church who had set out for Virginia
in March, 1619, only 50 survived the journey. Overcrowding and
disease had taken the lives of the others-and this experience was
The first half of the journey was uneventful but then very
strong gales began to batter their vessel. One of the main beams
was twisted out of its place but one of the passengers had a
power screw and, with his help, they were able to secure the
beam. One storm followed another, but only one man's life was
threatened. This man was John Howland, who had ventured above
deck only to be immediately swept overboard. Miraculously, he
managed to grab a coil of topsail halyards trailing in the water,
and some sailors risked their lives to pull him back to safety.
One of Samuel Fuller's servants died during the journey, and a
baby was born. So the same number arrived as had left port in
On November 9, after nine weeks at sea, they sighted land,
only to discover that it was outside the jurisdiction of the
Plymouth Company. They were uncertain what to do, becuase there
was no established authority there. Assuming that this meant
freedom, the adult males gathered together and drafted the
Mayflower Compact. It was signed by forty-one men, using the
clothes chest belonging to William Brewster for a table. The
Mayflower Compact stipulated that its signatories must leave the
Mayflower group and settle elsewhere on their own.
Dying for a change
For two weeks the Mayflower sat outside the harbor, the
longboat having been too severely battered by storms to be
usable. A well-wooded coastline lay immediately in front of the
Pilgrims, but rough seas prevented a landing. Eventually, on
November 21 Myles Standish led the first expedition ashore. Myles
was a soldier by profession, stationed in the Netherlands and had
been employed by the Plymouth Company to protect their interests.
He was attracted to these quiet and peaceable people but never
became a member of their church and remained a Catholic. They
landed on Cape Cod, now called Provincetown, and when they
returned to the Mayflower they reported that apart from one brief
encounter with some Indians, they were greatly encouraged.
The second expedition, on November 27, was led by Christopher
Jones and they discovered the wreckage of a French fishing boat.
The French proved to be their closest neighbors, 500 miles north
in Nova Scotia. They found no suitable harbor, and no fresh
The third expedition set out on December 6, and took
soundings in the harbor. On land they found cornfields and little
running brooks. When this expedition returned to the Mayflower,
William Bradford had sad news awaiting him. His wife, Dorothy
May, had fallen overboard and drowned during his absence. The
happy news was that the Mayflower was now able to sail into the
harbor, and the long voyage had technically come to an end,
twenty-seven days after their arrival.
On Monday, December 28, they finally decided on the exact
location for the settlement, and that afternoon, twenty of them
started building barricades. That evening, a tempest came that
was so severe that the Mayflower had to drop all three of its
anchors to stand the strain. After the storm, the men began to
fell and carry timber. Their first job was to build a
twenty-foot-square communal cabin. Then they divided the families
into nineteen households, the single men being assigned to
families so that they would need as few houses as possible. A
street was plotted parallel to a stream. (Since 1823 it has been
named Leyden Street.) The lots were then allocated.
Because of the delays caused by the Speedwell and the fierce
storms on the Atlantic, the Pilgrims were unprepared for the
severe winter. They had to convert their first house into a
hospital, and disease raged so violently among them that there
were scarcely enough people to care
The Pilgrim Fathers give thanks after landing, in 1620.
for those who were ill. Many died, sometimes two and three a day,
mostly women, and were buried on Coles Hill. By the end of
February, they had lost and buried thirty-one members of their
group. Almost one half of all the Pilgrims were dead after the
first two months.
By the middle of March, the sun was warm around noon and the
birds were beginning to sing. Their first severe winter was over.
Wolves would still howl at night and prowl by day, but it was not
wolves the settlers dreaded so much as the Indians who were
occasionally spotted. Myles Standish was authorized to organize a
militia, and he brought the five cannons ashore from the
Mayflower, stationing them on the Fort Hill platform, with a
commanding view of every approach to the village. Then one
morning, near the end of March, a startling event occurred.
The settlers were about to hold a meeting in their common house,
when an Indian walked boldly down the middle of the street, and
called out a resounding and hearty "Welcome!" in English. They
prevented him from entering the common house until they found out
who he was. He told them his name was Samoset, and he provided a
rich harvest of information. He promised to bring an Indian
called Squanto to meet them, and they both appeared on the
following Thursday. Squanto was fluent in English. He was one of
twenty-four Indians who had been kidnapped in 1614 by a pirate
named Thomas Hunt and sold as slaves in Spain. Squanto had
escaped and made his way to England, eventually working for the
treasurer of the Newfoundland Company. When he had returned to
the area he had discovered that he was the sole survivor of his
Squanto introduced the Pilgrims to an Indian chief by the
name of Massasoit, who brought sixty of his braves with him. With
great formality, Standish and Alterton, with six musketeers,
approached a meeting point to face Massasoit and twenty of his
armed warriors. The Indian chief had his face painted a dull red,
and his warriors' faces were either red, black, yellow or white.
The meeting was most amiable, with respectful salutes and
gracious gestures, and a peace pact was organised between them
that lasted for the next fifty years.
On April 5, 1621, the Mayflower hoisted her sails and set
out once more for the open seas, breaking the last link that
bound the Pilgrims to England. These courageous Pilgrims became
the seeds of a new nation. They sacrificed fortunes and endured
hardships solely for the freedom to worship God according to the
dictates of their conscience. Prizing that liberty above life
itself, they surmounted all obstacles to gain it.
In paying tribute to them, the forefathers of this great nation,
we must also acknowledge the source of their inspiration, their
comfort in sorrow, the magnet that drew them 3,000 miles across
the cold and stormy Atlantic waters to a country beyond the edge
of civilization. It was the book that for them was supreme in all
matters of faith and practice - the "Indestructible Book."
Correcting the teacher
The next major undertaking in the work of Bible translation
came some 275 years after the printing of the King James Version.
The English language had changed, and independent scholars such
as John Wesley in 1755 and Noah Webster in 1832 had produced
their own revised translations of the whole Bible, or parts of
it, reflecting those linguistic changes. Knowledge of the
original languages had also developed. New manuscripts, such as
the Sinaitic, Vatican and Alexandrian manuscripts, had been
discovered, and textual criticism had become a science. In
February 1870, Archbishop Wilberforce suggested to the Church of
England's governing Convocations that there were sufficient
reasons for a revision. The Convocation of York declined to be
involved, admitting the blemishes in the King James Version but
deploring "any recasting of the text." The Convocation of
Canterbury, however, decided to proceed with the task.
A committee was formed of sixty-five members, of which
fourteen either died or resigned. Thirty-six were Anglicans, and
the rest were of various denominations, including one Unitarian.
Cardinal Newman was invited to participate, but declined. It was
Wilberforce's desire to involve Americans, and so the famous
church historian Philip Schaff was asked to put together an
American committee. In all, Schaff had thirty-four participating
members, making an international total of ninety-nine members.
The work began in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey on
June 22, 1870. The American committee began its work in the Bible
House of New York City on October 4, 1872. A provisional revision
of a small section was made in England, and sent to America for
approval. The English then revised the draft on the basis of the
Americans' comments, and sent the new draft back to America. Then
England revised again to produce a more uniform style. The first
revisions were approved by a simple majority of the committee;
any subsequent revisions required a two-thirds vote. This meant
that revisions were made at least five times, and sometimes seven
revisions were required.
Though it had been intended that no alterations should be
made to the Greek text used by the translators of the Authorized
Version, exceptions were made when competent scholars believed
that such changes were necessary. Therefore a new Greek text was
constructed, known as the "Revisers' Text." Westcott and Hort's
Greek text was published within five days of this revision of the
Bible, and they had both served on the revision committee, but
the Revisers' Text differed from Westcott and Hort in about 200
places, and from the text used by the King James translators in
This version was called the English Revised Version, and it
is said that it has 36,191 changes. If anyone were to ask whether
it had any value, the answer would definitely be yes. First,
archaic and unintelligible words were replaced. The word "let,"
for example, meant "hinder" in 1611, but today means "permit."
The word "prevent" came from the Latin pre venio, to "go before"
or "precede," and did not have today's meaning of "stop."
Second, the revisers aimed at consistency in translation. They
wanted each Greek or Hebrew word to be translated by the same
English word every time it appeared. The Greek word "meno," for
example, is used 117 times in the Greek text, but is translated
by ten different English words in the King James Version. The
Greek word "dunamis" means "power," but is translated by thirteen
different English words in the King James Version. On the other
hand, in the King James Version the single English word "power"
translates seventeen different Hebrew words in the Old Testament,
and six Greek words in the New Testament.
Third, the old chapter and verse divisions were relegated to
the margin, while the content was divided into paragraphs. The
former aids you in finding the material, while the latter aids
you in finding the message.
Fourth, where Greek grammar differs from English grammar,
the revisers tried to give an accurate rendering of the Greek.
(Greek, for example, has fewer tenses than English, and has no
indefinite article.) As a result, however, the Revised Version
suffered from excessive literalism.
The Revised Version was a phenomenal success when the first
copies of the New Testament came off the presses on May 17, 1881.
Oxford and Cambridge presses each had a million advance orders.
On May 20 the first shipment arrived in the United States. It was
due to be on sale in the shops on May 21, but copies were
immediately being sold on the streets of New York and
Philadelphia. On May 20 alone New York sold 365,000 copies, and
Philadelphia over 110,000 copies. Chicago was 978 miles away, and
the Tribune and the Times did not wish to wait until more New
Testaments could be shipped over. They employed ninety-two
compositors and five correctors to wire Matthew through Romans,
that is 118,000 words. This was the longest message ever sent
over the wires. The task was accomplished in twelve hours and the
text appeared in newspapers on May 22, 1881. It was estimated
that three million copies were sold in England and America within
one year of publication. Without dispute, no book can compare to
this "Indestructible Book."
Straining the gnat
The American attitude to the Revised Version was slightly
negative. All final decisions on translation had been made in
England, and some preferences which the Americans had expressed
were rejected by the English committee. To offset this, the
English proposed that the American preferences should be
published in an appendix, and appear in every copy of the Revised
Version for the next fourteen years. By that time, the Americans
expected that scholars, and the general public, would approve the
American preferences. As part of the agreement, the American
company agreed not to sanction any revised Bibles other than
those published by Oxford and Cambridge university presses. This
tied the hands of the American committee from 1885 to 1899.
The English committee disbanded after their translation was
finished, and the publishers indicated that they had no intention
of incorporating the American preferences in any future
publications. So the American company did not disband. Under
pressure from the public, certain publishers issued unauthorized
editions of the New Testament incorporating the American
preferences listed in the appendix, and Oxford and Cambridge
published an "American Revised version" of the whole Bible in
1898. But the American committee wanted all their preferred
readings incorporated, and not just those which had been selected
for inclusion in the published appendix. When the fourteen years
of the agreement had expired and they were no longer hampered by
the English committee and publishers, they produced their own
revision. It was published in 1901 and became known as the
American Standard Revised version.
Most of the differences between the English and American
versions seem small, but many scholars consider them to be
decided improvements. For example, the Americans used shorter
paragraphs than the English, and put blank spaces between the
main divisions, especially in the epistles. Verse divisions were
placed in the text, instead of as previously-in the margin.
There were also many changes in translation. For example, the
words "Holy Spirit" replaced all references to the "Holy Ghost."
The plural "devils" was not used, since there is only one
"devil," but many "demons" (subordinate to the devil). The word
"covenant" was consistently used in place of the word
There was also an attempt to drop archaic forms and
spellings, such as "holpen" for "helped," "hale" for "drag away,"
and "wot" or "wist" for "know." American words were substituted
for English words. For example, the word "grain" was used instead
of "corn" because, though in England the word "corn" implied
grain of all kinds, in America it suggested maize, or Indian
corn. The word "platter" was used instead of "charger," which in
America meant a horse.
The reception was as expected: the American Standard Version
dominated the American market, and the Revised Version the
English market. The ASV was widely considered to be the more
accurate, and some pulpits and seminaries began using only the
Another offspring of the King James Version came in 1979
when Nelson published the New King James Bible. This was an
attempt to "maintain the lyrical quality" and "majesty of the
form" of the 1611 version.
Even where they felt it necessary to introduce a new
translation, the revisers made an effort to maintain "the general
vocabulary of the 1611 version." They modernized the pronouns,
eliminated archaic verb endings, and made minor changes in other
Nelson also introduced several new features. The paragraphs
were given headings, to enable the reader to identify the subject
matter. The poetic sections were printed in contemporary verse
forms to suggest the beauty of the original passage. Old
Testament quotations were printed in oblique type, and footnotes
indicated the Old Testament reference. Also, some of the
italicized words, used by the translators of the King James
Version to give clarity beyond the literal translation, were
eliminated in the New King James Version.
The most important difference between this and all other
modern translations of the scripture arises from the text from
which the work was translated. The traditional Greek text
underlying the 1611 edition was replaced by the "neutral text" of
Westcott and Hort. That textual base eliminated many words,
phrases and verses used by the translators of the King James
Version. While there is heated controversy on this issue today,
it was maintained by the scholars preparing the New King James
Version that "the nineteenth-century text suffers from
overrevision, and the traditional Greek text is more reliable
than previously supposed."
So many versions
As we have seen, the Bible was first written in Hebrew,
Aramaic and Greek. Pope Damasus had it translated into Latin but
his successors would not allow it to be made accessible to other
nations and later generations. To read the Bible, people had to
learn Latin-and even then the Bible's circulation was often
restricted to the priesthood.
The Reformation came to England because scholars started
learning Greek, the language of the New Testament. They knew the
Bible would have the same impact on anyone who could read it-so
they translated the Bible into English. And they were right:
England was rocked by the Reformation.
A few statistics
Even before Wycliffe there were about forty translations
into Old and Middle English, admittedly only covering sections of
the Bible, mostly the Psalms. From the time of Wycliffe's Bible,
hand-written and translated into Middle English about 1380, until
the time of the next major English translation, that of Tyndale
in 1525, there were another twentysix translations, including
Wycliffe's Bible and its several revisions. From 1525 to the
publication of the King James Version in 1611 there were some 212
editions of the Bible, complete or in part. That makes a
grand total of 277 separate efforts to translate the Bible into
the language of the English-speaking people.
Between the publication of the King James Version in 1611
and the American Standard Version in 1901, there were no less
than 522 attempts by translators, revisers or editors to discover
the exact meaning of the original text of the Bible and express
it precisely in current English. That makes about 800 attempts to
overcome linguistic barriers, and communicate the message of the
Statistics are not available beyond 1985, but between 1901
and 1985 no less than 440 efforts were recorded. From the time
when the English language was in its early stages until 1985, the
grand total of translations, improved editions or independent
paraphrases comes to about 1,240.
Roman Catholic translations
There had already been a Roman Catholic Bible Society in
existence for over fifty years when, in the mid-nineteenth
century, Pope Pius IX warned against the distribution of
scriptures without any guidance in their interpretation! That
society published the Rheims-Douai version without notes, leaving
the reader to make his own interpretation. It also produced
several other translations of the Bible into English. Between
1811 and 1816 they produced five editions of the Bible and two of
the New Testament. There have also been several Catholic
translations in the twentieth century, the most wellknown being
the Jerusalem Bible of 1966, which was translated directly from
the Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. In 1985 this was extensively
revised as the New Jerusalem Bible.
Translations by Jews
We must not forget the English Bible produced by the Jews.
For the Jews the Middle Ages were not conducive to the sort of
scholarship required for Bible translation, but by the year 1400,
translations of the Jewish Bible began to appear in various
languages. In 1789, the year of the French Revolution, a version
of the Pentateuch appeared, claiming to be derived from the King
James Version. In 1853, a Hebrew Bible came out that became the
favorite of English and American synagogues. The Jewish
Publication Society decided to revise that work, and it was
published in 1917. Several different versions appeared in the
1960s and 70s, and in 1985 the three largest branches of
organized Judaism in America produced a monumental work of
scholarship entitled the TaNaKh, a new translation of what
Christians call the Old Testament.
A book for the world
Because we are considering the impact of one book on the
whole human race, it is not fair to limit our survey to one
language. The Hebrew was translated in to Greek, and later into
Latin, and both those translations fathered many others. The
first printed German Bible dates back to 1466, and eighteen other
editions were printed before Luther gave the Germans his Bible.
John Calvin revised his first French Bible as late as 1551.
The Dutch had several versions by both Catholics and Protestants;
in 1537 they were given a version based on the original texts,
and this was revised as late as 1897. The Italians also had
several versions, legal and illegal; and the Spanish, who
prohibited a vernacular Bible in the first printed Index of the
Spanish Inquisition, were given a literal interpretation in 1553,
presented by a Jewish organization.
In Europe, complete or partial Bibles have appeared in
Czech, Danish, Hungarian, Icelandic, Norwegian, Polish,
Portuguese, Russian, Swedish and other languages. And after
William Carey arrived in India in 1793, and before 1834, there
were translations of Scripture into more than 34 far Eastern
languages. In fact, the British and Foreign Bible Society listed
10,000 versions in 628 languages between the year 1400 and the
People in many countries and through many centuries have
displayed a passion for translating the Bible. They have
willingly paid the cost, even when that cost had meant giving up
their lives, in order to break down the linguistic barriers
between men and women and this Indestructible Book.
When Bibles were first published in England it was the
policy to use only the Oxford and Cambridge university presses
and the King's Printers. (Since before Henry VII's death, there
had been an official "King's Printer.") Later on, however,
translations of the Bible, and translations into other languages,
were not so restricted. And, of course, we know from the story of
the Tyndale and Coverdale versions that publishers were always
printing unauthorized Bibles.
British and Foreign Bible Society
Nearly two hundred years ago, a nonconformist minister named
Thomas Charles was preaching in Bala in Wales. During the
service, he asked a young girl to repeat the text of the previous
Sunday's sermon. She cried, and explained that the weather was so
bad that she had been unable to check the Welsh Bible. Charles
found out that the closest Welsh Bible was seven miles away from
her home. That incident so impressed him that he went to London
to ask for help and this led to the founding of the British and
Foreign Bible Society in 1804. By 1928, the Society had
circulated over 385 million Bibles, with versions in 608
languages. They had 5,142 auxiliary branches in England and
Wales, plus another 5,000 overseas, and they employed 900 book
agents to sell Bibles from door to door, because it was against
their policy to give any away free.
During 1930 alone, the British and Foreign Bible Society
published 12 million copies of the Bible, in 643 languages. They
were shipped to every corner of the world in 4,583 boxes,
weighing 490 tons. And that is but one Bible Society, in one
country, in one year.
Voltaire, the noted French infidel, predicted that within a
hundred years Christianity would be swept off the earth and the
Bible would be found only in museums. The British and Foreign
Bible Society later bought his Paris house as a depot for the
distribution of Bibles.
United Bible Societies
While there are Bible societies which operate independently,
such as Britain's Trinitarian Bible Society, there are 110
national Bible societies worldwide, including the British and
Foreign Bible Society and the American Bible Society, which
operate under the umbrella of the United Bible Societies. In 1990
the American Bible Society distributed over six million Bibles,
New Testaments or portions (a portion usually means at least one
of the sixty-six books of the Bible) in the United States alone.
Nearly 14.4 million more were distributed overseas, making over
20.4 million altogether. They used over 60,000 volunteers
operating out of more than 1,300 centers.
The United Bible Societies provide an ecumenical Bible, in
ordinary everyday language, and are placing copies in the hands
of millions of people around the world who would otherwise have
no access to a Bible. Their aim is to tackle the language
barriers and provide translations wherever there are more than a
million people. China may be a good example. When it was reported
that in some areas 90,000 people were sharing twenty-five Bibles
between them, the United Bible Society provided them with
printing facilities, within China, to the value of over $5
million. This one printing facility gave the Chinese an
additional capacity for 250,000 Bibles and 500,000 New Testaments
every year. According to their January 1987 report, United Bible
Societies also provided the paper for printing 300,000 copies of
a new Chinese translation of the Gospels.
Getting the Bible out
The three leading Bible publishers in the year 1932 were the
British and Foreign Bible Society, the American Bible Society and
the National Bible Society of Scotland. Together they produced
22,626,867 complete Bibles, New Testaments and scripture portions
in many different tongues. If those Bibles had been stacked one
on top of another, they would have reached twenty-eight miles
above the earth's surface-five times the height of Mount Everest.
Today, there are 6,170 separate languages on earth, according to
the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and at least one book of the
Bible has been translated into 1,978 of these languages. Some of
these Bibles are printed from left to right, others from right to
left, and still others from top to bottom. There are some tribes
who will not read anything printed, only what is written. So
their Bible is first written, then photographed and copied on the
presses. One Bible has thirty-nine volumes, because it is in
Braille. Some of the languages and alphabets are so different
from ours that they challenge the most skilled linguists. While
the Russian alphabet has thirty-six letters, Tamil has 400 and
Maori only fourteen. But none of these obstacles has dampened the
zeal of translators or printers.
Many organizations are dedicated to distributing Bibles free
of charge; the largest is probably the Gideons. Their estimated
distribution for the year 1992 was 35 million. They have been
producing Bibles for so long that in 1990 they were able to give
the 500 millionth to President George Bush. The remarkable
feature of this ministry is that every Bible is personally
presented, through a staff of a little over 183,000 volunteers,
all organized by only fifty-four paid employees.
It is estimated that over 44 million Bibles are sold every
year, and another 35 million distributed free. This totals nearly
80 million every year. No other book has ever matched the
popularity of this "Indestructible Book."
The sap is in the tree
It is not an exaggeration to say that the Bible has become
part of the warp and woof of American society. If you doubt this,
look at the people who have been influenced by the Bible, and its
effects on our society.
Mastered by the Bible
Nearly every branch of knowledge and every sphere of human
endeavor has had its masters who have submitted to the supremacy
of this book. David Livingstone, the great explorer, died
kneeling at a cot in the heart of Africa. He had just finished
reading his Bible.
Napoleon Bonaparte once commented to three generals who were
in his room: "That Bible on the table is a book to you; it speaks
to me; it is as it were a person."
When he was on his death bed, Scotland's great literary
giant, Sir Walter Scott, asked his friend Lockhart to read to him
from the book. Scott had a library of 20,000 volumes, so Lockhart
asked him, "What book would you like?" Scott replied: "Need you
ask? There is but one."
George Muller, the builder of the huge orphanage in Bristol,
said: "I have read the Bible through one hundred times and found
something new and inspiring every time."
England's King George V, as he promised his mother, read his
Bible every day.
William Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of Great
Britain, wrote a book which he entitled The Impregnable Rock of
Holy Scripture. He professed to know ninety-five great men in the
world of his day, and eighty-seven of them, he said, "were
followers of the Bible."
Men who publicly professed allegiance to the Bible and
served as President of the United States include George
Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin
Roosevelt. The Bible is in every court-room. Every hospital is a
monument to its moral influence.
Turn the coin over and look at the subject from the other
side. Take the Bible out of literature, and what is left?
Tennyson used over 300 quotations from the pages of the Bible. It
has been calculated that Shakespeare has over 500 ideas and
phrases taken directly from the pages of the Bible. Charles
Dickens said: "It is the best book that ever was or ever will be
in the world."
Or look at its contribution to the world of music. Take the
Bible from Bach, Handel and Mozart, and what is left? Would we
have ever heard of Handel, had it not been for his Bible"? Look
at the world of art. Where would the names of Leonardo da Vinci,
Michelangelo, Donatello, Rembrandt, and Raphael be found, it they
had not been inspired by the themes of the Bible?
Look back to the early days of many educational institutions
and you will see they are inseparably linked with the church.
Harvard, Yale, William and Mary and Dartmouth were all founded
for the express purpose of training religious ministers. Dr.
William Phelps, once Principal of Yale University, the third
oldest educational institution in the United States, is quoted as
saying: "I believe that a knowledge of the Bible without a
college course is more valuable than a college course without a
knowledge of the Bible."
Then look at the effect the Bible has had. Consider John
Adams, for example, who was a member of the mutinous crew of the
Bounty. When the mutineers on Pitcairn Island died of syphilis,
leaving Adams with all the women and children, he found his
comfort and guidance in an old Bible he had found among the
debris of the wrecked ship. By the time the American ship, the
Topaz, discovered them, their jail was empty, and the church was
geographically and spiritually in the center of their life. Is
the relationship between the reform and the Bible merely
John Gifford was among a small detachment of Cavaliers
cornered by Oliver Cromwell's army and offered "surrender, or no
quarter." Only Gifford was captured alive; the rest were killed.
As he was waiting for his execution, his sister managed to
distract the guard long enough to enable him to escape. He ran
and hid in Bedford, where his profligate life and drunken
debaucheries made him infamous. Eventually, someone introduced
him to a Bible. The change was so radical that he became the
minister of St John's Church in the same town. In fact, he was
the original of Mr Interpreter in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.
George Whitefield made Englishmen and Americans confront the
issues of the Bible in what was then a novel way: he took the
Bible out of the church and, by open air preaching, gave it in
the country. As many as 30,000 to 60,000 would crowd together in
the open to listen to his sermons. Thousands were transformed by
their exposure to his Bible messages. Even Benjamin Franklin
admired Whitefield and his work.
It was the Bible that influenced John Howard and Elizabeth
Fry. In obedience to its teachings they created the public
pressure which forced Parliament to reform the prison system. It
was the Bible that led William Wilberforce to crusade for the
emancipation of slaves. It was the Bible that motivated William
Booth to build an army to help the destitute and homeless. It was
the Bible that consoled Sir Ernest Shackleton in his lonely and
hazardous experience of exploring Antarctica. And that same Bible
influenced Sir James Young Simpson, who took the savagery out of
surgery when he discovered chloroform. Simpson told an audience
that the Bible was his greatest discovery.
There can be little dispute that the "Indestructible Book"
has changed the world.
Look back over your shoulder
And so the story is told. It is the phenomenal story of a
book that began with one man trying to care for a small nation
travelling in a wilderness, and wanting to provide them with a
moral code by which to regulate their lives. Historians and
priests took up the story, wise men, poets, and prophets
completed the message. Their writings were collected together in
twenty-two books-our Old Testament. At Jamnia, in AD 100, a
rabbinical gathering settled any dispute for the Jewish nation by
claiming that those books were the "Torah," or God's revelation
After 400 years without any prophetic voice, the man whom
some called the Christ (meaning "the Anointed," or Messiah)
selected twelve unlikely men to be his apostles. They were
unlikely to succeed as a team, for they were so diverse,
including among their number a traitor and an underground
fighter. Even less did it seem likely that they would contribute
to the sacred book, being "unlearned and ignorant men" (Acts
4:13). Yet because of their words twenty-seven more books were
added to the list. In AD 397 these books were officially approved
as the complete canon of Scripture.
The Jewish nation did not accept the last twenty-seven
books, so the Christian church became caretaker of this unique
volume. Waves of persecution broke out against the church,
leaving it bloody but unbroken; in fact, it grew in strength
during each onslaught. In AD 303 the Emperor Diocletian ordered
the destruction of every building used for a church, and every
copy of the Bible that could be found. He even built an arch to
commemorate the erasing of Christianity. But fifty years later,
the succeeding emperor ordered the reproduction of fifty Bibles,
at the government's expense. The church rose, singing a song of
Persecution gave way to materialism. The Emperor Constantine
joined the ranks of the believers. His governmental policies
became the government of the church; his standard of living
became the life style of its clergy; and his dependence on ritual
became a passion in the church. Slowly the church deteriorated
until the authority of tradition took the place of the book.
Lust, greed, immorality and secularism came to the fore; the
Bible was hidden away, buried in a foreign language.
But a light emerged in the dark night sky, "the morning star
of the Reformation." John Wycliffe was a man with a brilliant
mind, a tender conscience and a backbone of steel. He challenged
the decadence of his day and, when necessary, defied the pope and
his church, the king and his barons, and all the university
professors of England. He gave to a small army of preachers a
passion that burned like fire. His supreme undertaking was to
inspire men to crack the Latin shell of the Bible and reclothe
the message in the language of Middle English, bringing it out of
the convent and scattering it throughout the country. Some 135
years later reformers were breaking down the flood dams all over
When the humanist scholar Erasmus published the first
accessible New Testament in Greek, a new life force was
experienced among Greek scholars. Men and women saw the impact
that the Bible would have in the vernacular. Bibles started
appearing in German, in French and in English. While in Germany
it was the reform which produced the Bible, in England it was the
Bible that produced the reform. Different translations in English
became associated with the names of Tyndale, Coverdale and
Rogers; and then committees produced the Geneva Bible, the
Bishops' Bible and finally-the cream of such efforts-the
Authorized Version of King James I.
While the reformed Church of England kept the structural
form of the Roman Catholic Church, Puritans drifted to the
periphery of the church, and eventually some broke away. The
splinters became the seeds of Protestant denominations, and
persecution led some to migrate to lands where freedom of
religion might be tolerated. So William Brewster's group came to
Plymouth Rock. What they were to this nation, the Geneva Bible
was to them. It was supremely important, vital beyond measure and
authoritative in every matter of faith and practice. Those
Pilgrim Fathers meticulously planted this book, like seeds, in
the minds of their offspring. It provided the moral fiber for
that early society. Religious meetings took priority over
commercial pursuits, and violation of the sabbath was a
Christopher Columbus claimed that his voyage which
discovered America was born while he was reading Isaiah. The
Liberty Bell bears an inscription from Leviticus 25:10. Every
single charter of the fifty states is written in words and
concepts taken from the Bible.
Of the ten earliest colleges in America, nine were founded
by the churches, and the other by the evangelist George
During the Civil War, the American Bible Society printed
7,000 Bibles daily for each side in the dispute. In 1864, the
Memphis Bible Society sent a shipment of cotton to New York in
return for 50,000 portions of scripture.
Today, the Bible is present at the inauguration of every
President, and it is in the courts for the swearing in of every
witness. Its sales have doubled since 1960. In 1991, 44 million
copies were sold. Why? In the Old Testament, the volume is
referred to as "the Word of God," 3,808 times.