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America's Beginnings

God's Plantation - Chapter 4

by Phyllis Mackall

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At Oxforde the yere 1546 … when I kepe Mr. Letymers shype I bout thys boke when the testament was obberagatyd that shepe herdys myght not red hit I prey God amend that blyndness. Wryt by Robert Wyllyams keppynge shepe uppon Seynbury hill 1546.

Until John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384), only portions of the Latin Bible had been translated into English, and then only for the use of priests and nuns. The first translation of the entire Bible into English was made by Wycliffe's friends and colleagues. All of the copies were in manuscript form, because this was in the days before the invention of printing.

Even though the translating or reading of the English Bible was banned in 1408, copies of the Wycliffe version were acquired and read by the English.

Wycliffe realized that men were accountable to God's laws, and therefore needed to know His Word. The Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus agreed, and state in the preface to his Greek New Testament, printed in 1516:

I totally disagree with those who are unwilling that the Holy Scriptures, translated into the common tongue, should be read by the unlearned. Christ desires His mysteries to be published abroad as widely as possible. I could wish that even all women should read the Gospel and St. Paul's Epistles, and I would that they were translated into all the languages of all Christian people, that they might be read and known not merely by the Scots and the Irish but even by the Turks and Saracens. I wish that the farm worker might sing parts of them at the plough, that the weaver might hum them at the shuttle, and that the traveler might beguile the weariness of the way by reciting them.

Erasmus gave the world the first printed New Testament in Greek. Martin Luther gave the Germans the New Testament in their language in 1522. William Tyndale wished to do the same for the English, but was forced to complete the work in Germany. The first complete printed New Testament in English was printed in Worms, Germany, in 1526, and smuggled into England. To English royal and theological eyes, Tyndale was a Lutheran; hence, a heretic. His New Testaments were collected and burned. As the Reformation advanced, however, Tyndale's New Testament was allowed to be printed and distributed in England.

Tyndale lived his last years in the free city of Antwerp, Belgium. Kidnapped and taken to Vilvorde, North of Brussels, he was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1536.

Next to Tyndale, the man most used by God to publish the Bible in the English language was a former Augustinian friar, Myles Coverdale (1488-1569). Coverdale assisted Tyndale on the Continent.

Coverdale's Bible, the first complete Bible printed in English, was published in Germany in 1535, and was imported into England. It was allowed to circulate freely after King Henry VIII's bishops could find no heresies in it.

In 1537, another licensed Bible, Matthew's Bible, appeared in England. It was a combination of Tyndale's and Coverdale's Bibles. English bishops began encouraging their clergy to study the Bible. One bishop allowed a Bible to be chained to a desk in every church so that the literate could read aloud from it to the illiterate. It proved so popular that reading aloud from the chained church Bible had to be banned during services; the common people much preferred the Word of God to the sermons.

It was decided that Matthew's Bible should be revised by Coverdale, and this version, known as the Great Bible, was first printed in Paris in 1538. Two years before, a law had been written that would have allowed the English Bible to be accessible in every parish church in England. Political considerations, however, made it necessary to shelve this law until September 5, 1538, when it was issued in Henry VIII's name. The law charged the clergy:

…ye shall discourage no many privily or apertly from the reading or hearing of the said Bible, but shall expressly provoke, stir and exhort every person to read the same, as that which is the very lively Word of God, that every Christian person is bound to embrace, believe, and follow, if he look to be saved; admonishing them nevertheless to avoid all contention and altercation theirin, but to use an honest sobriety in the their inquisition of the true sense of the same, and to refer the explication of obscure places to men of higher judgment in Scripture.

By 1543, reaction against the Reformation had set in. Parliament banned Tyndale's translation, and made it a crime for any unlicensed person to read or teach the Bible publicly. Persons in the lower classes were forbidden to read the Bible at all. Three years later, King Henry ruled that no on in any class was to own Tyndale's or Coverdale's New Testament. Many Bibles were burned.

The Great Bible, however, survived, and was reprinted twice during the reign (1547-53) of Edward VI, Henry's son and successor. Edward was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary Tudor, who reversed the Reforming policy. More Bibles were burned, but, again, the Great Bible survived. When Elizabeth I succeeded her half-sister in 1558, she repeated the orders of her father and half-brother that "the whole Bible" in English should be placed in every English church.

Meanwhile, Reformers who had fled England congregated in Geneva, which had become a great center of Reformation study. Even Hebrew was studied there. The English exiles published their Geneva Bible in 1560, dedicating it to Queen Elizabeth. It was reprinted about 70 times during her long reign, and it became the first Bible ever to be printed in Scotland.

The Geneva Bible became the household Bible of English Protestants; it was the Bible Shakespeare was acquainted with, and it far excelled the Great Bible that was authorized to be used in the churches. Because English church leaders could not endorse the Geneva Bible's Calvinistic footnotes -- the same ones King James hated -- it was clear that a new authorized version was needed for the churches.

A number of bishops and scholars were put to work in 1561 on the Bishops' Bible. It was published seven years later to replace the Great Bible as the authorized version of the Church of England. The Geneva Bible, however, remained the better translation -- except to King James.

Although it was never formally authorized by either church or state, the King James Version, published in 1611, was "appointed to be read in Churches," and thus superseded the Bishop's Bible.

The translators' dedication to King James is fairly well known. Less well known is the seldom-published section entitled, The Translators to the Reader, which stated prophetically, "And what can the king command to be done, that will bring him more true honour than this?"

A spokesman for the 47 translators who worked on the King James Version said their goal was to make out of the many good translations "one principal good one." Furthermore:

And in what sort did these assemble? In the trust of their own knowledge, or of their sharpness of wit, or deepness of judgment, as it were in an arm of flesh? At no hand. They trusted in him that hath the key of David … they prayed to the Lord, the Father of our Lord, to the effect that St. Augustine did: "O let thy Scriptures be my pure delight; let me not be deceived in them, neither let me deceive by them." In this confidence, and with this devotion, did they assemble together … neither did we disdain to revise that which we had done, and to bring it back to the anvil that which we had hammered: but having and using as great helps as were needful, and fearing no reproach for slowness, nor coveting praise for expedition, we have at length, through the good hand of the Lord upon us, brought the work to the pass that you see.

The translators noted that they steered a middle course between the Puritans' non-ecclesiastical terms on the one hand the Roman Catholics' latinate terms on the other, desiring "that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar."

In conclusion, the translators stated that it was no light thing for them to have handled the Word of God, and they asked their readers for an equal sense of awe:

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God; but a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when he setteth his word before us, to read it; when he stretcheth out his hand and called, to answer, Here am I, here we are to do thy will, O God. The Lord work a care and conscience in us to know him and serve him that we may be acknowledged of him at the appearing of our Lord JESUS CHRIST, to whom with the Holy Ghost be all praise and thanksgiving. Amen.

The 1611 version, commonly called the King James Version, became the greatest treasure of the English language, and the greatest tool Englishmen used when they evangelized the world in the years ahead. England became noted for its many Bible societies.

At the time the King James Version was translated, Englishmen were reveling in their language, which was still in plastic form. No dictionary existed in the time of Shakespeare. Words either were borrowed from other languages, or were coined to suite the occasion. The importance of the spoken and written word to the English cannot be underestimated.

Englishmen in the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns piously believed that speech was God's greatest gift to man, and that if truth were truly uttered, it was bound to prevail. Furthermore, it was considered unnatural for a man to hear and reject God's truth, for it meant that Satan had entered into that man's heart.

The English had become a people of The Book, and The Book subtly remolded their thinking.

Once the English Bible got into the hands of the English, they began to develop a love and appreciation for the Jewish people, for they began to see them in the light of Bible prophecy. By the 1650s, the Puritans wanted to witness to Jews, but there were none (technically) in England; the Jews had been expelled in 1290!

The Jews themselves wanted to resettle in England, also to fulfill prophecy: the Scripture in Deuteronomy that their dispersion from the Holy Land would be "to the ends of the earth." If England's doors remained closed to them, that Scripture could not be fulfilled."

And if that Scripture were not fulfilled, then they believed they could not be restored to their cherished homeland in Palestine -- and the Messiah could not return.

A decidedly pro-Jewish atmosphere prevailed in England in 1655, when the Jews petitioned Oliver Cromwell's government for permission to resettle in England. Cromwell gave them his personal protection; official permission was not granted until 1664, during the reign of Charles II.

Three centuries later, the English government was privileged to pave the way for the establishment of the modern State of Israel. On November 2nd, 1917, England issued the Balfour Declaration, which began:

"His Majesty's government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object."


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