The year was 1428. A large procession approached the Church of St. Mary in the town of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, England. A number of senior clerics including several bishops were there, as were the lord sheriff of the county, lawyers, and several high-ranking lords and ladies. This was already an unusual assembly, but what made it disturbing was the presence of gravediggers and an executioner. A large group of townspeople followed.
The procession entered the church through the main doors and then turned in to the chancel, where someone pointed out an inscription on a flagstone. The gravediggers removed the flagstone, then prepared to exhume the coffin that had lain undisturbed for more than 40 years.
After some time they lifted up the coffin, proceeded up the nave, and then manhandled the casket through a small side door. The procession moved solemnly down the road to a field of execution that was close to the River Swift. Bundles of dry sticks had been arranged around a stake, to which a chain was attached at shoulder height. The coffin was opened and the body inside was jerked upright by the executioner and chained to the stake. The coffin itself was smashed to pieces and added to the dry wood.
The bishop of Lincoln stepped forward and solemnly cursed the partly mummified corpse as the pyre was ignited, commending the dead man’s soul to the devil for the crime of heresy. When all had been consumed, the ashes were scraped up and thrown into the nearby river so that no trace of the man remained to be revered by his admirers.
The man was John Wycliffe, and his “heresy” had been the translation and dissemination of the first complete Bible in English. However, it was because of the effect that reading the Bible had on people’s lives, and the danger this posed to the established church, that the penalty of burning for the act of heresy had been introduced. Later, during the Inquisition, the first question that was often asked of a suspected heretic was “Have you read the Bible in your own language?”
Today people all over the world can read their own Bibles in their own languages, and they take their easy access to it for granted. But for more than 1,000 years the Bible was generally available only in Latin and thus mostly unavailable to the common people in any of their vernaculars. The result was that the vast majority were utterly oblivious to what the Bible taught.
The Word Gets Out
The rapid spread of Bibles in many European languages began shortly before the Protestant Reformation. Among them, of course, was the English-language Bible.
Wycliffe had been instrumental in kindling a desire for the unadulterated Word of God in English, and he had become a figurehead for its spread in the latter third of the 14th century. Yet for this he was hated—condemned as next to the devil himself in wickedness. His translation was seen as a direct attack on the church. A second objection, given at least in part to cloak the first, was that popular access to a vernacular Bible would lead to heretical misunderstandings. It was believed that Scripture was given to, and could be understood by, only the learned or the clergy, and that Scripture was dangerous and seditious in the hands of the common man. The large numbers of hand-copied Wycliffite Bibles, whole or partial, that began to circulate therefore elicited a rigorous and often violent reaction from the English state and clergy, who were controlled by the church at Rome.
It was believed that Scripture was dangerous and seditious in the hands of the common man.
Though Wycliffe had lit a fire that smoldered underground and could not be extinguished in spite of all the persecution, England had to wait another 120 years for the Bible to become available to all. During that period, several factors worked together to lay the groundwork for change.
Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented a movable-type printing press, facilitating the mass production of works that had previously been laboriously hand-copied. This improved printing method enabled the rapid communication of ideas and information—for example, in 1517, when Martin Luther presented his 95 theses as an appeal to end church corruption, reputedly fastening them to the door of the chapel of Wittenberg Castle in Germany. Thanks to the printing press, copies of his theses were circulated far and wide, so that what might otherwise have been nothing more than a local issue became a widespread public controversy.
Mass printing was quickly put to use in publishing the Bible in a number of vernacular versions, including Luther’s German translation, thereby feeding a growing discontent with the Roman church and various of its teachings and practices.
2) The Protestant Reformation
The Reformation, the unexpected outcome of Luther’s opposition to church corruption, was accidentally born from an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church from within. Luther, an Augustinian monk, later often protested that he hadn’t intended the results, but his actions, coupled with the invention of printing, nevertheless marked a turning point in church history. It broke the grip of the Roman church over religious ideas and created an environment in which diversity of ideas, including those about the truth of God and His Word, could flourish.
The Reformation, like Gutenberg’s printing press, became a major force in the mass publication of Bibles in European languages.
3) Erasmus’s Translation
Another significant event at the time was the publication of a Latin New Testament in 1516 by the most eminent scholar of the day, the Dutchman Desiderius Erasmus. The work was remarkable in that Erasmus’s new Latin translation was published side-by-side with a Greek New Testament. Prior to the Renaissance, Greek had not been widely taught in the universities of Western Europe. Now, with the help of newly published Greek grammars and lexicons, scholars, all of whom spoke Latin, were able to translate the New Testament from the original Greek into various European languages. Previous translations had always been from Latin.
Erasmus’s New Testament underwent several revisions as the scholar gained access to better Greek manuscripts, compelling him to update the Greek text and correct the resultant errors in his Latin translation. With or without errors, however, his parallel New Testament proved immensely popular both during his lifetime and after his death in 1536.
Erasmus had actually dedicated his New Testament translation to Pope Leo XI, who commended him for it. Little did the pontiff realize that the translator’s work would prove instrumental in making the Bible accessible to the common people.
4) William Tyndale
Tyndale’s life’s mission was the translation of the Bible from its original languages of Greek and Hebrew into English so that the common man could read it freely. His work was the major reference point for most of the English translations that followed for a century after his death in 1536, including the King James Version.
Like Wycliffe, Tyndale was burned as a heretic, having translated the entire New Testament and part of the Old. His last words as he bravely faced death were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”
5) Henry VIII’s Battle With Rome
Henry VIII (1491–1547), the king of whom Tyndale spoke, was driven by a desire to father a male heir. His break with Rome (from 1532) over his divorce and remarriage led to the dissolution of monasteries and the wholesale seizure of church lands. It also broke the power of the church in England. Henry then set himself up as the head of a new institution—the Church of England.
Having the Bible in English was seen as a useful and powerful political counter to the religious influence of Rome.
Before long, having the Bible in English was seen as a useful and powerful political counter to the religious influence of Rome. So Henry’s new chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, who had drafted the legislation that made the Church of England separate from Rome, began to maneuver for this.
The distinction of producing the first complete printed English-language Bible (1535) goes to Miles Coverdale. Not knowing Greek or Hebrew, Coverdale relied on Tyndale’s translation for the New Testament. For the Old Testament, he used what Tyndale had completed and added to it translations from Luther’s German Bible and certain Latin versions. Ironically the first edition was coming off the presses (probably in Germany) while Tyndale was languishing in prison.
John Rogers, who seems to have worked for a short time with Coverdale assisting Tyndale in his translation work, is thought to have rescued much of Tyndale’s Old Testament after the latter’s betrayal and arrest. Rogers then produced another version based on Tyndale’s. What was lacking of the Old Testament was made up with Coverdale’s translation. Because Tyndale had been branded a heretic, his name could not be mentioned, so it was replaced by “Thomas Matthew” (after two of Christ’s disciples). Fifteen hundred copies of the “Matthew’s Bible” sold out quickly in England in 1537.
So within a year of Tyndale’s death a second Bible in English was circulating in Britain. To complete the irony, this Bible, two thirds of which was Tyndale’s translation, was approved by King Henry. The title page stated, “Set forth with the king’s most gracious license.” Only a subsequent edition of Coverdale’s Bible (1537) shares the honor of having been licensed by an English monarch. (The King James Version, known in later editions as the Authorized Version, was commissioned but never authorized by James I. Only the Great Bible of 1540, a revision of Matthew’s Bible produced under King Henry’s authority, was actually authorized, as distinct from licensed, by an English monarch).
God may or may not have opened the king of England’s eyes, but the king’s infidelity and desire to perpetuate his dynasty at any cost led to something far beyond Tyndale’s hopes. A literal flood of Bible translations and editions followed those printed in King Henry’s reign, the most well-known being the Geneva Bible (1560) and the 1611 King James Version.
The king’s infidelity and desire to perpetuate his dynasty at any cost led to something far beyond Tyndale’s hopes.
6) The Developing English Languish
By the early 16th century, the English language was ripe for the genius of Tyndale, who honed it to a new level of expressiveness and cohesiveness through his translation of the New Testament. It has been said that he didn’t just translate into English, he transformed English. He set a new standard for the language—part of the basis on which later literary giants such as William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and John Milton would build. Tyndale’s achievement was similar to the better-known contribution Luther made to the development of the German language.
It seems that English was destined to become a lingua franca. And the King James translation of 1611, the work of scholarly committees who leaned heavily on Tyndale’s work, also set a standard and came to be seen as a monument to a language whose time had come. It became a point of reference at a time when the English-speaking nations were beginning their journey to great power.
7) The Bible Itself
The greatest force for change was the impact of the Bible itself on the minds and convictions of those whose lives it touched. What Tyndale had wanted, as he once famously said, was that every boy who drove a plough would know his Bible. That was really the thrust of his dying prayer. There is little doubt that he would have seen the amazing transformation in the fortunes of the English-language Bible—the initial trickle of Bibles becoming a torrent—as a fulfillment of his lifelong dream.
But Was It Enough?
The combined effect of the seven historic factors discussed above created a unique transformation. A prominent English historian, Patrick Collinson, notes: “England, which at the beginning of the sixteenth century seems to have been one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, became, by the seventeenth century, the most virulently anti-Catholic.”
Perhaps this can be attributed at least in part to the fact that their newly acquired access to Scripture allowed people to appreciate the yawning gap between biblical standards of conduct and those embraced by the prevailing church. The Bible also exposed or held up to scrutiny many of the superstitions and false notions that had masqueraded as truth or science.
Over time, the Bible and an awareness of its laws and principles found its way into the constitutions, institutions and culture of modern English-speaking peoples. Unlike many European nations, which generally adopted the Roman model, many British and American conventions trace their origins, in large part, to the Bible.
Even so, most of the people who brought the vernacular English Bible to us never fully subjected themselves to its authority either. Traditional Christianity of various stripes continued to hold on to and even build on some of the errors that had found their way into the church over the centuries. So while many English-speaking nations were founded to a great extent on biblical principles and laws, those foundations were nevertheless compromised. The eventual result has been that the mores of and even the laws now being passed by our English-speaking Western nations, often supported by people who consider themselves Christian, are in flagrant opposition to the Book that was for a time revered by many as the authoritative reference source for moral standards and conduct.
Perhaps some things haven’t changed much in the past 2,000 years. The Jews in Christ’s day believed they were the chosen people, the people of the Book. And in part they were. But many of their leaders were hung up on customs, power, position and prestige. They were, in effect, some of the most tenacious opponents of the truth while claiming to be its greatest protagonists (see Matthew 23). They and many of their forefathers stopped at nothing in their resistance to the unadulterated message of God’s Word (Acts 7:51–54).
Today there are those who similarly prefer to look to human authority for comfortable standards of conduct and systems of belief. But the Bible is a book that makes claims on all men and women, regardless of nationality, language or station in life. It is a book that claims to be the very handbook that their maker, God, caused to be written as an authoritative guide for conduct in all its aspects. Maybe it was inevitable that such a claim to authority would not long remain unchallenged.
From numerous directions—now predominantly secular and humanistic—the “book of books” has again come under sustained and vehement attack. Both the credibility and the historical influence of the Bible are marginalized or even openly attacked by those who see human reasoning as the only rational guide in life.
And so the Bible continues to be viewed in some circles as a most dangerous book.