The translation of the Bible into any language is an event of the highest importance to those by whom that language is spoken. But when such a translation is to be read for successive centuries, by uncounted millions scattered over all the earth, and for whose use so many millions of copies have already been printed, it becomes a work of the highest moral and historical interest. Thus the translation and printing of the Bible in English forms a most important event in modern history. Far beyond any other translation, it has been, and is, and will be, to multitudes which none can number, the living oracle of God, giving to them, in their mother tongue, their surest and safest teaching on all that can affect their eternal welfare.
Many attempts had been made, at various times, to put different portions of the Scriptures into the common speech of the English people. Of these, one of the most noticeable was a translation of John's Gospel into Anglo-Saxon, made, at the very close of his life, by the "Venerable Bede", a Northumbrian monk, who died in his cell, in May, A.D. 735. A most interesting account of his last illness is given by Cuthbert, his scholar and biographer. Toward evening of the day of his death, one of his disciples said, "Beloved teacher, one sentence remains to be written." "Write it quickly, then," said the dying saint; and summoning all his strength for this last flash of the expiring lamp, he dictated the holy words. When told that the work was finished, he answered, "Thou sayest well. It is finished!" He then requested to be taken up, and placed in that part of his cell where he was wont to kneel at his private devotions; so that, as he said, he might while sitting there call upon his Father. He then sang the doxology, -"Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost!" and as he sang the last syllable, he drew his last breath. (See Neander, Denjwurdigkeiten, &c., III. 171-175; and Fuller, Church History, I. 149-151.)
The admirable King Alfred, who ascended the throne two hundred years after the birth of Bede, translated the Psalms into Anglo-Saxon. But the first complete translations which can be said to have been published, so as to come into extensive use, was that made by Wiclif, about the year 1380. It was not made from the "original Hebrew and Greek of the Holy Ghost;" but from the Vulgate, a Latin version, chiefly prepared by Jerome during the latter part of the fourth century. John Wiclif was born in Yorkshire, England, in the year 1324. He was a priest, and a professor of divinity in the University of Oxford. His ardent piety was nursed by the Scriptures which gave it birth. He is commonly called "the morning-star of the Protestant reformation," and was one of the brightest of those scattered lights of the Dark Ages, who are often spoken of as "reformers before the reformation." Like Martin Luther, his opposition to popish errors and corruptions was at first confined to a few points; but prayer, study of the Bible, and growing grace, led him on a constant advance toward the purity of truth. He became in doctrine what would now be called a Calvinist; and in church discipline his views agreed with those which are now maintained by Congregationalists. After encountering many prosecutions and persecutions, having however a powerful protector in John of Gaunt, (or Ghent, in Flanders, his native place,) the famous old Duke of Lancaster, Wiclif peacefully closed his devout and laborious life, at his rectory of Lutterworth, in 1384. Fourty-one years after, by order of the popish Council of Constance, his bones were unearthed, burned to ashes, and cast into the Swift, a neighboring brook. "Thus," says Thomas Fuller, "this brook has conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wiclif are the emblem of his doctrine, which is now dispersed the world over." (This noble passage from a favorite author, Wordsworth has finely versified in one of his Ecclesiastical Sonnets:
Into the Avon, Avon to the tide
Of Severn, Severn to the narrow seas,
Into main Ocean they, this deed accurst
An emblem yields to friends and enemies,
How the bold Teacher's doctrine, sanctified
By Truth, shall spread throughout the world dispersed."
Wiclif's translation of the Bible was made before the invention of the printing machines; and the manuscripts, though quite numerous, were very costly. Nicholas Belward suffered from popish cruelty in 1429, for having in his possession a copy of Wiclif's New Testament. That copy cost him four marks and forty pence. This sum, so much greater was the value of money then than it is now, was considered as a sufficient annual salary for a curate. The same value at the present time would pay for many hundred copies of the Testament, well printed and bound. Such are the marvels wrought by the art of printing, which Luther was wont to call "the last and best gift" of Providence. (Summum et postremum donum.) It has become the "capacious reservoir of human knowledge, whose branching streams diffuse sciences, arts, and morality, through all ages and all nations." (Darwin's Zoonomia, I. 51.) Let us hope, with an old writer, "that the low pricing of the Bible may never occasion the low prizing of the Bible."
Limited as the circulation of the English Bible must have been in its manuscript form, it still made no little trouble for the monkish doctors of that day. One of them, Henry de Knyghton, said, "This Master John Wiclif hath translated the gospel out of Latin into English, which Christ had intrusted with the clergy and doctors of the Church, that they might minister it to the laity and weaker sort, according to the state of the times and the wants of men. So that, by this means, the gospel is made vulgar, and made more open to the laity, and even to women who can read, than it used to be to the most learned of the clergy and those of the best understanding! And what was before the chief gift of the clergy and doctors of the Church, is made for ever common to the laity." If the publication of an English Bible in manuscript caused such popish lamentations, we need not wonder that the multiplication of a similar work in print should afterwards awaken such a fury, that Rowland Phillips, the papistical Vicar of Croyden, in a noted sermon preached at St. Paul's Cross, London, in the year 1535, declared; "We must root out printing, or printing will root out us!"
Manuscripts of Wiclifs complete version are still numerous. His Bibles are nearly as numerous as his New Testaments; and there are besides many copies of separate books of the Scriptures. They are quite remarkable for their legibility and beauty, and indicate the great care taken in making them, and in preserving them for nearly five hundred years. The New Testament of this version was printed in the year 1731, or three hundred and fifty years after it was finished. The whole Bible by Wiclif was never printed till two or three years since, when it appeared at Oxford, with the Latin Vulgate, from which it was translated, in parallel columns.
Contemporary with Wiclif, was John de Trevisa, born of an ancient family, at Crocadon in Cornwall. He was a secular priest, and Vicar of Berkeley. He translated several large works out of Latin into English; and chiefly the entire Bible, justifying himself by the example of the Venerable Bede, who had done the same thing for the Gospel of John. This great, and good, and dangerous task he performed by commission from his noble and powerful patron and protector, Lord Thomas de Berkeley. This nobleman had the whole of the book of Revelation, in Latin and French, which latter was then generally understood by the better educated class of Englishmen, written upon the walls and ceiling of his chapel at Berkeley, where it was to be seen hundreds of years after. Trevisa, notwithstanding his translation of the Bible made him obnoxious to the persecutors of his day, lived and died unmolested, though known to be an enemy of monks and begging friars. He expired, full of honor and years, being little less than ninety years of age, in the year 1397. (Fuller's Church History of Britain, I. 467.) Little else is known of him, or of his translation, which did not supersede the labors of Wiclif.
The first book ever printed with metal types was The Latin Bible, issued by Gutenberg and Fust, at Mentz, in the Duchy of Hesse, between the years 1450 and 1455, for it bears no date. It is a folio of 641 leaves, or 1282 pages, in two volumes. Though a first attempt, it is beautifully printed on very fine paper, and with superior ink. At least eighteen copies of this famous edition are known to be in existence; four of them on vellum, and fourteen on paper. Twenty-five years ago, one of the vellum copies was sold for five hundred and four pounds sterling; and one of the paper copies lately brought one hundred and ninety pounds. Truly venerable relics! Thus the printing-press paid its first homage to the Best of Books; the highest honor ever done to that illustrious art, and the highest purpose to which it could ever be applied.
The first Scripture ever printed in English was a sort of paraphrase of the seven penitential Psalms, so called, by John Fisher, the popish bishop of Rochester, who was beheaded by Henry VIII, in the year 1535. This little book was printed in 1505.
The first decided steps, however, toward giving to the English nation a Bible printed in their own tongue, were the translations of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, made by William Tyndale, and by him printed at Hamburg, in the year 1524; --and a translation of the whole of the New Testament, printed by him partly at Cologne, and partly at Worms, in 1525. After six editions of the Testament had been issued, he published Genesis and Deuteronomy, in 1530; and next year the Pentateuch. In the year 1535 was printed the entire Bible, under the auspices of Miles Coverdale, who mostly followed Tyndale as far as he had gone; but without any other connection with him. Of Coverdale, further mention will be made. But in the year 1537 appeared a folio Bible, printed in some city in Germany, with the following title,--"THE BYBLE, which is the Holy Scripture; in which are contayned the Olde and Newe Testament, truely and purely translated into Englysh--by Thomas Matthew.--MDXXXVII." This is substantially the basis of all the other versions of the Bible into English, including that which is now in such extensive use. It contains Tyndales' labors as far as he had gone previous to his martyrdom by fire about a year before its publication. That is to say, the whole of the New Testament, and of the Old, as far as the end of the Second Book of Chronicles, or exactly two-thirds of the entire Scripture, were Tyndale's work. The other third, comprising the remainder of the Old Testament, was made by his friend and co-laborer, Thomas Matthew, who was no other than John Rogers, the famous martyr, afterwards burnt in the days of "bloody Mary"; and who, at the time of his immortal publication, went by the name of Matthew.
William Tyndale, whose vast services to the English-speaking branches of the Church of God have never been duly appreciated, was born in the Hundred of Berkeley, and probably in the village of North Nibley, about the year 1484. His family was ancient and respectable. His grandsire was Hugh, Baron de Tyndale. From an early age, he was brought up at the University of Oxford. Here, during a lengthened residence in Magdalen College, he became a proficient in all the learning of that day, and in the latter part of his time read private lectures in divinity. He was ordained a priest in 1502; and became a Minorite Observatine friar. His zeal in the exposition of the Scriptures excited the displeasure of the adversaries, and "spying his time," says Foxe, "he removed from Oxford to the University of Cambridge, where he likewise made his abode a certain space." This place he had left by 1519. In total independence of Luther, he arose at the same time with that great translator of the Bible into German; being equally moved with him to resist the corruptions and oppressions of a priesthood, which sought to imprison and enslave the minds of all nations, by keeping from them "the key of knowledge".
Returning from Cambridge to his native county, he spent nearly two years in the manor- house of Little Sodbury, as tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh. On the Sabbath he preached in the neighboring parishes, and especially at St. Austin's Green, in Bristol. At Sir John's hospitable board, the mitred abbots, and other ecclesiastics who swarmed in that neighborhood, were frequent guests; and Tyndale sharply and constantly disputed their mean superstitions. At the first, Sir John and his lady Anne took the part of the "abbots, deans, archdeacons, with diverse other doctors and great-beneficed men;" but after reading a translation of Erasmus' "Christian Soldier's Manual", which Tyndale made for them, they took his part. Upon this, those "doctorly prelatists" forbore Sir John's good cheer, rather than to take with it what Fuller calls "the sour sauce" of Tyndale's conversation. A storm was now gathering over his head. Not only the ignorant hedge- priests at their ale-houses, but the dignified clergymen in the Bishop's councils began to brand him with the name of heretic. In 1522 he was summoned, with all the other priests of the district, before the bishop's Chancellor. In their presence he was very roughly handled. In his own account, he says, "When I came before the Chancellor, he threatened me grievously, and reviled me, and rated me as though I had been a dog."
It was not long after this, that in disputing with a diving reputed to be quite learned, Tyndale utterly confounded him with certain texts of Scripture; upon which the irritated papist exclaimed, --"It were better for us to be without God's laws, than without the Pope's!" This was a little too much for Tyndale, who boldly replied, "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than you do!". A noble boast; and nobly redeemed at the cost of his life! He now clearly saw, that nothing could rescue the mass of the English nation from the impostures of the high priests and low priests of Rome, unless the Scriptures were placed in the hands of all. "Which thing only," he says, "moved me to translate the New Testament. Because I had perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to establish that lay people in any truth, except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in the mother tongue."
When he could no longer remain at Sir John Walsh's without bringing that worthy knight, as well as himself, into danger, Tyndale went to London, with letters introducing him, as a ripe Greek scholar, to the patronage of that Dr. Tunstall, then bishop of London, who afterwards burned so many of Tyndale's New Testaments. The courtly and classical bishop refused to befriend him; and he who had hoped in that prelate's own house to translate the New Testament, was obliged to seek a harbor elsewhere. For nearly a year, he resided in the house of Humphrey Munmouth, a wealthy citizen of London, and afterwards an alderman, knight, and sheriff. During this time, he used to preach in the Church of St. Dunstan's in the West. By this time, he was convinced that no where in all England would he be permitted to put in act the glorious resolve he had formed at Little Sudbury.
In January 1524, with a heart full of love and pity for his native land, Tyndale sailed for Hamburg, being "helped over the sea" by the generous Munmouth, who also assisted him during his fifteen months' abode in that city. Here he so improved his time, that in May, 1525, he went to Cologne, and began to print his New Testament in quarto form. Ten sheets had hardly been worked off, before an alarm was raised, and the public authorities forbade the work to go on. Tyndale and his amanuensis, William Roye, managed to save those sheets and to sail with them up the Rhine to Worms, where they finished the edition of three thousand copies in comparative safety. A precious relic, containing the Prologue and twenty-two chapters of Matthew, is all that is known to exist of this memorable edition, which is in the German Gothic type. In the same year and place, there was printed another edition, in small-octavo, of which one copy is extant in the Bristol Museum. During the subsequent ten years of the Translators unquiet life, spent in labor and conceal- ment from foes, more than twenty editions of this work, with repeated revisions by himself, were passed through the press. These, through the agency of pious merchants and others, were secretly conveyed into England, and there with great privacy sold and circulated, not without causing constant peril and frequent suffering to those into whose hands they came. Many copies fell into the grasp of the enemy, and were destroyed; but very many more were secretly read and pondered in castles and in cottages, and powerfully prepared the way for the liberation of England from the yoke of Rome. This New Testament has been separately printed in not less than fifty-six editions, as well as in fourteen editions of the Holy Bible.
Besides all these impressions of the work as Tyndale left it, it has been five times revised by able translators, including those appointed by King James; and still forms substantially, though with very numerous amendments, the version in common use. The changes made in these revisions, though generally for the better, were not always so. The substitution of the word charity, where Tyndale had used love, was not a happy change; neither was that of church, where he had employed congregation. Still, large portions of his work remain untouched, and are read verbally as he left them, except in the matter of spelling. The fidelity of his rendering is such as might be expected from his conscientious care. "For I call God to record," he says, in his reply to Lord Chancellor More, "against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God's Word against my conscience; nor would this day, if all that is in the earth, whether it be pleasure, honor, or riches, might be given me."
Not only was this holy man faithful in his great work, but he was fully qualified for it by his scholarship. His sound learning is evident enough on reading his pages. Certain historians, however, while acknowledging his proficiency in Greek literature, have represented him as having little or no acquaintance with Hebrew, and as making his translations of the Old Testament from the Latin or else the German. As for German, then a rude speech just taking its "form and pressure" from the genius of Martin Luther, there is no evidence that Tyndale ever had much acquaintance with it. But of his knowledge of Hebrew there can be no question. In his answer to Sir Thomas More's huge volume against him, he accuses the prelates of having lost the understanding of the plain text, "and of the Greek, Latin, and especially of the HEBREW, which is MOST of need to be known, and of all phrases, the proper manner of speakings, and borrowed speech of the Hebrews." In these words he clearly indicates his critical familiarity with the Hebraisms of the New Testament, which contains so many expressions conformed rather to the idiom of the Hebrew tongue than to that of the Greek. George Joye, once occupied as his amanuensis, who turned against him, bears unwitting testimony upon this point. "I am not afraid," he says, "to answer Master Tyndale in this matter, for all his high learning in HEBREW, Greek and Latin, &c." What were the other tongues Joye referred to, we learn from Herman Buschius, a learned professor, who was acquainted with Tyndale both at Marburg and Worms. Spalatin, the friend of Luther, says in his Diary, --"Buschius told me, that, at Worms, six thousand copies of the New Testament had been printed in English. The work was translated by an Englishman staying there with two others,--a man so skilled in the seven languages, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, English, and French, that which- ever he spake, you would suppose it his native tongue."
We must draw this account of Tyndale to a close (Those who would know all they can of Tyndale are referred to the First Volume of Anderson's Annals of the English Bible, which might have been entitled, Tyndale and his Times.) But one curious incident must be mentioned, which took place in 1529. Tunstall, then bishop of the wealthy see of Durham, bought up the balance of an edition of the New Testament, which hung on Tyndale's hands at Antwerp, and burned them. The purchase was made through one Packington, a merchant who secretly favored Tyndale. The latter rejoiced to sell off his unsold copies, being anxious to put to press a new and corrected edition, which he was too poor to publish till thus furnished with the means by Tunstall's simplicity. A year or two after, George Constantine, one of Tyndale's coadjutors, fell into the hands of Sir Thomas More. That bitter persecutor promised his prisoner a pardon, provided he would give up the name of the person who defrayed the expense of this Bible-printing business. Constantine, being something of a wag, and aware that More was a dear lover of a joke, accepted the offer, and amused the Chancellor by informing him that the bishop of Durham was their greatest encourager; for, by buying up the unsold copies at a good round sum, he had enabled them to produce a second and improved edition. Sir Thomas greatly enjoyed the joke, and said he had told Tunstall at the time, that such would be the result of his fine speculation. "This," as D'Israeli says, "was the first lesson which taught persecutors that is easier to burn authors than books."
Early in 1535, Tyndale who had been constantly hunted by the emissaries of his English persecutors, was betrayed by one Phillips, a tool of Stephen Gardiner, the cruel and crafty bishop of Winchester. He suffered an imprisonment of more than eighteen months in the castle of Vilvorde, where he was the means of converting the jailor, the jailor's daughter, and others of the household. All that conversed with him in the castle bore witness to the purity of his character; and even the Emporer Charles the Fifth's Prosecutor-General, or chief prosecuting officer, who saw him there, said that he was "homo doctus, pius, et bonus,"--"a learned, pious, and good man." It was Friday, the sixth of October, 1536, when this man, "of whom the world was not worthy," and who ought to be famed as the noblest and greatest benefactor of the English race in all the world, was brought forth to die. Being fastened to the stake, he cried out with a fervent zeal, and in a loud voice,-- "LORD OPEN THE EYES OF THE KING OF ENGLAND!" He was then strangled, and burned to ashes. Thus departed one for whom heaven was ready; but for whom earth, to this hour, has no monument, except the Bible he gave to so many of her millions.
Till persecution dragged him into fame,
And chased him up to Heaven. His ashes flew--
No marble tells us whither. With his name
No bard embalms and sanctifies his song;
And history, so warm on meaner themes,
Is cold on this."
But there is a better world, where he is not forgotten. "Also now, behold, his witness is in heaven, and his record is on high."
Old John Foxe, the martyrologist, who justly calls Tyndale "the Apostle of England," gives the following beautiful sketch of the man--"First, he was a man very frugal, and spare of body, a great student and earnest laborer in setting forth the Scriptures of God. He reserved or hallowed to himself, two days in the week, which he named his pastime, Monday and Saturday. On Monday he visited all such poor men and women as were fled out of England, by reason of persecution, unto Antwerp; and these, once well understanding their good exercises and qualities, he did very liberally comfort and relieve; and in like manner provided for the sick and diseased persons. On the Saturday, he walked round the town, seeking every corner and hole, where he suspected any poor person to dwell; and where he found any to be well occupied, and yet overburthened with children, or else were aged and weak, these he also plentifully relieved. And thus he spent his two days of pastime, as he called it. And truly his alms were very large, and so they might well be; for his exhibition (i.e., pension) that he had yearly of the English merchants at Antwerp, while living there, was considerable, and that for the most part he bestowed upon the poor. The rest of the days of the week he gave wholly to his BOOK, wherein he most diligently travailed. When the Sunday came, then went he to some one merchant's chamber, or other, whither came many other merchants, and unto them would he read some one parcel of Scripture; the which proceeded so fruitfully, sweetly, and gently from him, much like to the writing of John the Evangelist, that it was a heavenly comfort and joy to the audience, to hear him read the Scriptures; likewise, after dinner, he spent an hour in the same manner. He was a man without any spot or blemish of rancor or malice, full of mercy and compassion, so that no man living was able to reprove him of any sin or crime; although his righteousness and justification depended not thereupon before God; but only upon the blood of Christ, and his faith upon the same. In this faith he died, with constancy, at Vilvorde, and now resteth with the glorious company of Christ's martyrs, blessedly in the Lord."
The good man's work did not die with him. During the last year of his life, nine or more editions of his Testament issued from the press, and found their way into England "thick and threefold." But what is strangest of all, and is unexplained to this day, at the very time when Tyndale by the procurement of English ecclesiastics, and by the sufference of the English king, was burned at Vilvorde, a folio-edition of his Translation was printed at London, with his name on the title page, and by Thomas Berthelet, the king's own patent printer. This was the first copy of the Scripture ever printed on English ground.