Christianity entered Britain in the second century, of possibly even earlier. In the third century it prevailed through that island, but under the Roman invaders, their paganism crushed it out. In the sixth and seventh centuries it triumphed again. In the year 596 Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine and other missionaries to Britain, and succeeded in making many converts, among them Ethelbert, the king of Kent, and chief of the Saxon monarchs. Other Saxon kings, also, were converted, and large numbers of the people. During these and the later centuries of Christian dominance various Saxon paraphrases, or free translations of the Scriptures, were made from the Latin.
Portions of the Psalms, of the Gospels, and of other parts of Scripture were thus given to the people of Britain, and though they have all been lost, still they must be named as forming the first of versions for what is known as the British Isles. Venerable Bede, who died in 735, translated the Psalms and the Gospel of John into Anglo-Saxon, finishing his work on the very day of his death. King Alfred the Great, too, who died 901, translated parts of the Old Testament. He was engaged upon the Psalms at the time of his death.
About the year 680 Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, wrote the four Gospels in Latin, About 950 a priest named Aldred made an interlinear translation of it, word for word, in Anglo-Saxon. This work is known as the "Durham Book," as it once belonged to the dean and chapter of Durham. It is also sometimes called the "Cuthbert Gospels," because the manuscript is said to have been used by St. Cuthbert; and it has likewise been called the "Lindisfarne Gospels," from the See of the bishop who wrote the Latin.
In the twelfth century there was an Anglo-Norman version Of the Psalms written. Later in the twelfth, or early in the thirteenth century, an Augustine monk named Orm, or Ormin, wrote a versified paraphrase of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, which he called "Ormulum."
John Wyckliffe flourished in the fourteenth century (1323-1384). He was a godly and scholarly man. He saw that what the people needed in order to a reformation of their faith and their living, was some authoritative rule of belief and practice. This standard was in the Scriptures, but the people had no access to the Scriptures in their native tongue. To enforce his appeals to the people he sought to give them the true rule, and to this end he addressed himself to preparing a translation of the entire Bible. His work was successfully finished near the close of his life, the Scriptures as a whole being then for the first time translated into the English language. He began his work with the book of Revelation. Of this work the eminent Dr. Charles P. Krauth says: "Even had Wyckliffe been a Greek or Hebrew scholar, it is doubtful whether he could have secured texts of the sacred originals from which to translate. That he translated the version [the Vulgate] universally received in the Western Church, quoted by her fathers, read, and sung, and preached from, in her services, and that he rendered it with a severe closeness approaching servility, would help to remove prejudice, and to avert or soften the suspicion that he was adapting Scripture to his own ends, against the Roman hierarchy. Like Luther, Wycliffe drew to him co-workers in his translation; like Luther he suffered from plagiarists of his work; like Luther he saw his work eagerly circulated, bitterly opposed and triumphant over opposition; like Luther he escaped the stake, with which he was threatened; like Luther his enemies sought to wreak upon his bones the malice which survived his death." Wyckliffe has been aptly designated, "The Morning Star of the Reformation."
He was fighting the battle of the Reformation, its "Morning Star," a hundred and fifty years before its Sun should rise. The Archbishop of Canterbury summoned Wycliffe before him. He appeared with the great John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster on one side, and the Earl-Marshal of England on the other, so his enemies feared to touch him; still he wrote plain words for the people, learned ones for the schools, and still he was listened to, loved and hated. "Christen men and wymmen, olde and yonge," he wrote, "shulden studie fast in the New Testament, for it is of full authorite as to the poyntis that be most needful to salvation."
In 1382 he was again summoned before the authorities of Oxford, and forced to make a confession or defense of his faith. This was declared satisfactory, but he was banished from Oxford, and two years afterward he died at Lutterworth, of palsy, while in his church. Forty years afterward the Council of Constance ordered his bones to be burnt and thrown into a brook. Fuller tells in words "quaint almost to sublimity," how "This brook hath conveyed his ashes into the Avon, Avon into the Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean, and thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which is now dispersed all the world Over,"
William Tyndale, who was born 1484 and died 1535, is justly regarded as having made the most important contribution of any one man to the work of translating the Scriptures into English, He was certainly a great admirer of Martin Luther, and it is affirmed that he and Luther met in person at Wittemberg. Be this, however, as it may, of this there is no doubt, that Tyndale drew much of his inspiration from Luther, and that in his work as a translator he followed exactly in Luther's footsteps, as far at least as the order of his work is concerned. Both issued the New Testament first, then the Pentateuch, then Jonah. Tradition has it that Tyndale completed his translation in 1526, but his final revision of the New Testament did not appear until 1534.
When but thirty-four years of age, Tyndale said: "Ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plow to know more of Scripture, than the great body of the clergy now know." ·
Tyndale's last work was upon the Scriptures. Up to the time when he was taken from his prison to be strangled and burnt, he toiled on in efforts to give the pure word of God to the masses of the people. It is generally conceded that to him, more than to any other, the cause of English versions owes a debt of gratitude. He died at the stake in October, 1536. his last words were "Lord! open the king of England's eyes."
Miles Coverdale was an English bishop. He was born in Yorkshire in 1487, and died in 1568. He was educated in the Romish faith, becoming a monk of the Augustine order, but was one of the first Englishmen who embraced the Reformed religion. He is said to have aided Tyndale in the work of revision in 1529. In 1555 he issued a complete translation of the Bible, which, however, was more of compilation of other men's renderings than a production of his own. His New Testament was almost solidly a transcript of Tyndale's, while his copying from others is so gross, that errors of spelling as well as of translation are inserted bodily. Many happy expressions, however, introduced by Coverdale into his work, still appear in King James' version.
The place of printing Coverdale's Bible was long one of the puzzles of English bibliographers. But about four years ago the secret was discovered by Henry Stevens. It was printed at Antwerp, by Van Meteren, who indeed employed Coverdale, as he was a scholar and translator.
What is known as Matthew's Bible appeared in 1537. It is a combination of the issues of Tyndale and Coverdale, with careful revision. It was published by John Rogers, a friend of Tyndale, who used the assumed name of Matthew in this publication. He was educated at Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1525. About the same time he entered into holy orders. In 1532 he became rector of a Church located in London. In 1534 he left England and went to Antwerp, where he was appointed chaplain to the "Merchant Adventurers," an old corporation of that city. Here he became acquainted with Tyndale, and, probably, with Coverdale. Here, also, his reformatory opinions were developed, and, as evidence of his entire breaking off from Rome he married, probably about the year 1537.
Matthew's Bible is specially valuable for matters outside of the text, for Rogers was a fine scholar, and his work shows advanced learning. It has numerous marginal notes and comments; an "exhortacyon to the study of the Holy Scrypture;" a brief system of theology called the "Summe and content of all the Holy Scrypture;" an address to "the Chrysten readers;" and a "Table of pryncipal matters conteyned in the Byble." This last is a of dictionary and concordance combined, one of the earliest in our language, and is taken chiefly from the French Bible of Olivetan.
What is known as the Great Bible was a revision of the Tyndale-Matthew's Bible. This Bible had been much complained of because of its notes and comments on the text. These were all stricken out and other unimportant changes were introduced, and in this shape the Great Bible appeared in 1539. The Great Bible inserts in smaller type, at their appropriate places, the peculiar renderings of the Vulgate. It is marked by the features of conservatism seeking to harmonize with reformation. The Inquisition set itself against the civil power, and though permission was granted by the king of France, the Bibles were seized and burned. A few, however, were saved and the translation was completed in London, 1589.
The volume bearing this name was a hasty revision of the Tyndale translation, which appeared in 1539, under the editorship of Richard Taverner. It retained all of Tyndale's marginal notes and added a large number more. His Old Testament is that of Matthew, with some variations; his New Testament is Tyndale's with numerous changes in the translation. He retained many of the notes in Matthew's Bible, and added some valuable original comments.
Under the patronage of Lord Cromwell, and dedicated to the king, three editions were sold in the first year of issue, 1539, and two editions of the Testament. One of the Bibles was in folio and two in 4to; one of the Testaments was 4to, and the other 12mo. In 1549 an edition was published in 12mo, in five volumes or parts, especially for the poor.
This Bible appeared in 1540, being in the main a revision of the Great Bible. Archbishop Cranmer wrote a prologue to this edition and assumed the official responsibility of its changes. For these reasons it bears his name.
This Bible was printed in London by Parisian workmen, and with Parisian type. Through Cromwell it received the approbation of the king. This Bible and the five subsequent editions known by the name of "Cranmer's Bibles," were severally issued April, 1540, July, 1540, November, 1540, May, 1541, November, 1541, December, 1541. In the edition of November, 1540, the arms of Cromwell, which had appeared under his figure in the engraving on the title-page, were removed, and a suggestive Blank space tells the story of his fall. The index hands, which had been intended to refer to the notes, had they been written, were also seen no more. The editions of November, 1540, and November, 1541, have on the title-page the names of Bishops Tunstall and Heath, who were appointed by the king to oversee the work, because they belonged to the party opposed to Cromwell.
The first Genevan New Testament appeared in Geneva from the press of Conard Badins, in 1557. It was probably the work of William Whittingham, pastor of the refugees, and husband of a sister of John Calvin's wife. Though based on Tyndale's translation, it shows much independent scholarship, and somewhat, also, the influence of Besa's Latin Testament. It was the first portion of the English Scriptures divided into verses. It had a noble preface by Calvin, and many explanatory notes in the margin.
It may be of interest to know the names of the persons who translated this Genevan Bible. These were, probably, Whittingham, Coverdale, Gilby, Sampson, Cole, and perhaps the famous John Knox. But only three seemed to have continued to the end; and these were pretty certainly Whtttingham, Gilby and Sampson.
In 1560 appeared at Geneva the whole Bible; the work of a few of the English refugees. The New Testament was that of 1557 slightly revised; but the Old Testament and Apocrypha are a far more independent translation from the originals than any earlier English Bible. This Bible had abundant marginal notes, which were not acceptable to the prelatical party. It was divided into verses throughout, and its Roman letter editions were the first to employ italics to mark words not in the original, though earlier Bibles had done the same thing by a variation in type. This became the popular Bible, and continued to be printed in England long after the appearance of our present version. It was the first Bible printed in Scotland, the New Testament appearing in 1576, but not published till the Old Testament was completed, in 1579.
In 1576 appeared Lawrence Tomson's Testament, purporting to be a translation of Beza, though really a revision of the Genevan. This soon became the popular Testament, and replaced the other in most later editions of the Genevan Bible.
The Cranmer Bible, though in authority by the Archbishop's influence, was far from satisfactory. Confessedly, it was not made from the originals in many parts. It was a translation, or an adaptation of earlier translations, and much of the work upon it was very carelessly done. To remedy these evils, Archbishop Parker, of Canterbury, in 1565, distributed the Cranmer Bible among the "able bishops and other learned men" for revision, subject, however, to his own final decision. The result of their labor was published in 1568, and, after a somewhat completer revision, in 1572, it became known as "The Bishops' Bible." It made a number of improvements, but was so devoid of popular character as to make it certain that its reception could, at most, be only for the time. This was the Bible of the Established Church, and the Genevan was the Bible of the Dissenters.
As Geneva was the place of refuge for Protestant refugees, so Rheims became the refuge for English Romanist refugees, and in 1582 they issued a New Testament, translated "into English out of the authentic Latin." This work was in no small measure influenced by existing Protestant versions. But it has given as well as received, for some important terms in the authorized version are undoubtedly derived from this Romanist source. In 1609, the Old Testament, translated by Roman Catholics, appeared at Douay. These two versions are to this day the English standards in the Romish Church.
All the versions named above, preceded that of King James, and to some extent prepared the way for it. They were of varying merit, and were produced under various circumstances, having this in common, however, that they all gave the Scriptures in the English language.