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The Story of the English Bible

for Younger Readers

Holy BibleThe Sabbath sun rises and sets, bringing to our hearts and homes unnumbered blessings. The gospel is preached to thousands; and hosts of children, in the quiet of their own dwellings, or amid the cheerful hum of the Sunday-school, read the holy book of God. We may apply to these times the prophecy of old: "They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid," Micah 4:4. But how seldom do we remember the wearisome labors, and the long and deadly struggles of holy men in former ages, in their efforts that the people might have, in all its freeness and fullness, [an inexpensive] and open Bible.

We will go back in our thoughts to other times, and, with grateful feelings, trace the steps which led to this blessed result.

It was in the year 1428, or thereabouts, a man, named Lawrence Coster, was seen walking on the outside of the walls of the old city of Haarlem, in Holland. His pace was slow, and it was evident that his mind was engaged in deep thought. As he walked, he came to a grove, and there with his knife he cut a piece of bark from a tree. He paced up and down beneath the shade of the grove, and amused himself with carving the bark. Now and then he paused, and then again went on with his work. As he turned to go home he found he had cut the shape of a number of raised letters on the face of the bark. That evening he sat down in his house, and carved more letters on other pieces of wood. When he had done several in this way he fastened them together by a piece of string. Some ink was then made thick, and rubbing the faces of the letters with it, he pressed a sheet of paper against, them. He gazed on what he had done with surprise, and well he might. To him it was the first idea of printing. He had made the earliest attempt, in Europe at least, of impressing on paper the thoughts of the mind. There was hope for the world in those pieces of bark tied together by a string.

A few years passed away, and another man, of the name of Gutenberg, was busy in a small workshop in the German city of Mentz [or Mainz], cutting letters. This time, however, they were not made of wood or bark, but of metal. Nor were several carved on one piece of wood, each was a separate type, or letter. Something of a machine, too, called a press, had been formed, and with those metal types he soon set about printing books. The volume that was printed was a Latin Bible. It was not finished, as it would be now, in a few weeks; but nearly eight years passed before it came from the workmen's hands. Every one who saw it was astonished. Copy after copy was sent forth, all exactly alike, and it seemed as if they had been produced by miracle. Who could write them so fast? How could they be made so rapidly? Why was it that they all appeared alike—page for page, line for line, the same to the smallest dot? Men knew but little of this infant art, nor did they foresee, in its first efforts, the earnest of the richest blessings to all mankind. Surely, it was well that the first volume thus printed was the best book—that it was God's book. It was the pledge of the great things to be done by the discovery of the art of printing, in giving the Holy Scriptures to every nation on the earth.

Let, us now trace another step in the course that led to a free and full Bible for the people.

England was to receive the benefit of the new art, in conveying to it the Scriptures in the language of the people, through the means of William Tyndale. This worthy man was born on the borders of Wales, of parents who were in a humble condition of life. How little did they think, as they looked on him in his infancy, that he would become one of the best friends of his country, and that his name would be held by many in more honor than any conqueror who ever lived! [Note: "The history of the English Bible properly begins with John Wycliffe (1324-1384)...The Tyndale New Testament of 1525 was the first English translation based on Greek and the first to be printed. The Wycliffe Bible was based on Latin and published only in hand-written manuscripts...William Tyndale (c1494-1536) is therefore the most important name in the history of the English Bible..."—David Cloud, The Glorious History of the English Bible, Way of Life Literature, ©2006.]

In the course of time, William Tyndale became a poor priest of one of the colleges in Oxford. As he sat one day with some fellow priests, he spoke of the value of the word of God, when they mockingly said, "We are better without God's law than the pope's law." To which Tyndale replied: "If God spare me, before many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do."

The young priest saw that the people were living and dying without Bible knowledge, deceived by the vain doctrines of the church of Rome, and he quietly resolved to get the New Testament printed in English for the use of all. This was a good and great thought—a bold and daring thought—for a poor man to cherish; yet, with the help of God, he was resolved to make the attempt. He was not content to plan and arrange this important work, but with labor and patience he sought to carry it forward.

Tyndale had heard of the learning and riches of the bishop of London, and in his simplicity he thought he would surely aid him in the pious design; but he soon found that there was "no room in my lord of London's palace to translate the word of God, nor any safe place to do it in all England."

At this time there lived in London a pious and wealthy merchant, named Monmouth, who had been taught the truth through reading the books of the reformers in Germany. He was a kind friend to Tyndale, and gave him a room in his house, where the good priest used to sit, night and day, busy with his pen and Latin Bible. But these were times of danger to those who truly feared God. Tyndale, therefore, well supplied with money by his liberal patron, set sail over the North Sea, and went to the great city of Hamburg. Then, removing to Cologne, he went on in the translation and printing of the New Testament, until ten sheets were done.

Two pious friends, Frith and Roye, assisted Tyndale in the translation. There they sat, day by day, in an old-fashioned room in an obscure street in the city of Cologne. Pens, parchment, and paper were before them; one read the Latin Bible, a second the Greek, and the third wrote down the words of the sacred text in English. In about a year this work was finished. Tyndale then found a printer who was willing to print it. This was a service full of danger. Popish priests were on the alert to find out any who aided the reformers in their work. But onward the printing went. In this state of things, an agent of the Inquisition found out what was going forward. He heard that a learned Englishman was in the city, and that some printers had been heard to say that soon all England would become Protestant. This man thought he would find out what all this boasting meant. So with much craft he made friends with the printers, and invited them to his house. Here he well supplied them with wine. In the midst of their mirth they made known the secret, that some hundreds of copies of the New Testament in English were in the press, which were to be secretly carried over the seas by the merchants. The next morning the printer's house was surrounded by officers, and the press was seized; but not before Tyndale, warned of the danger, ran to the rescue of his printed sheets, which he threw into a boat, and pushed his way from the shore. Sailing up the river Rhine he soon came to a safer place of labor. Often had the small ships of those days passed along this famous river with the wares and wealth of the merchants of Germany, but never did one carry so rich a treasure as was in the boat which conveyed Tyndale and the Bible sheets to the city of Worms. After great pains, and cost, and toil, the last sheet of the New Testament was completed. Fifteen hundred copies were printed—a large edition in those days; and now the bread of life seemed prepared for the people of his own dear native land.

English merchants took charge of the books, and carried them to England along with articles of commerce. The precious volume was packed in bales, and sent to London, Norwich, and Oxford. There they were readily bought by the rich, but though they were sold at a cheap rate, only a few of the poor could save money enough to purchase the holy book. Soon, however, they were found spread over the land, and many souls rejoiced in the Gospels and Epistles, which for the first time were held in their hands, and now cherished in their hearts. Some, on receiving a portion of the precious book, fell on their knees, and thanked God with tears of joy for it.

When the Roman Catholic bishop of London was told that the printed books were coming fast to England, he was filled with alarm and anger. He soon sent out orders to make a diligent search among the merchants of London and the students of Oxford, for the forbidden work. Among the latter, some of those who were found to have it were thrust into a dungeon, where four of them soon died. Others were made to carry fagots of wood, and with them to kindle a fire, into which their own hands had to cast the books. As the flames rose into the air, the people were solemnly warned against the reading of the word of God.

But the hope of burning the New Testament out of the land was all in vain. The printer-priest kept working off more copies, and they were taken across the seas hidden in the corn which was carried to England, at a time when great scarcity was felt. Thus bread to feed the body, and the bread of life for the soul, came in the same ships, and were together sent through the land.

Decrees were issued against the possession of the New Testament; the seaports and ships were strictly watched; the warehouses and houses were searched; but still the blessed books arrived. Sometimes even Jews brought them over the seas. They came in pedlars' packs, and in boxes of merchandise—now in one way, and then in another.

At length, the bishop of London hit upon a cunning plan, as he vainly thought, of putting a stop to the arrival of these books. He supposed, that if every copy could be bought up in the place where they were printed, the work would soon be at an end. A London merchant was engaged to do this business. "Do your diligence to get them," said the bishop, "and I will pay for them whatsoever they cost you." The merchant ordered his ship to be ready without delay, and crossing the seas, offered to buy up all the stock in hand. The bargain was soon made: the bishop had the books, the merchant the thanks, and Tyndale the money!

A few days after the books were safely in the charge of the bishop, a number of people were seen making their way along Cheapside and up Ludgate Hill. It was reported that there was to be a great sentence passed, to be followed by an execution. As they came to St. Paul's Cross, a large fire was sending up clouds of smoke high above the house-tops. And now the bishop's officers came with the poor prisoners—the Testaments, which were cast one by one into the flames, while a priest stood in the old stone pulpit in the open space, and loudly praised what was being done. But when all was over, many in that crowd could not but think how wicked and how shameful it was thus to burn God's holy book.

As a further proof of their anger, the priests seized Tyndale's brother, John, and one of his friends. Then they set them on horseback, their faces turned to the tails of the horses, with bundles of New Testaments hung around them. In this manner they were made to ride through the streets of London, and on coming to St. Paul's to throw the books into the fire.

But—how great the dismay—New Testaments were still brought to England! The bishop soon sent for the merchant, and cried, "How is this, sir? Did you not promise and assure me that you had bought them all?" "Yes," was the reply; "I bought all that then were to be had, but I perceive they have made more since; and it will never be better so long as they have the letters and the presses; therefore it were best for your lordship to buy them too, and then you are sure." The bishop only smiled at this answer, for he thought that, if he parted with more money, other letters and presses would be bought with it, and he should only serve to aid the cause he wished to crush.

Finding how vain were all attempts to stop the circulation of the New Testaments, the next plan was to secure their author. Spies were sent over to decoy him to England. Though ready to suffer anything in his heavenly Master's work, he would not willingly throw himself into danger. Craft, however, brought him into the hands of his enemies. While quietly pursuing his labor beneath the hospitable roof of an English friend, named Poyntz, at the city of Antwerp, two wolves in sheep's clothing came to the house—one in the disguise of a merchant; the other, who was a monk, was dressed as his servant. They pretended great interest in the doctrines of the Bible Christians, and were soon welcomed to their society. But Phillips—for that was the name of the pretended merchant—came to watch Tyndale, and, if possible to seize him.

One day, when Poyntz went some miles distant on business, a snare was laid for the noble reformer. Phillips called on Tyndale to borrow forty shillings, under the excuse that he had lost his purse on the road. They then agreed to walk out together. There was a long narrow passage to go through, leading to the street. Phillips drew back, as if politely to allow his friend to go first, when two officers were seen standing at the door. "Take your prisoner," cried the pretended friend, and in a moment Tyndale was in their grasp, while Phillips hastened to receive from the priests the reward of his treachery.

Tyndale was carried to a castle eight miles from Brussels, and placed in a close chamber. Here he remained for some time, but his faith in Christ made the gloomy prison a place of hope and of happiness to him. His way of life was so holy, that the other prisoners said, "Well, if he is not a good Christian man, we know not in whom to trust." Through his teaching the jailer and his daughter were converted to God.

But once in the power of his enemies, nothing could save him from their wrath. From that castle he did not come out till eighteen months had passed, and then only to die as a martyr.

At length, in October, 1536, he was condemned as a heretic, and ordered to be burned. On being fastened to the stake, he raised his eyes to heaven, and cried, "Lord, open the eyes of the king of England." His prayer was heard; for, before three years had passed away, king Henry of England gave his consent to the circulation of the Bible, in the native tongue, throughout the kingdom. Thus perished this noble man, one of England's best reformers; as some one has said of him, "In putting the New Testament into the hands of Englishmen, he gave them the charter of salvation, the book of eternal life; while his own history affords a beautiful example of its purifying and saving power, under the blessing of the Holy Spirit."

We pass on to another stage in the history of the English Bible.

King Henry the Eighth began his reign as a good friend of the pope. After a while, a quarrel arose, and he took the religious affairs of his kingdom into his own hands. This gave rise to hope in the hearts of all Bible-readers. They now expected to enjoy the truth unmolested. The king's favorite adviser, Cromwell, earl of Essex, was a friend to the circulation of the Scriptures, and he determined to have a complete edition printed in the English language. For this purpose he sent Coverdale, a pious and learned man, to the city of Paris, where the best printing was then done, to superintend the work. Although protected by the English ambassador, the pope ordered the printers not to proceed. The agents of the Inquisition were sent to seize the work; yet not till Coverdale, who before the storm burst on him had seen the gathering clouds, had secreted a quantity of the halfprinted sheets, and conveyed them privately beyond their reach. A large portion, however, fell into their hands: some were burned, and as much as "four great dry vats full" were sold to a haberdasher to "lap his caps in." Coverdale fled to London, where the book was again put into the press, and was, without further hinderance, "Fynisshed Apryle, anno, 1539," and soon had an extensive sale. From its size, it was called "The Great Bible." The clergy were then required to provide "one boke of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English, to be set up in the churches before Christmas."

There were not many of the common people then who knew even the use of books. Any one who could read was deemed quite a "clerk," and a little crowd would gather around him, while others sat or stood listening to the blessed truths of God.

Many persons who had the money bought the book, though it cost a very large sum. As a proof of the desire to possess it, a farmer, it is said, once gave a load of hay for two or three chapters of the New Testament. Many elderly people learned to read on purpose to peruse for themselves God's holy book; and even little children flocked among the rest to hear portions of it read. Truly, "the word of the Lord was precious in those days."

At the death of Henry, his son, Edward the Sixth, succeeded to the throne. He began his short reign when quite a youth; but young as he was, he gave promise of great devotedness to the interests of true religion. On his coronation day, when he beheld the three swords used on such occasions, he asked where the fourth was. His lords looked up with surprise, and asked what he meant. "The Bible," he answered; "that book is the sword of the Spirit, and is to be preferred before these swords: without that, we are nothing, we can do nothing, we have no power." He loved the Bible himself; he knew, from sweet experience, that its truths were precious to the soul. During his reign, which lasted only six years and a-half, the press was fully employed; fifty editions of the Bible were issued; and numbers of the people were nourished by its truths.

But Mary, who next sat on the English throne, was a cruel bigot. One of her first laws was to stop the people from reading the Bible. She had resolved to bring the whole nation back to Popery. Then came dark days to England. Again people were called upon to choose between Bible religion and Popery; and at what a fearful risk men chose the former! It was the Bible and death; yet there were not only men, but delicate women and children, who counted not their lives dear to them for the steadfast love they bore to the word of God. Good John Rogers was the first of that noble band of English martyrs who at this time sealed their attachment to the Saviour by their blood.

In spite of laws and spies, many a little congregation used to steal away into the thick forests, to lonely fields, to cellars and barns, to read the book of life. In Fox's "Book of Martyrs," we have a pleasing little picture of a pious company who went to the borders of St. John's Wood, then a wild and lonely spot on the north-west of London. It was the morning of May-day, and, while their neighbors were dancing around the Maypole, they were engaged in listening to the word of God. But the constables, with staves and spears, broke upon them as they sat under the trees, and arrested them. They were all committed to prison, and soon after, thirteen were burned for hearing the word of God read, and believing its truths!

Everywhere the enemies of the Bible were on the watch. They cast into prison, or placed in the stocks, the faithful servants of God; many of whom, refusing to return to the Papal faith, were brought to the burning pile. Thus fell three hundred of England's best subjects—best, because they loved and obeyed the word of God—victims to the bigotry of the cruel Mary.

After an unhonored reign, Mary died, unloved, and unlamented; and her sister Elizabeth ascended the throne. There was a custom in these times, on the coronation of a prince, to release prisoners; when this had been done, and men long bound came forth to light and freedom, one of Elizabeth's lords said, "There are yet four or five others to be freed." "Ah, who are they they she asked? ''Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul," was the answer; ''they have been long shut up, so that they could not talk to the common people, who are eager to see them abroad again." Elizabeth was a Protestant, and she was ready enough to let the good evangelists go free. Soon the cruel laws of her sister were repealed, and the books went out again among the people, who, as you may well suppose, received them gladly. A law was made that "every parish church should be provided with a Bible, and that every parson should have a Testament for his own private use." How curious does such a law seem to us, when no minister, we should think, would be found without a New Testament in his study. Before the close of Elizabeth's reign, there were two hundred and sixteen editions of the Bible issued from the English press, a great many more than were published in all the other parts of Europe.

About one hundred years had passed away since good William Tyndale turned printer, that he might give his translation of the New Testament to his countrymen: now we come to an important period in the history of the English Bible. James the First became sovereign of England at the death of queen Elizabeth. Shortly after the festivities attendant upon his coronation were over, a great council was held in the winter of 1604, at Hampton Court palace; a few miles from London. The object of this meeting was to settle some church difficulties which had sprung up in the last reign; but it is chiefly interesting to us on account of an important measure issuing from it—a new and able translation of the Bible; and it is the translation then ordered to be made that is used by us at the present time, and called "the authorized version."

The great work was done by many hands. Fifty-four of the most learned and distinguished divines were selected for this important business. These were divided into six companies, to whom were assigned different portions of the sacred volume. The first met at Westminster, with the books of Moses, and all the Jewish history to the second book of Kings, for their work. Dr. Andrewes, whose learning was held in high estimation all over Europe, presided over this division. The second, under the charge of Dr. Lively, met at Cambridge, and they translated from Chronicles to Canticles. The third assembled at Oxford, under Dr. Harding; their portion was from Isaiah to Malachi. The fourth also met at Oxford, laboring upon the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation. The fifth, at Westminster, translated the Epistles. The sixth, at Cambridge, undertook the Apocrypha.

Each one of a division took the same chapter, and having translated it in his own study, they all met together and compared their work: if they did not agree, they altered it and improved it, until the best translation was agreed upon; it was then sent to the other companies for examination. After the whole was completed, it was carried to London, where some learned men from each university met and examined it anew; and these last learned doctors gave nine months' hard labor to the revision. A great deal of care and time and learning and study were thus bestowed upon this work, which have made the translation so valuable and enduring. In 1611, it was published as a noble folio Bible, which has been a fountain of life to thousands and thousands who read the English language.

Blessed be God for a full, [inexpensive], and, free Bible. It is no longer a book shut up from the people—written on large sheets of parchment, and unfitted in weight and size for common use. It is not now, lying only on the shelves of college libraries, covered with the dust of ages. It is not bound and sealed by the cruel laws and wicked devices of popes and kings. We give thanks to God that the Bible is the birthright of every child in our land. We remember what we owe to the bold and holy men who set it at liberty, and gave it wings. We hold their memories in reverence for their courage and fidelity in the midst of toil and opposition, and with exile and martyrdom before their eyes. We see them enduring all in hope and faith, that God's word might go free and bless the souls of men.

For this did many a martyr bleed,
The noble and the brave,
That truth its onward course might speed,
Men of all lands and tongues be freed,
And life eternal have.

We'll prize our blessed Bible then
What suffering it has cost!
What tears and groans of godly men,
Who won it with their mortal pain,
That we might not be lost.

Shall we lay it on the shelf aside,
And all its blessings spurn?
No; deep within our hearts we'll hide
Its truths, whatever may betide—
God give us grace to learn!

What would Peter Waldo and Wycliffe and Luther and Tyndale say, could they now visit us, and see the Holy Scriptures in the hands of all people and even little children! With what delight would they gaze on the poor man's twenty-five cent Bible and the Sunday scholar's eight cent Testament! And with what a shout of hallelujahs and hosannas would they look on the two hundred different versions of the book of God, issued by the Bible Societies, in various languages of the earth! But blessed are our eyes, for they see and our ears, for they hear those things which many prophets and righteous men desired to see and have not seen them, and to hear, and have not heard them. Matt. 13:16,17. We behold the Bible in the pulpit, in the family, and in the school-house. There it is for all, and within the reach of all, and making known the message of God's love to all who will hear it.

May we have grace to receive that message. It proclaims to us the delightful truth, "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life," John 3:16. It makes known to us that a sinner is justified only by faith in Christ Jesus, whose blood cleanseth us from all sin; who is able to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by him; and who will not cast out any that do come. [Romans 3:25,26; 1 John 1:7; Hebrews 7:25; John 6:37]. It gives to us the promise of the Holy Spirit, whose grace and power convince us of sin, renew our heart, comfort us in distress, and make us meet for the joy and purity of heaven.

Let us, then, read the Bible with diligence, faith and prayer, and with a sincere desire to obey all its commands. And if there be those who would seek to turn us away from this blessed book, we will say with that great and honorable man, Robert Boyle: "The Bible is a matchless volume: it is impossible we can study it too much, or esteem it too highly." We will declare with the learned Sir William Jones: "The Bible contains more true sublimity, more exquisite beauty, purer morality, more important history, and finer strains both of poetry and eloquence, than could be collected from all other books that were ever composed in any age or nation." We will say with the poet Milton: "There are no songs to be compared with the songs of Zion." We will assert with that wise man, John Locke: "The gospel has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter." And with the renowned John Selden we will cry, "There is no book in the world upon which we can rest our souls in a dying moment but the Bible."

And whilst we have a free and full Bible, and need not retire to the shelter of the forest to read its sacred pages, for fear of a dungeon or a cruel death, we will think of other lands where superstition and ignorance prevail, and hope and pray for the time when God's book shall be known through all the earth.

Oh! send God's holy book where'er
Or winds can waft, or waters bear;
Let India's sons its page revere,
Let Afric's land the blessing share.

Send it to where, expanded wide,
The South sea rolls its farthest tide;
To every island's distant shore,
Make known the Saviour's grace and power.

Send it to every dungeon's gloom,
Send it to every poor man's room;
Nor cease the woe-worn to befriend,
Nor cease the heavenly gift to send.

O Holy Ghost! who gave the word,
With thine own truth thy light afford,
Give thou the quickening, saving power,
On all the earth thy blessings shower.

Let grace thus turn each wanderer's eye
To Him who did for sinners die,
And sin and sorrow hence be driven,
And earth be chang'd from earth to heaven.

From Historical Tales for Young Protestants. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, [186-?].

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