The Lord Gave the Word – Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Version (6) The Golden Age of the English Bible (1)


In our study of the history of the English Bible thus far, we have seen its dawn in the Wycliffite Bibles of the 1380s and 90s, and the birth proper of the English Bible in the translation and revision work of William Tyndale in the age of the Reformation. We now come to what may be called the “Golden Age” of the English Bible, which “Golden Age” would come to culmination in the King James Version of AD 1611. It is for me, and I hope for you, my longsuffering readers, a fascinating history. The alert and discerning child of God sees his covenant Father’s hand at work. God moves all of history, including the hearts of kings, which he turns wherever he wills (Proverbs 21:1), for his own glory as the Almighty and for the salvation, gathering, and preservation of the church of Jesus Christ, which Scripture and our Reformed Confessions assure us shall surely continue to the end of the world (HC, LD 21, Q/A 54; BC, Art. 27). So, too, in this brief window of history, the “Golden Age” of English Bible translation, does the believer discern the providential hand of Jehovah.

This period comprises six major translations: the Coverdale Bible, the Matthew’s Bible, The Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishop’s Bible, and the KJV. These articles will not treat the lesser known versions of this period, such as the Bible produced by the Cambridge scholar Richard Taverner (1505-1575). Later, in connection with the condemnation of it by the King James translators—especially Bishop Miles Smith in his preface to the KJV of 1611—we will take a brief look at the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant English Bible with its own English translation, the Douai-Rheims Bible of 1610. For now, we begin with Coverdale’s Bible.

“Let it go out among our people”:
The Coverdale Bible

Under the remarkable providence of God, a thing totally unthinkable since long before the days of John Wycliffe, a thing for which thousands of God’s children in England prayed for and looked unto and worked toward, finally, in God’s good time, emerged in the nation: a public, accepted, licensed translation of the Holy Scripture into English. The push for such a translation began to surge forward even before Tyndale’s martyrdom in Belgium in 1536. Already in December of 1534, the English bishops asked King Henry VIII to authorize a new translation of the Bible in the English tongue. Why the change? The answer is that the church was now under direct control of the monarch. Henry VIII severed the English Church from Rome after the pope refused to grant him a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and made himself “Supreme Governor and Head” of the Church of England. Henry began to be persuaded from several quarters that a Bible in the native language and promoted in the king’s name would help to calm the religious turmoil among his subjects and restore them to a knowledge of the Christian faith. With the execution in 1535 of Chancellor Thomas More for his refusal to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England, the primary threat to an official, licensed, and public translation of the English Bible disappeared. (Thomas More, as you remember, was the ardent Roman Catholic hired by Cuthbert Tunstall to reply to William Tyndale, and who, as a Roman Catholic, recognized no other head of the church than the pope in Rome.) Under the reforming influences of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, new Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, Bishop of Worcester Hugh Latimer, and Queen of England Anne Boleyn (for whom Henry VIII had divorced Catherine of Aragon), Henry began to relax the oppression of those who worked for reformation in the English church and “some who championed a vernacular Bible were appointed to positions of rank.”[2] Chancellor Thomas Cromwell was such a champion of a vernacular Bible. To improve his Latin, which would enable him to converse with academic scholars and clergymen who would execute his vision for a licensed English Bible, Cromwell “memorized the entire Latin New Testament of Erasmus on a trip between England and Rome.”[3]

The matter of whether a new translation would be done was now settled. It would be done. The king desired it. Therefore, the bishops had requested it. It was now time to determine who would perform the work of translating. And the most obvious choice to all parties was Miles Coverdale. Coverdale was born in 1488 and ordained as an Augustinian monk and a priest in the Romish Church (like Tyndale before him) in 1514. It seems that he too was converted to the faith of the Reformation while at Cambridge (Erasmus, as you remember, was at Cambridge lecturing on Scripture in 1514) and by 1528 was preaching against image worship, confession of sins to a priest, and the popish mass. Concerning the Bible, he declared: “Sure I am that there cometh more knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures by their sundry translations than by all the glosses [commentaries] of our sophistical [philosophical] doctors.”[4] For this he was forced to flee to exile on the Continent of Europe, where he settled in Hamburg and assisted William Tyndale in Tyndale’s translation of the Pentateuch. Possibly, Coverdale also then migrated with Tyndale to Antwerp. In any case, Coverdale spent the next six years in that city as a meticulous and much sought-after proofreader for printers and publishers. During this time, he employed himself in his own translation of Holy Writ, and completed the manuscript (hand-written copy) on October 4, 1535. Across the Channel in England, Thomas Cromwell was elated. It was put to the press in Antwerp at once and the pages were shipped to London, where they were bound into a Bible.

Coverdale’s Bible of 1535 (still almost a year before Tyndale’s martyrdom!) was an improvement upon Tyndale in that Coverdale’s was the first complete printed Bible in English. It was also the first to gather all the books known as “apocryphal” into one place between the two canonical testaments, so that they could be discerned by the reader as not to be considered part of the canon of Scripture, as the Roman Church had done (for the Reformed position on the Apocrypha, read the Belgic Confession, Art. 6). But its improvements end there. The parts of Scripture which Tyndale had not been able to translate, Coverdale himself did. The problem was that Coverdale had very scant knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. The only ancient language in which he had fluency was Latin. Therefore, he used the Latin text as the basis for his translation: the Vulgate of Jerome and a new Latin translation from the original languages by a scholarly Dominican monk named Sanctus Pagninus. Coverdale also consulted the German Bibles, having learned German during his stay in Hamburg: Luther’s German Bible and a collaborative effort by the Swiss reformers Huldrych Zwingli and Leo Juda, known as the Zurich Bible. Nevertheless, the base text was Latin, and that was no improvement, but a regression into the great weakness of the Wycliffite Bibles.

What saved Coverdale was his “remarkable editorial gift and exquisitely melodic ear,”[5] acquired during the six years he worked for Antwerp’s printers. Coverdale was able to blend his various sources into a harmonious whole. So good were some of his phrases, that the King James translators brought them unchanged into the KJV, among them “the pride of life,” “the world passeth away,” “enter into the joy of the lord,” and “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”[6] Moreover, Coverdale’s version of the Psalms was incorporated into Archbishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer of 1549 and lasted until the revision of this book in 1960. If you have ever heard Psalms sung in a British cathedral, or have a CD at home of Psalms by any of the skilled choirs of a British cathedral or college, you are listening to Miles Coverdale’s version, not to the KJV. And they sound lovely when they are sung! Coverdale’s “exquisitely melodic ear”!

The Bible was received by the English bishops, reluctantly, in obedience to Henry’s commandment. When they reported that they were unable to detect any heresy at all, in answer to his question whether they found any heresies in it, Henry exclaimed in his bombastic manner: “If there be no heresies, then in God’s name let it go abroad among our people!”[7] Queen Anne Boleyn laid a copy of Coverdale’s Bible in a prominent place in the palace, so that all could read it. And in the Convocation of Bishops of 1537, the Bishop of Hereford, as was noted already, exclaimed, in the face of fierce opposition from some of his colleagues:

Think ye not that we can, by any sophistical [philosophical-JL] subtleties, steal out of the world again the light which every man doth see. Christ hath so lightened the world at this time, that the light of the Gospel hath put to flight all misty darkness; and it will shortly have the higher hand of all clouds, though we resist in vain never so much. The common people do now know the Holy Scripture better than many of us…[8]

“By the King’s most gracious license”:
The Matthew’s Bible

In the same year (1537) as the Coverdale Bible appeared, yet another translation was being readied. This was by John Rogers, who went by the false name of Thomas Matthew to confuse those who wanted to destroy him. Rogers had been entrusted by Tyndale with his manuscript translation of Joshua through II Chronicles, which Tyndale had completed while imprisoned in Vilvorde Castle. He synthesized all the completed portions of Tyndale’s Bible with the translation by Coverdale—based on the Latin—of the books not completed by Tyndale. Printed in Antwerp, the Matthew’s Bible reached England in July 1537 and was delightfully received by Archbishop Cranmer as “better than any translation heretofore made.”[9]

It was then distributed to the nation, as the title page proclaimed triumphantly, “by the King’s most gracious license”, the first English Bible ever to be able to make such a declaration.

The Matthew’s Bible may have garnered the praise from Archbishop Cranmer that it did because it continued a tradition begun by William Tyndale: the addition of marginal notes to the text, to assist the reader in interpreting and applying the Scriptures. Rogers added extensive marginal notes. Many were aimed at the antichristian character of the Romish papacy; Rome’s corruption of the sacraments; and the wickedness of the papist priests. God would reward Roger’s outspokenness with the honorable place of being the first of those martyred at the hands of Bloody Mary (who reigned 1553-1558) in 1555.

“Here may men…learn all things”:
The Great Bible

In April 1539, the third Bible of the Golden Age of the English Bible appeared. It was a revision of both Coverdale’s and Matthew’s, to bring what was best of both into one better Bible and also to clear from the margins all notes except those which gave a different reading for a word or phrase in the Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. The reviser of the new translation would be the ever-willing Miles Coverdale. The base text would be the 1537 Matthew’s Bible, but Coverdale was also instructed to consult, yet again, several Latin translations, including, this time, Erasmus’s Latin translation from the Novum Instrumentum.

The still-authoritative presence of the Latin is, to my mind, due to more than the fact that Coverdale was better skilled in that language than in the Greek and Hebrew. Coverdale was working in an ecclesiastical environment in which many of the church leaders hankered after the old Romish ways. Many bishops, although in a church that was officially Protestant, made no secret of their Roman Catholic sympathies. They would have loved nothing more than to once again tear the Scriptures out of the hands of the common folk and imprison it again in the fusty Latin of the Vulgate and into the hands of the highest circles of church and scholarly power. That the people should become shamefully ignorant and more stupid than swine was no concern of theirs! Let the old ways remain! After all, Rome was “semper eadem,” always the same! But, they now simply could not have it that way. The king would not allow it. Archbishop Cranmer would not allow it. So, if an English translation of Scripture was required, far better to have one based on the Latin than on those mysterious and no doubt pernicious tongues of Hebrew and Greek. So went the thinking of many leaders in the Church of England.

When the manuscript of the new Bible was complete, Cromwell sent Coverdale to Paris to have the new official English Bible printed by the Frenchman Francois Regnault. This strange situation was due to the fact that no English printers were really up to the job, and Regnault, by contrast, was one of Europe’s best printers. Providentially, Regnault agreed to do the work, and, even more providentially, the Romish French king, Francis I, licensed him to proceed. But the Inquisition, that diabolical papist institution for the purifying of the Romish Church through any and all means possible, had other ideas. They seized the printed sheets just before Christmas 1538. A hefty bribe prevented destruction of the printed sheets, but instead of returning them to Regnault, the Inquisition pawned them off to a hat-making factory, which intended to use them to line the inside of new hats. The authorities of the factory resold them to desperate agents of Thomas Cromwell, who had them immediately shipped to England. To prevent any chance of a repeat debacle, Cromwell also shipped over all Regnault’s printing presses, the typeset used in the printing, and the entire staff of Regnault’s operation and installed them in new buildings in London. And there in 1539, the magnificent Great Bible appeared, so named because of its huge dimensions: 16.5 inches by 11 inches. “With the Great Bible, the Scriptures in English had finally achieved that official status Tyndale had envisioned for them when he died.”[10] Archbishop Cranmer, with the backing of Cromwell, ordered every church in England, from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to the humblest parish church, to purchase a copy of the Great Bible and place it in a public place—usually the church pulpit—so that the common people could resort to and read “the very lively Word of God.”[11] In many cases it was necessary to chain it to the lectern so that zealous laymen, undaunted by the Bible’s massive size and weight, would not carry it home with them. The 1539 edition sold out in a year, so in April 1540 a second edition appeared, carrying a preface from Archbishop Cranmer, in which he wrote, showing that Scripture was God’s Word to his people of all rank and circumstances:

“Here may…men, women; young, old; learned, unlearned; rich, poor; priests, laymen; lords, ladies; officers, tenants, and mean [lowly] men; virgins, wives; widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers [craftsmen], husbandmen, and all manner of persons of what estate or condition soever they be…learn all things, what they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do, as well concerning Almighty God as themselves and all other.”[12]

One final word about the Great Bible: In July 1540, Thomas Cromwell was found guilty of treason and beheaded by order of Henry VIII. Since a picture of him appeared on the title page of the Bible, receiving the Word of God from the hand of the king, his face and coat of arms had to be scrubbed out, and all traces of him wiped from the Bible he had worked so hard to promote. The title page of the de-Cromwellized 1541 edition indicated who did the purging: “Overseen and perused at the commandment of the King’s Highness by the right reverend fathers in God, Cuthbert bishop of Durham, and Nicholas bishop of Rochester.”[13] The “Cuthbert bishop of Durham” was none other than Cuthbert Tunstall, formerly Bishop of London and now, seemingly, rather demoted to the city of Durham. Divine justice ensured that in this life, Tunstall, who had so rabidly sought to stamp out an English Bible, persecuted William Tyndale for laboring to bring it about, and burned hundreds of Bibles in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, would now pay homage to this godly and righteous man. Not only did Tunstall put his stamp of approval on just any English Bible, but an English Bible which was, at bottom, Tyndale’s Bible.

And on that note of God’s vindication of our beloved Tyndale, we look forward to continuing the Golden Age of the English Bible in our next article.