“The Bible in English and Welsh” Case from “In the Beginning was the Word” Exhibit

“The Bible in English and Welsh” Case from “In the Beginning was the Word” Exhibit
Conservative leadership
Image by W&M Libraries
Christianity’s influence permeates western civilization, reaching into every nook and cranny of our history and culture. The Bible, Christianity’s scripture, is likely the best-selling book of all time. Even as American society has become more secular and many Americans turn away from organized religion, the Bible itself is available in an ever-expanding variety of languages, translations, and editions with all manner of supplements for its readers.

This exhibit explores not the history of the Bible itself but the history of the printing of the Bible. It begins with Gutenberg and other early printers in continental Europe, then moves across the English Channel to examine the publication of Bibles in England, Wales, and Scotland. The exhibit then turns its attention to Bibles and related scriptures, some in English, some not, in the American colonies and later the United States.

All of the Bibles in this exhibit are the property of Swem Library, except the Aitken Bible of 1782, which is the property of Bruton Parish Church but is normally stored at Swem. We thank Bruton Parish for permission to display it.


Wyclif’s Bible

John Wycliffe (?-1384) was a theologian and minister in England who challenged the authority of the Catholic Church in secular affairs, questioned the wealth of many monastic orders, and objected to other points of Catholic doctrine. He argued that the Bible, not the pope, should be the supreme authority. Under his leadership in the 1380s, a group of scholars translated the Latin Vulgate Bible into vernacular English. He apparently translated the New Testament, while others translated the Old Testament and Apocrypha. This translation was not printed but copied by hand, and approximately 250 partial manuscripts of Wyclif’s Bible survive today. The book presented here, the Biblia Pauperum, contains 38 woodcuts of Jesus’s life, accompanied by the related text from Wyclif’s Bible.

Tyndale’s Bible

William Tyndale (ca. 1494-1536) was an English minister and scholar who moved in humanist circles. English Catholic authorities, suspicious that he could pose a challenge to the Church’s authority, denied his 1523 request for permission to translate the Bible from Greek and Hebrew texts rather than the Latin Vulgate, as Wycliffe had done. Tyndale moved to the Continent in 1524 and proceeded to translate the New Testament anyway, relying in part on the Greek and Latin texts of Erasmus. In 1526, printers in Worms and Antwerp published Tyndale’s New Testament, which was smuggled into England. English authorities burned most copies, and Cardinal Wolsey condemned him as a heretic. They believed Tyndale was too influenced by Lutheranism, as seen by his choice of words (e.g., “congregation” not “church” and “senior” or “elder” rather than “priest”) and by the prefaces to his publications. Tyndale went into hiding and began translating the Old Testament. He published several parts of the Old Testament in English, and the books were again smuggled into England. Before he could finish the entire Old Testament, local authorities in Antwerp arrested him, trying to cooperate with the English government. Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.
The edition of Tyndale’s New Testament on display here dates from 1550. Its relatively small size made it useful for personal study. Tyndale’s translation had a tremendous effect on the later and better-known King James Version (KJV). A 1998 study found that of the KJV text, 84% of the New Testament and 75.8% of the Old Testament (for the books that Tyndale had translated), were taken directly from Tyndale’s version.

The Great Bible

Ironically, within a few years of his death, William Tyndale’s influence in England was strong. In 1537, King Henry VIII through his secretary Sir Thomas Cromwell authorized the publication of an English Bible for use in the newly-established Church of England. Tyndale’s occasional collaborator, Myles Coverdale (ca 1488-1569), became the editor. Coverdale had produced a complete printed English Bible in 1535, using Tyndale’s translations and adding some of his own. Coverdale did not have Tyndale’s mastery of Greek and Hebrew, so he translated from the Vulgate Latin and German versions of the Bible. Coverdale and another man named John Rogers again used Tyndale’s translations in an edition of the Bible known as Matthew Bible, published in 1537. For the version Cromwell appointed him to prepare, Coverdale turned to the Matthew Bible, making many additions from the Latin Vulgate to mollify conservatives. Published in 1539 in Paris and then London, this version became known as the “Great Bible” because of its large size. It was meant to be used in churches. Queen Elizabeth I authorized the publication of additional editions of the “Great Bible” in 1562 and 1566. The edition on display here dates from 1566. The “Great Bible” was superseded by the Bishops’ Bible, first published in 1568.

Welsh Bible

Queen Elizabeth I in 1563 ordered the bishops in Wales to produce Welsh editions of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and distribute them to all parish churches by 1566. There was no complete translation of the Bible into Welsh extant, even in manuscript form. The bishop of St. David’s, Richard Davies (ca 1505-1581), supervised the work and translated some of the New Testament himself. Much of the translation, however, was the work of William Salesbury (ca 1520-ca 1584), the pre-eminent Welsh scholar of the day and a Protestant who had suffered greatly during the 1550s reign of Catholic Queen Mary. Printed in London in 1567, the volume on display here is the first edition of the Welsh New Testament; the whole Bible would not be available in Welsh until 1588.

The Geneva Bible: The Bible of the English People on the Eve of Colonization
From 1553 to 1558, a Catholic, Queen Mary I, reigned in England. Many Protestant scholars and ministers fled to Europe for refuge, with a number, led by John Knox, settling in Geneva, one of the great strongholds of Protestantism, especially Calvinism. Influenced by the work of Théodore de Bèze (see Case 2) and Robert Estienne (see Case 1), these refugees produced an English Bible of extraordinary influence. William Whittingham (ca 1524-1579), an English scholar who was John Calvin’s brother-in-law, supervised the project. The Geneva Bible, first printed in 1560, made the latest scholarship and scholarly tools available to the laity: variant translations, headnotes, division into chapters and verses, annotations, text figures and maps, and so on. The first and many subsequent editions were printed in quarto size rather than folio and in readable Roman type rather than blackletter. The Geneva Bible became, in the words of one modern scholar, “the family Bible” of English-speaking people. It also is known as the “Breeches” Bible, because it described Adam and Eve making breeches for themselves when they realized they were naked.

There were at least 140 editions of the Geneva Bible printed between 1560 and 1644, and it was the first Bible printed in Scotland (in 1579). Archbishop William Laud banned the printing or importation of the Geneva Bible in 1637, and it fell into complete disfavor with the Restoration of 1660, due to its ties with Puritans.

Swem’s Geneva Bibles: Pocahontas’s Own?

Swem has three copies of the Geneva Bible. The two on display on the top shelf date from 1589 and 1605/1611. The copy on the lower shelf dates from 1580. It belonged to the family of John Rolfe, Pocahontas’s husband, and has a Rolfe family coat-of-arms. Pocahontas became a Christian before her marriage to Rolfe in 1614 and may have handled this Bible.

The King James Version

At the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, James I brought together representatives of the Puritan faction of the Church of England with more traditional Anglicans, as represented by various members of the Church’s hierarchy to resolve some of their differences. The Conference called for a new English translation of the Bible to replace the Bishops’ Bible and answer some of the Puritans’ objections to it. Forty-seven scholars worked in six groups—two each at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster–on the translations beginning in 1604. While they translated from the Greek and Hebrew texts, they closely consulted previous English editions and much of the language was that used by William Tyndale in his version many decades earlier. By 1611, the new edition was ready to go to press.

The official printer was the King’s Printer, Robert Barker of London, although he farmed out some of the printing to others, creating a financial mess that took decades to resolve. Since the book was meant to be read in the churches rather than for private devotions, Barker printed it in folio size rather than a smaller size, and he used a blackletter font rather than the more legible roman font. Smaller editions in roman font appeared in the next few years, but the Geneva Bible remained more popular for home use for at least several decades.

On display here are a leaf from the first edition in 1611 and a bound volume that has a 1611 New Testament and a 1613 Old Testament. Most of the surviving 1611 editions, such as Swem’s, vary slightly from each other due to the different printers Barker used.

Note: This version of the Bible today is typically called either the King James Version or Authorized Version, but those names were not used in print until the 1800s. Because it had virtually no notes, unlike the scholarly Geneva Bible, it popularly was called the “Bible without notes.”

From the Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary. See swem.wm.edu/scrc/ for further information and assistance.

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