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Preached Oct. 4, 1835, in commemoration of the first printing of an English Bible, A. D. 1535.
By REV. WILLIAM ADAMS,
THE HISTORY, CHARACTER, AND IMPORTANCE OF THE
RECEIVED ENGLISH VERSION OF THE BIBLE. Romans xv. 4-Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our learning, that
we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. The fourth of October, 1535—just three hundred years from this daywas signalized by the publication, for the first time, of the whole Bible in the English language. We call it a great event, because great results have followed. If it is natural for individuals to commemorate striking events in their history ; if nations fail not to mark the return of the day which gave them the charter of their rights, and secured to them and their posterity the invalua. ble blessings of peace and liberty-with what propriety may a Christian pause, gratefully to celebrate the day which secured to him, and his children's children, the intelligible word of God—that charter of every earthly hope, the source of all true liberty, the title to a heavenly inheritance. Who has not noticed on the return of our national jubilee, a high-wrought patriotism, which seems to float in the air, causing multitudes to rejoice in view of all that day achieved for us and the world? Who that ever visited those memorable fields, where our ancestors fought in defence of their country, has not felt some deep emo. tion suffusing his eye, and agitating his frame, as he thought that he stood upon the very sod which was once wet with the blood of his fathers ;—and that all which we now enjoy--the blessings of home and country, and religion-are to be traced back to the event which there occurred, and that their very existence was suspended upon that day's success? And what heart does not dilate with gratitude to God, on the morning of this Sabbath, which commemorates the bestowment of a gift to our parent country, from which Christian patriots have drawn all their inspiration—the unsealed fountain of light and truth, and intel. ligence, to which we trace back all our civil and religious privileges, our hopes for time and eternity, and without which we should now be sitting in darkness and primeval barbarism, the victims of a despotism whose “iron entereth into the soul.”
Any information concerning the faithful transmission of the Holy Scriptures from other times ; any testimony to the correctness of the version which we now possess, cannot be inappropriate or destitute of interest and profit.
The Scriptures were originally written upon rolls of parchment, similar, probably, to those which are to be seen in the holy place of Jewish synagogues, at the present day. These manuscripts were copied with the utmost care. Many versions of them were made from the original Hebrew and Greek, into other tongues. The various manuscripts which have come down to the present day, all agree essentially in their contents. This is admitted both by believers and unbelievers.
By whom, and at what time, Christianity was first introduced into the British Isles, cannot now be ascertained, with any degree of precision. It is certain, however, that many manuscript copies of the Scriptures, or parts of Scripture, in the Saxon tongue, existed at a very early date. One translation of the Psalms is ascribed to king Alfred. For several centuries after this, the general reading of the Bible was prohibited by the Papal See, whose supremacy was then felt and acknowledged.
The first translations of the Bible into English were previous to the invention of printing. They were the result of incalculable labor and expense of time. Transcripts were obtained with great difficulty, and being rare, were purchased at a price which seems to us incredible. The monks who employed their time, in lone seclusion, in executing these beautiful manuscript copies of the word of God, knew not for what vast and glorious results they were laboring :-like the electric chain, unconscious itself of the tremendous power it is transmitting to others.
The whole Bible was translated into English—but not printed—in the fourteenth century, by Wickliffe. Great efforts were made by the dignitaries of Church and State to suppress this translation. A decree was issued, prohibiting all' from translating, or reading any English version of the Bible. Great persecutions arose. Many were punished severely, and some put to death for reading the Scriptures in English.
But the day had begun to dawn. It was not in the power of man to roll back the “ living wheels” which the Prophet saw. A child may put in motion the nicely.poised rocking stone ; but the arm of a giant cannot stay it. The art of Printing was invented. The Reformation had commenced. Luther and his coadjutors had lifted up their voices, and Europe was beginning to shake with the volcanic fires which were rumbling beneath her.
William Tindal, was among the first in England to catch the spirit of the reformers; and to him are we indebted for the first printed translation of any part of the Bible in the English language. In order to accomplish his holy work, he left his order in the church, and retired from his native land. Nearly all the copies of this work which found their way to England were publicly burned, by authority; and all who were suspected of possessing and concealing any copies, were disgraced, fined, and punished. And let it be held in re. membrance by us, enjoying without fear or molestation, as we do, the fruits o. those labors, that the man who first printed any part of the word of God in our mother tongue, was himself strangled to death, and his body burned, for his temerity; praying, with his dying breath, in the true spirit of his Saviour, Lord, open the king of England's eyes.
The first printed translation of the whole Bible, was by Coverdale, and was probably published at Zurich, in Switzerland, the last page bearing these words : * Prynted in the yeare of our Lorde, 1535, and fynished the fourth day of
October.” Versions of the Scriptures were now multiplied, copies circulated, and the power of God began to be felt. But as yet there was no common standard. To other times was reserved the emission of that version of the Sacred Text which we now possess ; and which, we believe, is destined to stand to the end of time, as one of the most splendid monuments of scholarship and success the world has ever seen.
This version of the Scriptures gene. rally passes by the name of King James' Bible; during whose reign, and at whose instance, the translation was undertaken, and to whom it is dedi. cated. It is an intensely interesting question to every Christian, How much evidence have we that this is a correct translation of the word of God? As this is the version universally received by Protestants, wherever the English lan. guage is spoken, and there exists no probability that any other will ever su. perscde it, a few remarks, in passing, upon this point, may not be inappropriate.
1. It is worthy of remark, in the first place, that the word of God, in the original, is so remarkably distinct, intelligible, and obvious in its import, that no translator, possessing a tolerable knowledge of the original, and aiming to give a correct version of it, can possibly fail of finding there, all the substantial doc. trines of the gospel-all that is necessary to salvation.
There are some human faces, and many scenes in nature, so peculiar and striking that the rudest attempt to sketch them cannot fail to convey some idea of the original. Let a thousand artists, of every variety of talent and skill, under. take to paint the face and form of our immortal Washington, and in all their pro. ductions, from the finished and almost breathing pictures of Stewart and Peale, down to the rudest effort of village skill
, there will be a convergence of resem. blance to one and the same original, that cannot fail to strike the most superfi. cial observer. Or let them attempt to sketch the same bold and lofty moun. tain, peculiar in its form, striking in its outline ;-one may present a picture with the last touchings and finishings of skill-but in all you will see a substan. tial resemblance to an object so prominent and peculiar. So let a thousand men, possessing the least claims to scholarship, of heterogeneous habits and prejudices, undertake to give a translation of the original Scriptures, and, on all substantial points, there will be such an obvious resemblance, that none can mis. take, and he that runneth may read—just as the eye catches the outline of the vast and lofty mountain.
Men of every character and nation agree in finding the same obvious and fundamental truths in the Bible. Infidel scholars even, have been forced to acknowledge that they were there, while they have denied their divine origin. Errorists of every name have admitted that these same declarations were in the Sacred text, and then have resorted to notes and comments to explain them away. The following sentence from the writings of Chrysostom, one of the early fa. thers of the Church, not only expresses the same sentiment, but confirms our preceding assertion, that the Scriptures existed in Britain at a very early pe. riod. “ Though thou visitest the ocean and the British Islands, though thou sail. est to the Euxine Sea, and travellest to the Southern regions, thou shalt hear all men, every where, reading out of the Scriptures ; with another voice indeed, but not with another faith ; in a different language, but with the same understanding." In a word, no man has ever been able to maintain any reputation as a classical scholar, who has departed far from that obvious meaning of the Scriptures which is to be found in every version. So bold, and obvious, and deep-chisseled are these truths, that they can, by no process, be sunk below the surface, and another, false, far-fetched and unnatural construction made to take their place. This is a feature in the original structure of that book which came forth from God. We should have been led to expect it from what we know of the char. acter and intentions of its Author. Revelation is a gift of light; it cannot thicken and multiply our perplexities. The Teacher of infinite wisdom cannot expose those whom he would teach to infinite error. He will rather surpass all other instructors in bringing down truth to our apprehensions. In the language of Milton, “ The very essence of truth is plainness and brightness; the darkness and crookedness are our own. The Scriptures protest their own plainness and perspicuity, calling to be instructed, not only the wise and learned, but the simple, the poor, babes and sucklings.”
2. But the version we possess claims the highest character for accuracy, and they lived.
that clairn is founded on the number and qualifications of those who made it ; the manner in which they executed it; and the circumstances of the times in which
The men appointed for this important labor were fifty-four in number, ull of them pre-eminently distinguished for piety and profound learning in the ori. ginal languages of the sacred text. Seven of them deceased, or declined the task, before the commencement of the work; and the remaining forty-seven were divided into six classes, from ten to seven in each. To each of these classes was assigned a certain portion of the Scriptures. Each and every individual in that department translated this portion by himself. These several transiations were subsequently read by the whole division, who together agreed upon the final reading. The portion thus finished was sent to each of the other divisions again to be revised; by which arrangement every part of the Bible passed the scrutiny of all the forty-seven translators successively. Furthermore, these translators were empowered to call to their aid any learned men, whose studies enabled them to shed light on points of difficulty. The completion of this holy work occupied about three years. The lives of all the venerable men, who commenced it, were spared to witness its successful close.
One circumstance in the aspect of the times in which this version was made, deserves our special attention; affording, as it does, another most satisfactory testimony to its impartiality. Protestantism was then one and homogeneous : or if not absolutely so, more nearly than at any after period. It was not yet sundered and divided into sects and parties. The friends of truth were all occupied in opposition to one mighty error-to a common enemyand had not yet found time or disposition to attack one another, and build up distinct and divided interests. Hence there existed no temptation on the part of the translators to impress upon their work a single sectarian feature. In this respect, certainly, it may be pronounced incapable of amendment. Any one can see that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make a translation, in the day in which we live, when so many unhappy divisions and sectarian jealousies exist, which would conciliate the favor, and secure the confidence of all, and be cheerfully acknowledged as the common standard. But so it happened, in the kind providence of God, that the received version was made just in that auspi. cious moment of peace and union among Protestants, which has secured its adoption by all as the common standard. None have charged it with partiality-as favoring this or that sect—for the good reason that these sects and partialities did not then exist. Men may now differ in their construction of particular passages, but I know of no denomination, which has generally expressed a desire for a new and different version. Men may differ in the construction which they put upon the constitution of their country, but to give up the constitution itself, and undertake to form another out of present discordant and heterogeneous materials, is a point essentially different in its nature, and, perhaps, impracticable in its execution.
Nothing which diligence, circumspection, scholarship, love of truth, and prayer, could avail, was wanting to perfect this version of the word of God. It is what it professes to be, a translation, not a paraphrase ; each word and expression corresponding to the original. What has, by some, been deemed a defect, is in fact a great excellence in our translation—it preserves, as far as possible, the very idiom of the original, the peculiarities of oriental diction ; thus proving that the men who made it understood what was the best style of translation—that, which, like a transparent glass, is not seen itself, but shows every thing which is beyond it.
Our version of the Scriptures is pure English. Its words are of Saxon origin. Those venerable translators had not acquired the modern taste for lan. guage of foreign extraction. They used the language which belonged to their own soil. They have demonstrated its wonderful resources and powers. They have contributed much to fix our language and save it from premature and universal corruption. It is an interesting fact that the men who have done the most to corrupt the English language, have been the least familiar with the English Bible.
It is sometimes said, that modern advances in knowledge of the original Scriptures have been so great, that inany errors have been detected in the pre. sent version. And, so much has been said to this effect, studiously, habitually, and injudiciously, as we must think, by some of good intentions, that much has already been done towards shaking general confidence in its fi. delity. Let it be understood, however, that such assertions do not refer to any thing important, or essential to salvation, but exclusively, to minuter points, and more delicate shades of criticism. With regard to this subject, we would remark, that it is not absolutely certain that the present so called err lightened age,” is so far in advance of other times, in profound learning of the original Scriptures, as the claims of some would lead us to believe. It is as true in reference to generations, as to individuals, that to be inordinately selfcomplacent, is nearly the same thing as being pitiably superficial. Reverence for the old is an original element of a good and great mind. To undervalue the wisdom of those who have gone before us, and to overrate our own, is one of the surest signs of ignorance. But, unhappily our ears are too familiar with language of such import. One would think, from all that is said about modern advances in knowledge, and discoveries in religion," that our fathers were involved in melancholy ignorance and errors, and that the present age, like a certain divinity in Grecian mythology,“ had been hatched from the egg of Night, and all of a sudden had spread its radiant wings on the primeval darkness. It is an interesting circumstance in connection with our subject, that during that long period of more than a thousand years of general darkness, there was in England in each century, excepting the fifth and sixth, some one or more scholars preeminent for knowledge of the Hebrew language. At the period when the first English translations were printed, such examples, instead of being few, like a star here and there in a cloudy sky, were so numerous as to form an illustrious constellation, whose light has reached our own age. Neither was this knowledge confined to one sex. A celebrated historian of that period remarks, in language somewhat quaint and antiquated, that "many of the daughters of nobility and quality, were not only as familiarly traded in the Latin and Groek tongues, as in their own, but also in the Holy Scriptures were so ripe, that they were able, aptly and with much grace, to translate them into the vulgar tongue for the public inspection, and edifying of the unlearned mul. titude.” And he adds, “ It is now no news in England for inmates of noble houses willingly to set all other vain pastimes at nought for learning's sake-to have continually in their hands either psalms, homilies, or Paul's epistles, and as familiarly to read or reason thereof, in Greek, Latin, or French, as in En. glish.” With all due gratitude for present facilities for diffusing knowledge, it would be well for us to bear in mind that many of our fathers were, from their youth up, familiar with the original Scriptures, and that in generations long since passed away, some of the venerable ministers of Christ were wont to read, morning and evening, at the family altar, out of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures. That knowledge is more generally diffused among all classes, and less exclusively confined to the few, in our day, all will allow; but that other times were so far deficient in accurate and familiar knowledge of the original Scriptures, as to justify the belief that any essential improvements will ever be made in the present version, demands a serious doubt.
It is admitted on all hands that the received English version of the Bible far excels every other translation. It may be relied on as giving a full, clear