Revolutionary Book

Did the vernacular Bible create individual liberty?


Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, by Benson Bobrick, New York: Simon & Schuster, 379 pages, $26

In a sense, to call the King James Bible a monumental achievement misses the mark. Monuments tend to stand apart from the things they celebrate. The King James Bible is, without question, a monument to the rhythmic power of the English language, but it also circumscribes the language itself, defining its linguistic and metaphoric possibilities—and thus the possibilities of how we think about ourselves and our place in the world. It is at once a cornerstone and a keystone, the prosaic base of our legal codes and the poetic altitude of our cultural aspirations. If its cadences were not by now ingrained in the mental breathing of every fluent speaker of English, you, the reader, would not sense the necessity of the period I am about to type.

Benson Bobrick's Wide as the Waters is, first and foremost, a highly readable account of how the English Bible came to be, from its genesis in the pre-Reformation intuitions of John Wycliffe in the late 1300s to its consummation during the reign of King James I in the early 1600s. More broadly, however, Bobrick argues that the appearance of the English Bible quickened "the development of the vernacular" and led, eventually, to "the origin of a culture belonging to the masses…that expressed the popular will." The ascendancy of democracy in the West, according to Bobrick, should be understood as an inevitable consequence of the historical movement to translate the Bible from the Church-sanctioned Latin of St. Jerome into the spoken languages of Europe. This isn't as original a thesis as Bobrick seems to think it is. Still, he brings considerable storytelling skills to the writing, and he has produced a history of substance and value.

It was the Englishman Wycliffe who, more than a century before the German Martin Luther, began churning out a series of polemical treatises raising the theological issues that would eventually coalesce into the Protestant Reformation. In these tracts, mostly written between 1378 and 1380, Wycliffe took up such volatile matters as the literal truth and sufficiency of the Scriptures, the nature of the eucharistic Presence, and the extent of papal power. Wycliffe was drawn especially to the Augustinian doctrine of predestination—the notion that people's souls were ticketed to heaven or hell regardless of their actions—and the corollary distinction between the visible Church, comprising all who proclaim themselves Christians, and the invisible Church, comprising an Elect who are actually predestined for salvation. Wycliffe's reasoning was straightforward enough: In the first place, God's omniscience implied that he foreknew the outcome of individual lives in advance of their being lived; in the second place, Jesus' sacrifice on the cross had been sufficient and complete and didn't need to be supplemented by human works. What was asked of the Christian was simply faith, itself an unmerited gift from God, and at the root of that faith was the Bible—which, like Jesus' sacrifice, was also sufficient and complete.

Rome, naturally, saw things quite differently—and declared Wycliffe's writings heretical. A 1,000-year tradition had established the Catholic Church's function as intermediary between the individual and God. The collective wisdom of Catholicism, embodied in the inspired judgments of its Church councils, was regarded as equal in authority to the Scriptures themselves. Of the seven Catholic sacraments, for example, only two—baptism and the Eucharist—could claim unambiguous scriptural precedent. The other five—confirmation, confession and penance, ordination, marriage, and anointing the sick—emerged through conciliar deliberations in the course of Church history.

What especially got under Wycliffe's skin, as it would Luther's, was the practice of selling "indulgences." The theory behind indulgences, as Bobrick explains, began with the premise that the saints canonized by the Church always accumulated more spiritual merits than were needed for their own salvations; their "excess credits" were thus "stored in a celestial deposit box" upon which the Pope was able to "draw and make transfers" to augment the merits of whoever happened to be lacking (and willing to pay, of course). Clearly, this practice had no unambiguous scriptural precedent; its sole justification seemed to be the authority of the Church.

For Wycliffe, that wasn't enough: "Were there a hundred popes…their opinions in matters of faith should not be accepted except in so far as they are founded on Scripture itself." The Bible was therefore the key; if the common man could get at it, could make sense of it himself, the intermediary function of the Church would be rendered moot. Thus, he and a group of his Oxford cohorts set about translating the Bible into English.

Wycliffe's efforts at Christian reform are a textbook case of having the right idea at the wrong time. The appearance of an English Bible seems, in retrospect, inevitable. It seemed less so in the late 1300s, if only for the simple reason that not many people knew how to read. (Gutenberg didn't develop his printing press until 1455, so there wasn't much to read even if you knew how.) Nor was the intermediary role of the Church viewed by the common folk of England as particularly objectionable. The Latin mass they attended must have seemed otherworldly indeed, the priest imbued with strange occult powers, striding across the sanctuary, uttering deep, sonorous syllables and eliciting unthinking responses, building toward a climax in which the Host was raised high and then mysteriously altered by the sacred words "Hoc est corpus" ("Here is His body"). It was that very phrase which, centuries later, in a more anti-Roman climate, would be garbled into "hocus pocus"—meaning a cheap bit of theatrical magic.

Though he did affect the first English versions of the full Old and New Testaments, Wycliffe actually made little headway in his struggle to reform the English Church. It was still Catholic and wholly answerable to Rome when he died of natural causes in 1384. Wycliffe's spiritual successor, William Tyndale, would raise an even greater ruckus by producing an even more influential translation of the Bible. (Tyndale would also suffer in direct proportion to his accomplishments.) Tyndale lived in the era of Luther; translations of the Bible into the vernaculars of Europe, including Luther's own German rendition, were already in progress. More critically, the printing press had been brought to England by William Caxton in 1476. Literacy rates were soaring. Demand for an English Bible was welling among the people themselves.

Unfortunately for Tyndale, while he was pondering his translation of the New Testament, King Henry VIII was still currying favor with Rome. He had reason, as an absolute monarch, to regard uneasily the egalitarian sentiments implicit in the notion of universal access to the Bible—and thus every man's responsibility for his own salvation. Though Tyndale fled England before actually beginning his work, he was hounded by royal agents throughout the project, viciously slandered by Henry's lord chancellor Thomas More (who comes off here as somewhat less than a Man For All Seasons) and, finally, arrested and imprisoned outside of Brussels at the king's behest. There, Tyndale spent his last year translating the Old Testament. He was executed—strangled and then burned—in 1536.

Ironically, by the time of Tyndale's death, Henry's desire for a divorce had precipitated his renunciation of papal authority. The Church of England was officially severed from Rome in 1534, and Tyndale's English Bibles flooded into the country. More translations followed, some with a radical Protestant slant, some with a reactionary Catholic slant, and these versions fell in and out of favor as the English monarchy itself lurched back and forth between the polarities. Stability of a sort came with the accession of Elizabeth in 1559, who enforced a middle way, or via media, between the two—a settlement that was mostly

Protestant in doctrine but mostly Catholic in practice. The "Virgin Queen" bore no heirs, but she hand-picked her cousin, James VI of Scotland, as her successor. James was the son of Elizabeth's former rival, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, but he'd been raised a Presbyterian Calvinist; both sides therefore had reasons to embrace and to suspect him. That he more or less maintained Elizabeth's status quo is as much attributable to the economic prosperity and international calm of her last years as to his personal convictions. He had no desire, on the one hand, to cede power back to Rome, or, on the other hand, to undo the Episcopal order which set him at the head of the English Church. It was James who commissioned what would become known as the Authorized Version of 1611—or, more familiarly, the King James Bible.

It's a fascinating story Bobrick tells, full of intrigue and betrayal, a reminder of a time when men went to their graves for holding theological opinions on matters as arcane as the nature of the divine presence in the Eucharist. For the most part, Bobrick does an admirable job with the material; he is especially good on the evolution of the Biblical text itself, demonstrating how slight shadings in word choices colored the meaning of entire verses.

The broader thesis of Wide as the Waters—that the rise of democracy in Western Europe should be viewed as a natural consequence of the appearance of vernacular Bibles and of the spirit of the Reformation in general—is entirely plausible, if not quite earth-shattering news. Max Weber made much the same point in a broader way a century ago in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Bobrick narrows down the terms a bit; for "the Protestant Ethic," he's substituting the primacy placed on individual conscience that followed from every man's access to the Scriptures, and for "the Spirit of Capitalism," he's substituting the democratic institutions in which capitalism thrives.

To be sure, Henry VIII proved correct in his suspicions of the anti-monarchical implications of every man's custodianship of his own soul. The spread of English Bibles carried with it the notion of a spiritual democracy; in the political realm, this translated, in Bobrick's words, into "the right and capacity of the people to think for themselves." When James' successor, Charles I, attempted to reassert the absolute power of the throne and to quell parliamentary debate—in effect, silencing the voice of the people—he ran afoul of this movement, precipitating a civil war. It was a war, first and foremost, of king vs. parliament; yet it was also a war over how to read the Bible: "The powers that be are ordained of God" (Romans 13:1) vs. "We ought rather to obey God than men" (Acts 5:29). Charles insisted upon his divine right to rule while the people insisted that their collective voice, guided by their individual consciences, was God's own voice. Charles' reign ended in 1649, with his beheading.

The Commonwealth that followed, led initially by Oliver Cromwell and then by his son Richard, lasted only until 1660, but afterward the restored monarchy of Charles II was significantly constrained by Parliament. When James II succeeded Charles II and again made gestures toward autocratic rule, he was overthrown in the bloodless "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 and William of Orange raised up in his stead. William wisely would not accept the throne until he was recognized as legitimate king by Parliament. Thus, England became a constitutional monarchy.

Bobrick recounts these events in a concise and decidedly jargon-free way. This is certainly a blessing. Still, two faults of Wide as the Waters must be mentioned. The first is Bobrick's abominable method of citation. Significant quotes are introduced with phrases such as "as one scholar put it" or "as one prominent Puritan told his brethren," and the reader is then forced to flip to the back of the book to determine the identity of the speaker. What is the possible rationale for omitting the name on the page itself?

The second fault is perhaps more a reflection of my academic predilections than a definitive strike against the book. Still, my gut tells me that historians, of all people, should not rely too heavily on secondary sources. More than half of Bobrick's bibliographic citations begin with the words: "Quoted in…" If you're going to write a scholarly book, even if it's intended for laymen, why not make the effort to track down primary materials, especially given the possible distortion that creeps in at every iteration? And if secondary sources are occasionally forgivable symptoms of authorial sloth, tertiary sources strike me as something worse. The fact that Bobrick cites the Encyclopedia Britannica on a regular basis gives the book—despite its considerable merits—the slightly unpleasant aftertaste of an undergraduate term paper.

These are quibbles, however. Bobrick has written a fine, readable study on an important subject.