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Memorials of the Right Reverend Father in God, Miles Coverdale, who first translated the whole Bible into English; together with divers matters relating to the promulgation of the Bible, in the reign of Henry the Eighth. London. 1838. pp. 260. 8vo.
PERHAPS no topic has more prominent interest in the history of English literature, than the history of the translation of the Scriptures into the English tongue. The lives of the translators, with a critical estimate of their labors, would be a most acceptable offering to the learned world. Aside from the intrinsic interest of such a work, it would have great value in many of its indirect bearings. It might be made to illustrate the history and progressive changes of our language. It might, also, fix in the memory the character of several of the most important personages in British history; the religious position of successive epochs; and the bearing upon religion. of the several influences which were at work, from time to time, determining the characteristic features of governments, and moulding the manners and the destinies of men. The names of the translators of the Word of God deserve to be cherished in every age with unfeigned respect. Those who have given to any nation the Holy Scriptures, have conferred a great national as well as spiritual benefit. In many instances they have laid the foundation of a literature, sanctified from its very sources. "Holiness to the Lord" has been written upon many languages, as soon as the languages were written. The first reading of the people has been of God and immortality. Their literature has commenced with the pure word of God. Even in languages which were written long before the persons speaking them enjoyed the Bible, the Bible has wrought with a mighty and efficient influence. It has formed the tastes of the people. It has moulded their habits of thought. It has regulated their style.
It has furnished them with apt forms of expression. The English Bible has had an immense influence in our English literature. In some respects it has served as a model. While its pages, illuminated by God's Holy Spirit, have been spread open for the instruction of the pious, it has furnished attraction, by its beauty, even to the irreligious and profane. The author of a standard translation of the Scriptures into the language of any nation, becomes a head of influence, whose streams flow down from generation to generation. He rules the literature of after ages. Thus Luther's Bible probably exerts an influence upon the style of Germany at the present day. The same may be said of the Bible by King James' translators, or perhaps even by William Tyndale, in reference to the style of writing and of thought, in England and America.
Several different translations of the Scriptures into the English language have been made by different individuals. They have each had a share of influence on their several successors, as well as on the ages which have produced them. Our existing version probably contains some of the most excellent features found in each. It is certain, for example, that many of the beauties which are generally ascribed to the version of king James' translators, published in 1611, originated in the version of Tyndale, which was published in 1526, or in some of the later versions. An eminent biblical scholar has affirmed, after a personal investigation, that only about one eighty-fourth part of the king James version of the New Testament is entitled to the name of a new translation; and only one twenty-eighth part of the Old. In these sacred memorials, therefore, those early benefactors of two nations, though dead, yet speak. Through their works, the men of other generations re-appear in this, and exert their formative influence. We question whether the Saxon element of our language has been at any subsequent period so well understood, or its power so fully tried, as at the period in which the New Testament was translated by Tyndale. When Dean Swift, in the reign of queen Anne, undertook to write in pure Saxon-English, without the admixture of words derived either from the Greek or the Latin, it cost him a serious effort. The beauty and strength of the language, arising from that element, have, in some measure, passed away. It may have gained in copiousness, but it has lost in power and melody. Some of the best specimens of the use of unadulterated Saxon
forms are to be found in the holy Scriptures. Thus in the twenty-third and forty-sixth psalms, but two or three words exist, which do not come of a Saxon stock; in the one hundred and third psalm, only about the same number. How arely in any other form of composition, in our own age, or for nearly two centuries past, we find paragraphs of the same length so entirely free from foreign terms!
Almost simultaneously with the Reformation, sprang up the desire to read, and the spirit to translate and promulgate, the word of God. This was both a cause and consequence of that wonderful event. The pillar of cloud and of fire went before the Lord's host. The minds of men were, in some measure, prepared beforehand, for the event which was to transpire. God produced an internal state in the hearts of the people, correlate and corresponding to the external mercy which he was about to confer. For a long period before the Reformation, the Scriptures, translated into the vernacular tongue, were prohibited. Few dared, and probably few cared, to peruse them. The Reformation was the reversal of this prohibition. It was the act of the freeborn mind of man, rising above popes and councils, and, as if conscious of its native and immortal right, claiming the privilege which popes and councils had denied. The Reformation originated in the reading of the Scriptures. The more its principles grew and were fostered, the more did the disposition grow to become familiar with that infallible standard of faith and practice. Hence it was, that Wickliffe, who has been styled 'the morning-star of the Reformation,' though he flourished more than a century before that event, commenced a translation of the Bible into the English tongue, which was completed in the year 1380. His own spirit had been stirred by reading that divine treasure. The principles of the Reformation had been implanted by it in his bosom. By continuing to read, the vital flame was nourished; and, under the influence of the diffusive spirit of Christianity, he could not rest, till he had made his countrymen partakers of the same. Thus the seeds of the Reformation were sown in England, before the monk of Wittemberg had yet breathed the breath of life. For an hundred and fifty years God watched over the precious trust, and at length brought forth from it a glorious harvest. So long the train was laid, which God preserved from accident, till his chosen instruments came forward to light it. For 68
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several successive generations, the leaven was secretly at work. Successive generations were taken away by the hand of death. But the influence which was transmitted from one to another could not die. It wrought mightily in the mass, till the consummation. And one of the earliest fruits of the Reformation, as soon as the fame of it reached the shores of England, was the demand for a version of the Scriptures in the vernacular tongue. Tyndale met the demand by issuing a translation of the New Testament in 1526, five years only after the date of the Reformation in Germany. And Miles Coverdale was the first to translate and print the whole Bible in English, which he achieved in 1535.
The work, whose title we have placed at the head of this article, furnishes us an opportunity to speak of the lives and labors of those who have, at various periods, attempted the translation of the Scriptures into the English tongue.
The translation of Wickliffe, doubtless, might have had many defects. It could scarcely be expected to be otherwise. The age in which he lived was a superstitious age; an age of comparative ignorance; an age of almost Egyptian darkness. Only in a few monasteries, and a few private and unknown bosoms, had the flame of piety continued languidly to burn. Learning had retired into cloisters, and mind had long slumbered in indolent repose. Wickliffe himself affirmed, that in his day there were many curates who knew not the ten commandments, and could not read one single verse in the psalter. But wherever there was any genuine illumination, there efforts were made to encourage the reading of the Scriptures in the vernacular tongue.
England, even long before the Reformation, was the theatre of such efforts, and has, perhaps, received more versions of the word of God, than any other country on earth. Pope Gregory, by whom, in the sixth century, Augustin or Austin was sent thither, for the purpose of evangelizing the AngloSaxon natives, though a Roman hierarch, was in favor of the general diffusion of the knowledge of the Scriptures. Unlike many of his successors in the papal chair, he was opposed to the propagation of the Christian religion by the force of persecution. It was a maxim with him that men should be won over by gentleness, kindness, and diligent instruction, and not by menaces and terror. He remarks in one of his letters, "Conversions owing to force are never sincere; and such as
are thus converted, scarcely ever fail to return to their vomit, when the force is removed that wrought their conversion." His sentiments concerning the word of God are a beautiful testimony to the soundness of his judgment, if not to the piety of his heart. "The Scriptures," he remarked, " are infinitely elevated above all other instructions. They instruct us in the truth. They call us to heaven. They change the heart of him who reads them, by producing desires peculiarly noble and excellent. The sweetness and condescension of the Holy Scriptures comfort the weak and imperfect; their obscurity exercises the strong. Not so superficial as to induce contempt, nor so mysterious as to deserve neglect, the use of them redoubles our attachment to them. Assisted by the simplicity of their expressions, and the depth of their mysteries, the more we study them, the more we love them. They seem to expand and rise, in proportion as those who read them rise and increase in knowledge. Understood by the most illiterate, they are always new to the most learned." Study, meditate the words of your Creator, that from them you may know what is in the heart of God towards you; and that your soul may be inflamed with the most ardent desires after celestial and eternal good." Actuated by such views, he sent over to England several articles commonly used in Romish worship, accompanied by valuable presents of books, in order to facilitate the work of the missionary brotherhood. The nature of these books may, perhaps, be learned from a catalogue of books belonging to the first Christian church erected at Canterbury, by Augustin and his companions, which is preserved in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. In this catalogue, we find the Gregorian Bible, two Psalters, two copies of the Four Gospels, two Martyrologies, and an Exposition of the Gospels and Epistles. But the views of Gregory in respect to the simplicity of Christianity, were, after all, miserably defective. We should attribute some of his errors, doubtless, to the ignorance and darkness of the age in which he lived, and to the religious influences under which his opinions were formed. But, if he was at all familiar with the Scriptures, which he praises so highly, we cannot pardon his direction to the missionaries, to accommodate the ceremonies of Christian worship to the usages of the idolaters. Nor are we surprised at what the venerable Bede relates, that, under the influence of such a principle, it occur