The Great Light

By Bro. Joseph Fort Newton, New York

WHAT HOMER WAS TO THE GREEKS, and the Koran to the Arabs, that, and much more, the English Bible is to us. It is the mother of our literary family, and if some of its children have grown up and become very wise in their own conceit, none the less they rejoice to gather about its knee and pay tribute.

But regard the Bible simply as a literary classic, apart from what it has been to the faiths and hopes and prayers of men, and its inweaving into the intellectual and spiritual life of a great race; is to confuse effect with cause. There is a danger lest these deeper meanings, these solemn and precious associations, be transferred to the Bible as pure literature, and we be found praising too highly as English style what was first a religious and historical experience. Not only was the Bible the loom on which our language was woven, but it is a pervasive, refining, redeeming force bequeathed to us, with whatsoever else that was good and true, in the very fibre of our being. As Father Faber has said, in a passage of singular eloquence and insight:

“It lives on the ear like a music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells which one scarcely knows how he can forego. The memory of the dead passes into it. The potent traditions of childhood are stereotyped in its verses. It is the representative of a man’s best moments; all that there is about him of soft and gentle and pure and penitent and good speaks to him forever out of his English Bible. There is not a Protestant with one spark of religiousness about him whose spiritual biography is not in his Saxon Bible.”

In 1604 King James, soon after his accession, convened the Hampton Court conference, to consider “things pretended to be amiss in the church.” On the second day Reynolds, the Puritan leader, suggested a new translation of the Bible to take the place of those then extant. There was some debate, but it set on fire the fancy of the king, who had an itch for repute as a scholar, and who, under the tutorship of Buchanan, had already been working at the Psalms in verse. The outcome was the appointment of a body of revisors, some forty-seven in number, which was divided into six companies of which two were to sit at Cambridge, two at Oxford, and two at Westminster. They were to make a uniform version, answering to the original, to be read in the churches and no other. No marginal notes, except for philological purposes, were permitted, as the book was not to be controversial, but the work of all who loved and honoured the Bible, unbiased by sectarian feuds.

Not many of the revisors are otherwise known to fame, though some of them attained to high office in the church. Among them were Andrews, Overal, Reynolds, Abbott, Barlow, and Miles Smith, who wrote “the learned and religious preface to the translation.” Few details as to the exact order of procedure have come down to us, and never, perhaps, has a great enterprise of like nature been carried out with so little information preserved of the labourers, their method, and manner of work. We know, however, that the work of revision occupied two years and nine months, and that use was made of all extant versions, including the Rheimish Version, from which, for example, was derived that felicitous phrase, “the ministry of reconciliation.” The purpose of the revisers was thus stated, and it was reverent, far-reaching, and wise: “We never thought, from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make a bad one good, but out of many good ones one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against that hath been our endeavour, that our mark.” And it is to this principle that our version owes its unrivalled merits. Like a costly mosaic, besides having its own felicities, it inherited the beauties of all the versions that went before.


Some time in 1611, “after long expectation and great desire,” says Fuller, the new Version appeared, printed by Robert Barker, marred only by the inaccuracies inevitable at that period, and a too adulatory dedication to the king. While there is no record that it was ever publicly sanctioned by convocation, privy council or king-due, perhaps, to the great fire in 1618 it soon superseded all other versions, by virtue of its own inherent superiority, and by the middle of the next century it had become “the undisputed Bible of the English people.” Nor can it ever be moved from its honoured and secure position in our religious and literary history. There need not have been a Revised Version; all that was needed, apart from the quiet process of revision, steadily going on, was to correct obvious errors in the light of later textual research. The Version of 1881, while it erased many blemishes, falls far below the stately English of the King James Bible, which is still the familiar friend of the fireside and the closet.

As a feat of translation, the Version of 1611 is unique and unmatched in the annals of literature. It is faithful not only to the letter, but to the spirit of the original, and yet it is truly an English book. Its words are in bulk Saxon, the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, for instance, having fifty-nine of its words pure English, thirty-five Saxon undefiled, and only six of Latin origin. More wonderful still is the fact that, while it used English words, it kept not only the phrases, but the flavour, spirit and essence of the language wherein the Bible was born a feat which, as Coleridge says, “almost makes us think that the translators themselves were inspired.” Indeed, it may be said that the Bible was rather transferred to the English language than translated into it. That cannot be said of Homer, or of any other book that has found its way into our speech, and the reason for it was that for a thousand years the Bible had lived in the hearts of the English people, had helped to mould their language, to shape their character, and to make them what they were. As Taine pointed out, the temper of the people receiving the Book was so in harmony with that of the people from whom it came; that it seemed more like a native growth than an exotic. This could not be again in just the same way; but that it was so once is a fact beyond all thought or thankfulness. By a rare blend of circumstances we are permitted to hear the music of the Bible almost as if the original artists were playing it. One feels this in reading the Gospels, and still more in the Old Testament, but most of all perhaps, when he hears, like echoes from afar,

“The chime of rolling rivers Through the forest of the Psalms.”

Back of 1611 lay a long, heroic, aspiring history from the time when Caedmon, the forlorn cowherd, fell asleep under the stars, and was bidden to sing the Bible story, down to the year when Shakespeare left London for his home on the Avon. It had been the wish of King Alfred that the young men of his realm might read the Bible in their own language, and he left an unfinished version of the Psalms when he died. But his wish had to wait until a crude and stammering tongue grew into a rich and musical speech until the tapestry was woven on which the Bible writers could work their designs. Such weavers as Aldhelm, Bede, Elfric, Wyclif, and Purvey drew their threads equally from the Bible itself and from the life of the people, until the imagery of the Book was wrought into the very fibre of the language. No other book was ever so interwoven with the life of a people, at once their supreme literary classic and the message of their Maker to their souls.

At last came Tyndale the one great figure in the story of our English Bible whose aim it was to make “the ploughboy know more about the Scripture than the priest does today.” Set on fire by the spirit of God and the genius of Erasmus, by the aid of the printing press he made and published the version which was the basis of the Bible as we know and love it. Hunted as a heretic, beset by spies, he toiled in behalf of the Bible for the people, in the language of the people, in the belief that the humblest soul, when left alone with the Bible, can find the way, the truth, and the life. With an industry unwearying, and a faith unwavering, he worked amid peril and often in the shadow of death, and at last gave his life for the Bible that we might give our lives to it. Of his version Froude wrote in a famous passage: “Though since that time it has been many times revised and altered, we may say that it is substantially the Bible with which we are familiar. The peculiar genius which breathes through it, the mingled tenderness and majesty, the Saxon simplicity, the preternatural grandeur unsqualled, unapproached, in the attempted improvements of modern scholars all are here, and bear the impress of the mind of one man, William Tyndale. Lying, while engaged in that great office, under the shadow of death, the sword above his head and ready at any moment to fall, he worked, under circumstances alone perhaps truly worthy of the task which was laid upon him his spirit, as it were, divorced from the world, moved in a purer element than common air.”


There was a time when the Bible formed almost the only literature of England; and today, if it were taken away, that literature would be torn to shreds and tatters. If we except a few tracts of Wyclif, all the prose literature of England has grown up since the Tyndale version was made. There was practically no history in the English tongue, no romance, and hardly any poetry, save the little-known verse of Chaucer, when the Bible was set up in the churches. Truly did Macaulay say, in his essay on Dryden, that if everything else in our language should perish, the Bible would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power. Edmund Spenser put himself to school in the prophetic music of the Bible in order to write the Faerie Queen, and Milton learned his song from the same choir. Carlyle, though he truncated his faith had in his very blood almost without knowing it, the rhapsody and thought of the prophets their sense of the infinite, of the awfulness of God, of the blindness and littleness of man, of the sarcasm of providence, of those invisible influences which give depth and meaning to human sorrow and joy which he had heard so often from the fireside Bible; as Burns, before him, had learned from the same book his truth of the indestructibleness of honour, of the humanness of the Divine Father drawing the divine in humanity toward it, which made his verse throb with the power and passion of tears. Whole volumes have been filled with the allusions to the Bible in Shakespeare, Scott, Ruskin, and Dickens, and others might be made from the writings of Eliot, Thackeray, Stevenson, Swinburne, and even Thomas Hardy. The Bible sings in our poetry, chants in our music, echoes in our eloquence, from Webster to Lincoln, and in our tragedy flashes forever its truth of the terribleness of sin, the failure of godless self-keeping, and the forlorn, wandering of the soul that drifts, blinded away from virtue. As Watts-Dunton said in his great essay on the Psalms:

“The Bible is going to be eternal. For that which decides the vitality of any book is precisely that which decides the value of any human soul not the knowledge it contains, but simply the attitude it assumes towards the universe, unseen as well as seen. The attitude of the Bible is just that which every soul must, in its highest and truest moods, always assume that of a wise wonder in front of such a universe as this that of a noble humility before a God such as He in Whose great hand we stand. This is why like the mirror of Alexander, like that most precious cup of Jemshid, imagined of the Persians the Bible reflects today, and will reflect forever, every wave of human emotion, every passing event of human life reflect them as faithfully as it did to the great and simple people in whose great and simple tongue it was written.”

Here is a book whose scene is the sky and the dirt, and all that lies between a book of the open air in which seas ebb and flow, and mountains lift their peaks, and rivers shine in the sunlight, and flowers bloom, and birds sing, and suns rise and set, and forests cover the hills like the shadow of God. It is the most human of books, telling the secrets of the soul, its bitter pessimism and its death-defying hope, its pain, its passion, its sin, its sobs, and its song, as it moves “amid encircling gloom” from the cradle to the grave tells all, without malice and without mincing words, in the grand style that can do no wrong, while echoing the sweet-toned pathos of the pity of God. Not a page of it, as Walt Whitman said in a superb passage, not a verse of it not a word of it, but has been drenched with the life-blood of some patient, heroic, aspiring, God-illumined soul. No other book is so honest with us, so mercilessly merciful, so austere, and yet so tender, piercing to the dividing of marrow and bone, yet healing the deep wounds of sin and sorrow.

Above all, it tells of Him who lived “the human life of God” on earth how the Eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us in grace and truth, whose life is the light of men and whose words scatter the dark confusions of the grave, while showing us the immutable duty of love to God and man. It is a book to take to the heart; to turn to in hours of joy; to look into in times of sorrow; and to accept at all times as our friend, teacher, and guide a book of faith, hope and love, whose song of the soul, beginning in faint, wistful notes, gathers volume and melody until it swells into the great choruses of the Apocalypse, which Tennyson used to recite with trembling voice and transfigured face, and which Jowett said are better in English than in Greek. If we are ignorant, it will tell us all we need to know of God, duty, and the life beyond the tomb; if we are lost, it will bring us home; if the inner light burns low, it will kindle these poor hearts of ours with a flame from the altar of God.

What a gift to our English race, what a treasure incalculable and imperishable “a well of English undefiled,” limpid, clear, and deep; a monument to our martyrs; the masterpiece of our literature; the store-house of historic memories and prophecies; the revelation of the will of God concerning us how we should love, it, read it, and be happy with it! When Sir Walter Scott was dying he asked Lockhart to read to him aloud. “From what book?” came the not unnatural question and what a lesson for our children in the simple answer: “There is but one Book.”

“Behold I stand at the door and knock; if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. And the spirit and the bride say, come. And he that heareth, let him say, come. And he that is athirst, let him come; and whosoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely.”

-Source: The Builder – July 1923