The History of Our English Bible On This
400th Anniversary of the King James Bible
The Bible In English: From Wycliffe through The King
Wycliffe Bible – The First English Bible
by Dr. David L. Brown
First Baptist Church
10550 South Howell Ave.
Oak Creek Wisconsin, 53154
© 1999 & 2011 by David L. Brown, Ph.D.
All rights reserved
Printed booklets or e-booklets available -
For nearly 2000 years the Bible has remained the most controversial and
contested book of all times. While we, in our modern world, take for
granted the abundance of Bibles and Bible translations, there was a time
when men or women who dared to handle, possess, yes, even read, this
sacred Book that, if they were found out, it would cost them there very
Since the crucifixion of Christ, for whom the Gospel record was set
forth, it can be said that the Bible has become the most blood
stained book in all of history.
Men have fought for it; been burned at the stake for it. Believers have
been (and continue to be) imprisoned, beaten, buried alive and killed,
just for reading it. Others have had their bones disinterred, and for
faith in the Word of God and propagating it have been accursed to
damnation and eternal fire by the Roman Catholic Church.
Bible believing Christians have suffered all this and more for daring
to share the powerful words of the Holy Scriptures to a lost and dying
Through the centuries there have always been those who, for the love of
the lost, desired to share the life changing Gospel Message and yet there
are others who are determined to destroy that message. Yet, for those who
believe, the Light of God’s Word shines through, even in the darkest of
times. (This is an adaptation of the introduction by Chris Pinto in the
documentary A Lamp In The Dark: The Untold Story of the Bible by
This is the story of our English Bible.
John Wycliffe – (about 1320 to December 31, 1384)
The Acts of the Apostles records the birth and spread of the Christian
faith in the first century. At a very early period, likely before the end
of the first, or the beginning of the second century, the books of the New
Testament had been collected into one volume. The New Testament was then
repeatedly hand copied and carried by Christians wherever they went. In
fact, for the first five or six centuries the Bible, and particularly the
New Testament, was translated into various languages. But, the Church of
Rome increasingly usurped the autonomy of the local churches and dominated
the realm of Christendom. With the growth and consolidation of popish
power, the Bible, in the language of the people, declined in importance
while the opinions and judgments of the prelates and priests of Rome
became “the law.”
The Bible went from being available in numerous different languages to
just one language, Latin. Why? It was because “the aim of the Romish
prelacy was no less, than the entire monopoly of all ecclesiastical and
secular rule” (The English Bible – History of the Translation of the
Holy Scriptures Into the English Tongue by H. C. Conant; 1856;
p.15). The Roman Church intended to rule the secular and sacred world. In
order to accomplish that goal, Rome had to consolidate her power. Since
knowledge is the vital element of power, the control of knowledge was
paramount. Knowledge of the Word of God, leads to freedom. Our Lord said,
"ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." John 8:32.
Therefore, the Bible had to be taken away from the people, if they were to
be controlled. So, “instead of God’s Word, man’s word was set up. Instead
of Christ’s Testament, the pope’s testament, that is, Canon law” was
substituted (The Ecclesiastical History: Containing The Acts and
Monuments…1641 Edition; by John Foxe, Volume 2, Book 7, p.56).
Gradually, access to biblical knowledge (and secular knowledge for that
matter) was withdrawn from the people and wholly held in the greedy,
bloody hands of the Roman Catholic establishment. Slowly but surely the
Bible, in the language of the people, was taken away. The light of the
Word of God was virtually extinguished all over the Roman dominated world,
including Britain. Here is but one example of the distressing state of
biblical knowledge. “In 1353, three or four young Irish priests came over
to England to study divinity; but were obligated to return home because
not a copy of the Bible was to be found at Oxford.” (The English
Bible: History of the Translation of the Holy Scriptures Into The English
Tongue; by H. C. Conant; 1856; p.45). So, how did the Catholic
ecclesiastical establishment view this sad state of affairs? “It has
frequently been made the subject of praise to the papal clergy, that they
alone were the depositaries of learning, at a period when all other
classes of society were sunk into ignorance and barbarism.” (Ibid. p.15)
That is a travesty! If the Roman priesthood would have encouraged and
facilitated the spreading of Bible and secular knowledge it would have
been an age of light! But, instead they hid the light of knowledge within
their cloisters, and history now records this period as “The Dark Ages.”
When the Bible was taken away from the common people, “they lost the
charter of their rights as men.” (Ibid. p.16). As time went on the
people became the mere tools and bond-slaves of the priesthood. They
became “the rabble, the vulgar herd, the mob, to be used or abused without
limits or mercy, for the benefit of their masters.” (Ibid. p.16).
J. C. Ryle characterizes the state of English Christianity this way –
“The three centuries immediately preceding our English Reformation…were
probably the darkest period in the history of English Christianity. It was
a period when the Church of this land was thoroughly, entirely, and
completely Roman Catholic – when the Bishop of Rome was the spiritual head
of the Church – when Romanism reined supreme form the Isle of Wright to
Berwick-on-Tweed, and from the Land’s End to the North Foreland, and
ministers and people were all alike Papists. It is no exaggeration to say
that for these three centuries before the Reformation, Christianity in
England seems to have been buried under a mass of ignorance, superstition,
priestcraft, and immorality. The likeness between the religion of this
period and that of the apostolic age was so small, that if St. Paul had
risen from the dead he would hardly have called it Christianity at all.” (Light
From Old Times of Protestant Facts and Men; by J. C. Ryle; first
published in 1890; p. 22)
It is into this sad state of affairs that God raised up a man named
John Wycliffe, commonly called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.”
Wycliffe Manuscript New Testament – 1380
Wycliffe Manuscript Old and New Testament – 1382
John Purvy revised Wycliffe’s Bible – 1388
“To Wyclif we owe, more than to any one person who can be mentioned,
our English language, our English Bible, and our reformed religion.”
(Professor Montagu Burrows 1881 lecture series).
He is right. John de Wycliffe was born in the early 1330’s in a
small English village called Wycliffe-on-Tees in Yorkshire, England.
“Roman Catholicism was the religion of the day, and Wycliffe was steeped
in its teachings.” (Zion’s Fire Magazine; March/April, 1991 –
Special Edition; p.8). He was educated at Oxford’s colleges. He began at
Balliol College in 1356 and completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at
Merton College. He received his Doctor of Theology degree in 1372. His
studies, typical of medieval scholars, were rooted soundly in Latin. In
fact, he became a Latin scholar. He also served as Master (head teacher)
of Balliol College and Warden (administrative head) of Canterbury Hall.
How were Wycliffe’s Catholic views changed so drastically that he has
been called “The First Protestant” and “The Morning Star of the
Reformation”? The answer is really very simple. He began to
diligently study the Bible.
“Wycliffe first denounced the corrupt practices and then the
corrupt doctrines of Romanism leading to those practices.” (History
of the Church of God from the Creation to A.D. 1885 by Cushing Biggs
Hassell; p.457). He began preaching, teaching and writing against the
unbiblical doctrines and practices of Roman Catholicism when he was about
35 to 37 years old. Wycliffe exposed the errors of transubstantiation,
sacramentalism, purgatory, indulgences, tradition being equal in authority
with the Scriptures, the papacy, infant baptism, praying to the saints,
and many other false teaching of Roman Catholicism. That is why he is
called the “Morning Star” of the Reformation because he believed, taught,
wrote and preached doctrines that were not advanced until 100 years later
by the Reformers.
By 1371 he was recognized as the leading theologian and philosopher of
the day, second to none in all of Europe. In point of fact, “the splendour
of Wyclif’s talents, learning and character attracted hosts of students,
said to be thirty thousand, who imbibed his opinions. They made him
the hero and idol of the University. He was awarded the honorable title of
‘The Gospel Doctor.’ To the intense chagrin of the ecclesiastics,
he was elected and installed its Professor of Divinity.” (Fighters &
Martyrs for the Freedom of Faith by Luke S. Walmsley; 1912; p.28) In
1372 he began a series of lectures as a part of the divinity course at
Oxford. It was not long before the lecture hall was filled to overflowing.
Many men came to Oxford to sit under his teaching and later followed
him to the Lutterworth parish church. Others like Czech Reformer and
martyr John Hus (martyred July 6, 1415) and Bohemian Reformer and martyr
Jerome of Prague (martyred in 1416) were greatly influenced by Wycliffe’s
writings. “Wycliffe became convinced that everyone had the right and
duty to read the Scriptures in their own language – and that only the
Word of God could break the bondage of Romanism which enslaved the
people.” (Zion’s Fire Magazine; March/April, 1991 – Special
Here are some of the things Wycliffe said about the Bible –
The sacred Scripture [is] to be the property of the people, and one which
no party should be allowed to wrest from them.”
The priests declare it to be heresy to speak of the Holy Scriptures in
English, such a charge is a condemnation of the Holy Ghost, who first gave
the Scriptures in tongues to the Apostles of Christ, to speak the word in
all languages that were ordained of God under heaven.
“Those Heretics who pretend that the laity need not know God’s law but
that the knowledge which priests have had imparted to them by word of
mouth is sufficient, do not deserve to be listened to. For Holy Scriptures
is the faith of the Church, and the more widely its true meaning becomes
known the better it will be. Therefore since the laity should know the
faith, it should be taught in whatever language is most easily
comprehended…Christ and His apostles taught the people in the language
best known to them.”
With the help of his personal secretary, John Purvey, and likely
others, Wycliffe translated the New Testament from Latin into Middle
English in 1380 and the first English manuscript New Testament
appeared. Two years later (1382), again with the help of Nicholas of
Herford and John Purvey the Old Testament was completed and the entire
hand-scribed Bible was issued. The people loved the Wycliffe translation.
For the first time the English people had an opportunity of reading the
Bible in their own language. Up until this time, the Bible had been a
closed book to them. “The arrival of a Bible in the English tongue was not
embraced by all. The English Catholic Church’s opposition to a vernacular
translation was predictable. The authority of the priests rested solely in
the Church. The Church’s grasp on the laity depended on biblical
ignorance. Therefore, they vehemently opposed Wycliffe’s translation.
Any free use of the Bible in worship and thought signaled a deep threat to
the Church’s authority.” (The New Testament in English – Translated
by John Wycliffe – First Exact Facsimile with introduction by Donald L.
Brake; p. xvii)
The English Catholic Church pressured the English Parliament to action.
In 1381 A.D. “the English Parliament passed the first English statute
against heresy, enjoining arrest, trial and imprisonment.” (History of
the Church of God from the Creation to A.D. 1885; by Cushing Biggs
Hassell; p. 459). Soon after this law was enacted Archbishop Courtney
gathered 47 Bishops, monks and religious doctors to examine (try for
heresy) Wycliffe’s teachings in May of 1382. They judged 10 of his
teachings as heresy and 16 others were ruled erroneous and ruled that his
writings were forbidden to be read in England. The King called for the
imprisonment of all who believed the condemned doctrines and teachings of
Wycliffe. When the ruling was made “a powerful earthquake shook the city.
Huge stones fell out of castle walls and pinnacles toppled.” (Rome and
the Bible; by David W. Cloud; Way of Life Literature; p. 57) David
Fountain reports, “Wycliffe called it a judgment of God and afterwards
described the gathering as the Earthquake Council.” (John Wycliffe: The
Dawn of The Reformation; David Guy Fountain; Mayflower Christians
Books; 1984; p. 39)
John Wycliffe was at odds with the Roman Catholic Church nearly all of
his life, but in spite of that he was never excommunicated nor did he
leave the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, he suffered his fatal stroke
while conducting Mass at Lutterworth. He was carried out the door and
taken to his parsonage and died at home in bed on New Year’s Eve 1384 A.D.
He was buried in the Lutterworth church yard soon after. But that was not
the end for John Wycliffe. The English Catholic Church wanted to stamp out
the influence Wycliffe had even after his death. You can see the animosity
by reading what Archbishop Arundel wrote to the Pope in 1411: “This
pestilent and wretched John Wyclif, of cursed memory, that sone of the old
serpant…endeavored by doctrine of Holy Church, devising – to fill up the
measure of his malice – the expedient of a new translation of the
Scriptures into the mother tongue”. (The Wycliffite Versions – The
Cambridge History of the Bible; by Henry Hargreaves; Cambridge
University Press – 1969)
Thirty years after Wycliffe’s death the Roman Church finally took
official action at the Council of Constance in 1415. They burned
Wycliffe’s disciple, John Hus, at the stake and condemned John Wycliffe on
260 different counts. They ordered that his bones be exhumed from the
consecrated ground and burned. Thirteen years after the council, 44 years
after Wycliffe’s death his bones were exhumed and burned along with all
the Bibles and books they could find authored by him. His ashes were
thrown into the river Swift.
The Church of Rome thought this would stamp out his influence and stand
as a warning to any future would-be “heretics”. But, as noted historian
Thomas Fuller put it – “They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them
into the Swift. This brook (Swift) has conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon
into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean. And
thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is
dispersed all the world over.” (Baptist History: From the
Foundation of the Christian Church to the Present Time; by J. M.
Cramp; Elliot Stock – London; 1871; p.98).
Wycliffe lit the fire that spread Reformation doctrine throughout
were three major events which made it possible for the Dark Ages to be
shattered by the light of the Bible to shine throughout the European
Continent and then spread to England. First, Johan Gensfleisch zum
Gutenberg invented moveable type to be used with the printing
The second event was the downfall of Constantinople to
the Muslims in 1454. The result was that many Greek scholars had to flee
to Europe with their precious manuscripts, including their Greek New
Testament manuscripts. Many of them took positions in the great European
universities and there was a renaissance of ancient learning, including
the teaching of the Greek language. When combined with the invention of
the moveable type printing press, this multiplied the availability of
The third and final event that facilitated releasing the vice
grip grasp of the Roman Church on the world was Erasmus Desiderius
Roterodamus’ collecting New Testament manuscripts and for the first
time ever, publishing all 27 of the New Testament manuscripts in one
book in 1516. In one column is the Greek New Testament text
accompanied by Erasmus’ own new Latin translation, and then this was
followed by Erasmus’ notes, giving his comments on the text. His
translation of the Greek into Latin showed just how corrupt that Latin
Vulgate really was. Between the years 1516 and 1535 Erasmus published five
editions of the Greek New Testament.
It is from Erasmus’ 1522 Greek New Testament that William Tyndale
produced the first printed Bible in English.
The Bibles of the Martyrs
William Tyndale – (1492 – Martyred October 6, 1536)
The Cologne Fragment – 1525
First Edition Tyndale New Testament – 1526
Second Revised & Corrected Tyndale New Testament
Edition – 1534
Tyndale was born sometime in the 1490’s, probably 1492 or 93. The
family sometimes went by the last name Hutchins as well. In 1512 he
entered Oxford. By 1515 he had earned his M.A. He then transferred to
Cambridge University for a time. It is at Cambridge that he likely picked
up his Protestant convictions because the teachings of Luther were
prevalent at Cambridge in the early 1520’s. It should be noted that
Tyndale was a brilliant student. He had mastered seven languages --
Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French and English. It was said
that he spoke each language so fluently that a person was unable to tell
that it was not his mother tongue. In addition, he had a working knowledge
of German which allowed him to translate and interpret the writings of
Martin Luther. In 1521 he left Cambridge and served through 1523 as
chaplain and tutor in the house of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury. Sir
John was a man of importance and kept “open house for the abbots and
doctors, who were glad for the entertainment and table discussions”.
At one such occasion Tyndale said to a church official “I
defy the Pope and all his laws; if God spares my life, ere many years I
will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures
than thou doest”.
Soon after this encounter Tyndale felt compelled to leave Little
Sodbury Manor. He went to London desiring to try to get ecclesiastical
approval from the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, to translate the
Bible from Greek into English. It soon became evident that permission
would not be forthcoming. But what Tyndale did get was backing from
Humphrey Manmoth and other merchants to start his translation work. In
1524 Tyndale sailed for Germany, never to see England again. In Hamburg he
worked on the New Testament which was ready to be printed the next year.
He found a printer in Cologne. As the pages of Matthew and Mark (most
likely) began to come off the press Tyndale was warned that a raid had
been planned by Johann Dobneck (alias Cochlaeus). Dobneck was a lead
opponent of the Reformation. Tyndale fled out the back door with the pages
that had been printed, just as the authorities were coming in the front
door. These partial New Testaments were smuggled into England and
distributed. Only one 1525 Gospel portion is known to exist today.
Tyndale moved to Worms to continue his printing. It was a more
reformed-minded city. In 1526 he printed 3,000 (some say 6,000) of these
complete New Testaments. And yet, only two complete Bibles survived and
one partial copy owned by St. Paul’s. The second complete copy was just
discovered in November of 1996 in Stuttgart, Germany. One reason so few
survived was because Bishop Tunstall made arrangements to buy all of them
he could get his hands on. He paid top dollar. In 1526 he preached against
the translation and had great numbers of them ceremoniously burned at St.
Paul’s Cross in London.
Tyndale moved to Antwerp, Belgium around 1527 and published several
books. In 1530 he published the Pentateuch. In 1531 he published Jonah in
pamphlet form. Between 1530 and 1535 he translated Joshua to 2 Chronicles,
but they were not published until after his death. Finally, in 1534
Tyndale published his revised edition and they were smuggled into England.
By 1535 orders had been given to hunt down Tyndale and stop him.
Several Englishmen were about that task. It was the devious Henry Phillips
who found Tyndale and set the trap. On about May 21, 1535 two soldiers
seized Tyndale as he left the home of Thomas Poyntz, Tyndale’s friend. He
was imprisoned in the dungeon of the Castle of Vilvoorde which was located
six miles north of Brussels, Belgium. There he was kept for 18
months until everything was set for his trial. A long list of charges
had been drawn up against him. Here are just of few of the “heresies” he
was charged with:
1. He maintained that faith alone justifies.
2. He maintained that to believe in the forgiveness of sins, and to
embrace the mercy offered in the gospel, was enough for salvation.
3. He denied that there is any purgatory.
4. He affirmed that neither the Virgin nor the Saints pray for us in
their own person.
5. He asserted that neither the Virgin nor the Saints should be invoked
Tyndale was condemned as an heretic early in August, 1536. A few days
later, with great pageantry and pomp he was cast out of the Church,
defrocked from the priesthood and turned over to the state for punishment.
For some strange reason he was returned to Vilvoorde Castle for another
two months. Finally, early on the morning of October 6, 1536 Tyndale was
led to the stake. His feet were bound tightly to the stake. He was chained
at the waist. A noose of hemp was threaded through the stake and placed
around Tyndale’s neck. The crowd grew silent. Then, with a loud voice
Tyndale prayed, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” The
executioner then snapped down on the noose and strangled him and then he
was burned to ashes.
It should be noted that God did answer Tyndale’s prayer for within a
year afterwards; a Bible was placed in every parish church by the King’s
Myles Coverdale (1488-1569)
1535 – Coverdale Bible: The First Complete
Printed English Bible
1537 – Coverdale Revised Edition
Myles Coverdale was born in 1488 probably in “the district of Coverdale
in Richmondshire, from which district it is probable that his family took
their name”. He received his education in the Priory of the Augustines at
Cambridge, of which the celebrated Dr. Barnes was the head.
John Bale (1548) said of Coverdale: “Under the mastership of Robert
Barnes he drank in good learning with a burning thirst. He was a young man
of a friendly and upright nature and a very gentle spirit. He was one of
the first to make a pure profession of Christ…[and] he gave himself wholly
to the propagating of the truth of Jesus Christ’s gospel…”
On three occasions Coverdale had to flee from England because of his
Reformation views. On the first occasion when he left England during the
latter part of the reign of Henry VIII he became acquainted with Tyndale
and assisted him in his translation work. During that absence he began
working on his own translation of the Bible. Like Wycliffe’s, Coverdale’s
version was a translation of a translation. He “translated from St.
Jerome’s fourth-century Latin version, known as the Vulgate.” He also used
Luther’s German Bible and took much of his English phraseology from
Wycliffe and Tyndale.
Coverdale was not so much a translator as a careful editor and
compiler. He knew how to select, modify and use the materials which were
at hand, so as to produce a Bible which would satisfy the people and the
Ecclesiastics. Hence, while William Tyndale was in the Belgian prison, a
year before his execution, a Bible containing both Old and New Testaments
was printed either in Zurich or at Antwerp, bearing the date October 4,
1535, suddenly appeared in England. It was the Coverdale Bible. It
contained notes, but little, if any, contentious matter. In the
introduction Coverdale declared that he “had not changed so much as one
word for the benefit of any sect, but had with a clear conscience purely
and faithfully translated out of the foregoing interpreters, having only
before his eyes the manifest truth of Scripture.” Two things are to be
noted about this Bible. It was the first edition of the entire
Bible that was printed in English. Secondly, Coverdale’s English
translation was in one column and the Erasmus Latin translation was in the
The 2nd Edition (1537) was published “with the King’s
most gracious license” and therefore was actually the answer to
William Tyndale’s last prayer, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes"
that had been uttered a year earlier.
Coverdale did not have the learning and the resourcefulness of Tyndale
and he knew it; however, he saw the opportunity and the need and put forth
his best effort. He was a noble man. Though he was not martyred, three
times he had to flee for his life. Three times they confiscated everything
he owned. Three times he gave up everything he had for the Bible and the
Testimony of Jesus Christ. He died in February of 1569 and was buried in
St. Bartholomew’s Church.
John Rogers (Born in 1500 -- Martyred February 4, 1555)
1537 - First Edition of Matthews Bible
1549 - A Reprint and a Revision
1551 – Four Editions Were Printed
John Rogers was born about 1500 and martyred in 1555. He
received his B.A. degree at Cambridge in 1525. From there he entered the
priesthood and went to Christ Church, then called Cardinal College in
Oxford, England. About 1534 he became chaplain to the Merchant
Adventurers at Antwerp. There he met William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale.
These two men witnessed to him and as a result he came to a saving
knowledge of Jesus Christ. John Foxe writes of his conversion – “In
conferring with them the Scriptures, he came to great knowledge in the
Gospel of God, insomuch that he cast off the heavy yoke of popery,
perceiving it to be impure and filthy idolatry….”
John Rogers is the preacher responsible for the so-called Matthews
Bible. Before Tyndale was martyred, he appointed Rogers as his literary
executor and left him his unfinished manuscripts covering Joshua to 2
Rogers desired a version which would contain all the work his friend
Tyndale translated from the original languages because he knew that
Coverdale was not familiar with the original languages of the Bible.
Therefore the Matthews Bible was a composite of Tyndale’s translation from
Genesis to 2 Chronicles, Coverdale’s from Ezra to Malachi and Tyndale’s
New Testament. The Bible would be more accurately called the
Tyndale-Coverdale Bible, yet Rogers knew that he dare not identify this
Bible with Tyndale or it would be rejected. Yet he did not want to
identify it with himself because he was merely the editor and had not done
the translation work. For that reason the pseudonym Thomas Matthew was
1537 Matthews Bible with the huge initials WT
It was probably printed in Antwerp and sent to England to be completed
by Grafton and Whitechurch, London printers. Grafton passed it to Cranmer
who passed it to Cromwell, who gave it to the King and within ten days the
King authorized the sale and reading of the Matthews Bible within his
realm. That is remarkable when you realize that the King despised Tyndale
and just eleven years before, Tyndale’s New Testament was publicly burned!
Yet the Matthews Bible, which he licensed for sale and reading, was
clearly two-thirds Tyndale’s work.
It should be noted that this Bible edition includes introductions,
summaries of chapters as well as some very controversial marginal notes.
Perhaps the most controversial was the note associated with I Peter 3:7.
The note reads –
“He dwelleth with his wyth according to knowledge, that taketh her as a
necessarye healper, and not as a bonde seruaunte or bonde slaue. And yf
she be not obedient and healpfull vnto hym endeueureth to beate the feare
of God into her heade, that therby she maye be compelled to learne her
dutie, and to do it.”
John Rogers was a strong, uncompromising Bible preacher. Historian John
Foxe says when “Bloody” Mary came to power “she banished the true
religion, and restored the superstitions of idolatry of the Church of
Rome, with all the horrid cruelties of blood-thirsty Antichrist”. John
Rogers refused to compromise the Gospel and in fact preached it as
strongly as ever at Saint Paul’s Cross outside the cathedral church of St.
Paul’s in London. For that he was arrested and put in prison and on
February 4, 1555 he was burned at Smithfield.
The Great Bible
1539 – First Edition Great Bible
1540 – Cranmer Edition was appointed
to be read in the churches
1569 – Marks the last of over 30 editions
of The Great Bible
This Bible is also known as Cranmer’s, Cromwell’s, Whitechurch’s or the
Chained Bible. It is called the “Great Bible because it was the largest of
all the English Bibles printed to that time.
Two English Bibles, Coverdale’s and Matthews’, are now being sold with
the authorization of the King. There had been no further decree, however
Coverdale’s Bible was inaccurate in places and was not translated from the
originals, and Matthew’s Bible, the joint Tyndale-Coverdale Bible might
cause trouble for its promoters, if the shrewd Bishop Gardiner and his
friends should succeed in unmasking John Rogers and the Matthew Bible.
Cromwell saw these deficiencies and dangers and he again appealed to
Coverdale to prepare another Bible. It must contain no notes.
The collator and translator of the Great Bible was Myles Coverdale. The
Bible is based upon the Matthew’s Bible and revised to bring it into
conformity with the Hebrew and Latin text of the Complutensian Polyglot.
England was not yet equipped for such beautiful and extensive work as
was desired and permission from the French King (Francis) was secured for
the printing to be done in Paris, by the famous printer Regnault.
Coverdale and Grafton went over to supervise the work. However, the
inquisition was on and it was feared that the work might be stopped.
Bishop Bonner was Ambassador at Paris and as such, might travel without
having his baggage inspected and thus the finished sheets of the printing
went to Cromwell via Bonner. Shortly after an order for confiscation came
from the Inquisitor-General, and the printer was arrested. There was a
delay in the execution and “four great dry vats” of printed matter
were sold as waste paper instead of being burned. Cromwell, by shrewd
management, bought from Regnault the type, presses and other outfit, and
transferred them, along with the printer, to England. The First Edition of
this wonderful specimen of the art of printing was ready for distribution
How The Chapter and Verse Divisions Came To Be In Our English
The chapter divisions that we use in our Bibles follow the scheme
developed by Stephen Langton who was the Archbishop of Canterbury between
1207 and 1228 AD. As for the verse division, we owe them to Robert
Stephanus (Latin name) also known as Robert Estienne (French). He was a
Paris printer who printed the Erasmus Greek New Testament (Latin as well).
He printed four Greek editions in 1546, 1549, 1550, and 1551. His printing
of these Greek New Testaments aroused the opposition of the Roman Catholic
Church to such an extent that he was forced to leave Paris and flee to
Lyons. He put his family in the carriage, but he rode on horseback. To
occupy his time he took out one of the small 1549 Greek New Testaments he
printed and marked the place the verse divisions were to be made and
numbered them accordingly.
The verse divisions that we use today are because of the efforts of
Stephanus. They first appeared in his Greek-Latin New Testament of 1551
and then a whole Latin Bible in 1555, before they appeared in the 1557
Geneva New Testament and the 1560 Geneva Bible.
The Geneva Bible
1557 – The New Testament
1560 – The Whole Bible
From 1560 to 1644 there were at least 160 Editions
Mary I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, took the
throne in England in 1553 and set the stage for the creation of the Geneva
Bible. Sixteen years earlier her father, Henry VIII, had released the
first Bible in English following his separation from the Catholic Church
at Rome. However, once Mary was in power, she immediately began forcing
all of England back under the authority of the Roman Church and
suppressing the circulation of the Bible in the common (English) tongue.
Specifically, Mary I issued proclamations in August 1553 forbidding
public reading of the Bible and in June 1555 prohibiting the works of
reformers Tyndale, Rogers, Coverdale, Cranmer, and others. In 1558 a
proclamation was issued requiring the delivery of the reformers writings
under penalty of death. A vicious persecution was instituted against
anyone who supported the reformers views or attempted to circulate the
scripture in English. Overall, nearly three hundred people were burned at
the stake under “Bloody” Mary’s reign, and many more were imprisoned,
tortured, or otherwise punished. Reformer John Rogers, who produced the
Matthews Bible, was the first to be burned. Others who followed the same
fate included Bishop Thomas Cranmer, who was involved with the second and
subsequent editions of the Great Bible, Nicolas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and
John Hooper, who was often referred to as the "Father of Puritanism."
It is estimated that during Bloody Mary’s reign as many as eight
hundred reformers fled England to seek shelter on the Continent. Some
settled in Strasburg, some in Zurich, and some in Frankfort. Many settled
in Geneva, the “Holy City of the Alps,” where Protestantism was supreme.
The city was under the control of the famed scholar, John Calvin, with the
assistance of Theodore Beza. By 1556 a sizeable English-speaking
congregation had formed in Geneva with Scottish reformer John Knox serving
as pastor. William Whittingham, a tremendous scholar who according to
tradition married a sister of Calvin’s wife, succeeded Knox as pastor in
No new English Bible translations had emerged since the first Great
Bible of 1539, and William Whittingham undertook the work of improving the
English versions of the New Testament. First published in Geneva by Conrad
Badius in 1557, Whittingham produced a revision of William Tyndale’s New
Testament “with most profitable annotations of all hard places.” This
small, thick octavo edition included an epistle by Calvin himself, which
helped to introduce Protestant views to the English people. In this
epistle Calvin declared, “Christ is the End of the Law.”
Immediately after the release of Whittingham’s 1557 New Testament, the
English exiles entered upon a revision of the whole Bible. Assisted by
Beza and possibly Calvin himself, several English exiles were involved in
the translating, but it is impossible to say how many. Myles Coverdale,
who produced the Coverdale and Great Bibles, resided in Geneva for a time
and may have assisted, and a similar claim may be advanced in favor of
John Knox. The famed sixteenth-century English historian, John Foxe, was
also in refuge in Switzerland during this time. Yet the chief credit
belongs to William Whittingham, who was probably assisted by Thomas
Sampson, Anthony Gilby, and possibly William Cole, William Kethe, John
Baron, John Pullain, and John Bodley.
The Old Testament from Genesis through 2 Chronicles and the New
Testament were merely revisions of Tyndale’s previous monumental efforts.
The works of Coverdale, Rogers, and Cranmer were also consulted, and the
English exiles completed a careful collation of Hebrew and Greek
originals. They compared Latin versions, especially Bezas, and the
standard French and German versions as well.
While Coverdale’s, Matthews, and the Great Bible were merely revisions
of Tyndale’s translations from the original Hebrew and Greek, the Geneva
Bible charted new ground. The scholarly English refugees in Geneva
completed the translation of the remainder of the Old Testament directly
from Hebrew into English for the first time. Tyndale had only translated
the Hebrew (Masoretic) text up to 2 Chronicles before he was imprisoned in
1535, and it was not until this handful of scholars assembled in refuge in
Geneva that there was sufficient familiarity with Hebrew among reformers
to complete the translation of the Old Testament directly from Hebrew.
Thus, the English scholars who escaped persecution in their native land
and resided in Geneva produced the first English Bible ever completely
translated from the original languages.
The work took over two years, and in 1560 the world witnessed a new
Bible in English, which is now known as the “Geneva Bible.” In a simple
prefatory note, the Geneva Bible was dedicated to “Bloody” Mary’s
successor, Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Bolyen.
The Geneva Bible is a Bible of First’s -
It was the 1st and only Bible published during the reign of Mary I
It was the 1st English Bible to be completely translated from the Biblical
It was the 1st Study Bible.
It was the 1st Bible to use the easier to read Roman type style instead of
the Black Letter style.
It was the 1st English Bible to have verse divisions.
It was the 1st English Bible to use italicized words where English
required more than a literal Greek or Hebrew rendering.
The Geneva Bible was used by many well known people. It was…
The Bible of Bunyan
The Bible of Shakespeare
The Bible of Jamestown & Pocahontas
The Bible of the Pilgrims
It is called the “Breeches Bible” because of Genesis 3:7 where they
chose the name “breeches” for the covering of Adam and Eve.
The Bishops Bible
1568 First Edition
1572 Revised Edition
The widespread popularity of the Geneva Bible was undermining the
authority of the Great Bible, and also the power of the Bishops.
Puritanism influenced by the reformers on the European Continent was
springing up; non-conformity was in the air. Archbishop Parker and the
Bishops felt that something should be done in Bible translations. In 1564
a revision committee containing eight or nine bishops was formed.
The plan was to follow the Great Bible, except where it varied from the
Hebrew and Greek and to attend to the Latin versions of Munster (often
inaccurate) and Pagmnus, as well as to avoid bitter notes. There were also
numerous tables, calendars, maps and other helps.
The Bishop’s Bible was not popular. Queen Elizabeth took no public
notice of it, nor did she ever give it her formal sanction and authority.
The translation was stiff, formal and difficult. It was unpopular with the
people and could not displace the Geneva Bible. The whole work is
described as “the most unsatisfactory and useless of all the old
translations”. For forty years it was held in ecclesiastical esteem
and twenty editions were issued, the last being in 1606.
1611 -- THE KING JAMES BIBLE (Also known as the
Published Continuously for 400 years
According to Vanderbilt University Press, the King James Bible is
the best selling book of all times (Translating for King James
by Allen Ward; Vanderbilt Press, 1969; back cover – by way of Majestic
Legacy compiled by Dr. Phil Stringer; published by The Bible Nation
Society, 2011; p. 7). “More than five billion copies of the King James
Bible have been sold over the last 399 years.” (Majestic Legacy
compiled by Dr. Phil Stringer; published by The Bible Nation Society,
2011; p. 7)
“The King James Version is the crown jewel of English literature.”
(A Visual History of the English Bible; Donald L. Brake; Baker
Books 2008; p. 224) “The King James Bible is the most frequently quoted
document in existence.” (History Channel Magazine – An
advertisement by Thomas Nelson Publishers for KJV400 Celebration).
In fact, the King James Bible is “the most influential book in the history
of English civilization.” (Compton’s Encyclopedia; 1995 Edition, by
way of Phil Stringer’s book).
How The King James Bible Came To Be
Stuart (1566-1625) was born to Mary Queen of Scots (Mary I or Mary Stuart)
and her second husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley at Edinburgh Castle. He
was baptized Catholic because of his mother’s faith. It was a turbulent
time in Scotland, the Presbyterians prevailing over Catholics for
religious domination. He ascended the throne of Scotland in July 1567, at
age 13 months, when his Roman Catholic mother Mary Queen of Scots
(1542-1587) was forced to abdicate. His mother Mary left the kingdom on
May 16, 1568, and never saw her son again.
The reason Mary was forced to abdicate was James’s father, Henry
Stuart, was murdered in mysterious circumstances shortly after James was
born. He was assassinated and it was rumored that Mary had a part in the
crime. There had developed a rift between Mary and Henry that became
public knowledge. For help, Mary turned to a Scottish nobleman, a very
powerful man, the Earl of Bothwell. He engaged the help of other Scottish
noblemen to do whatever they could to help the queen in her dilemma. This
led to a failed explosion plot and to the strangulation death of Henry
Lord Darnley. A few months later, Mary and the Earl married. This incensed
the populace who suspected Lord Bothwell’s participation in the murder of
their King. Her outraged subjects turned against her.
In July of 1567, at the age of 13 months, James ascended to the throne
as King James the VI of Scotland. Though baptized Catholic, he was brought
up under the influence of reformed Scottish Protestants. His tutor was the
historian and poet George Buchanan who was a positive influence on him.
James proved to be a capable scholar.
A succession of regents ruled Scotland until 1576,
when James became nominal ruler, although he did not actually take control
until 1581. He proved to be an astute ruler who effectively controlled the
various religious and political factions in Scotland.
In 1586, James and Elizabeth I became allies under
the Treaty of Berwick. When his mother, Mary Stuart, was executed by
Elizabeth the following year, James did not protest too loudly because he
hoped to be named as Elizabeth's successor.
Some wonder why Mary was executed. Here is why.
Mary fled to England when she abdicated, seeking
the protection of her first cousin once removed, Queen Elizabeth I of
England. She hoped to inherit her kingdom. Mary had previously claimed
Elizabeth's throne as her own and was considered the legitimate sovereign
of England by many English Catholics, including participants in the Rising
of the North in 1569, the unsuccessful attempt by the Catholic Nobles of
Northern England to depose Elizabeth and make Mary Stuart Queen.
Perceiving her as a threat, Elizabeth had her arrested. After 19 years in
custody in a number of castles and manor houses in England, the
44-year-old former queen was tried for treason on charges that she was
involved in three plots to assassinate Elizabeth and found guilty. She was
beheaded at Fortheringhay Castle in 1587. Interestingly enough, in 1612
James moved his mother‘s body to Westminster Abbey, constructing for her a
magnificent tomb that rivaled that of Elizabeth.
In 1589, James married Anne of Denmark. They
had eight children, of whom only three lived beyond infancy: Henry, Prince
of Wales (1594-1612), Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), and Charles, who
became king upon James’ death (1600-1649).
In March 1603, Elizabeth died and James VI of
Scotland became King James I of England and Ireland in a remarkably smooth
transition of power. After 1603 he only visited Scotland once, in 1617.
James was known as the most educated sovereign in Europe. While he had
some good qualities, he was not very popular. Catholics hatched a plot to
kill him and others on November 5, 1605, in the Gun Powder Plot.
Guy Fawkes was caught in the act of attempting to carry out the deed.
The Division In The Church of England
When James came to the throne all was not well in the Church of
England. There were three Protestant versions of the English Bible in
Great Bible of 1539 still was used in the Church of England in its Psalm
Geneva Bible of 1560 was loved by the people because of the verse
divisions and the commentary.
Bishops' Bible of 1568 was the official Bible of the Church but the
translation was stiff, formal and difficult. It has been described as
“the most unsatisfactory and useless of all the old translations.”
Likewise, the Church of England was very divided. There were 3
factions. The Romanists wanted to return to the Roman Catholic Church. The
Low Church or Puritan party wanted to “purify” the church of
Catholicism and maintain an evangelical stance in the church. The
Anglo-Catholics or High party was the ritualistic group who wanted an
independent English church but keep many of the Roman Catholic rituals,
doctrines and traditions. King James did not agree with any of these
The Puritan party complained of certain grievances they had with church
officials. James had been proclaimed King on the 24th of March
in 1603. It was not until the May 7th that he entered London to
take possession of the throne. “Between these two dates, and while he
was the guest of the Cromwell’s of Hinchinbrook, near Huntingdon, he
was approached by certain of the puritan clergy who presented him with
what is known as the Millenary Petition.
It was claimed by the circulators of the petition that 1,000 Puritan
ministers hand signed the petition.
The Puritans objected to the priest's making the sign of the cross
during Baptism; the use of the ring for marriage which had no
biblical basis; the rite of confirmation; Ministers' wearing of
surplices (robes). They viewed them as too Catholic, unessential and
extra-biblical, if not completely unbiblical.
King James I wanted to bring unity within the Anglican Church,
therefore he called a conference to be held at Hampton Court Palace on
January 16th, 1604, at which representatives of both parties
were to have an opportunity of stating their views to His Majesty.
“The Hampton Court was built by Cardinal Woolsley in 1515 and it
pictures the excesses of the age in which it was built. It took 2500
workmen to build its 1000 rooms.” (Comment by Dr. Ken Connolly in his
video – The Story of The English Bible). It took 500 servants or
paid employees to keep it. “It happens to have 250 tons of lead pipe that
brings special water into it because they would not use the water which
came from the River Thames.” (Ibid.) Hampton Court aptly illustrates the
decadence of the prelates of the church. Remember, the man that built it
was the ecclesiastical head of the Church in England in his day.
I find it ironic that on Monday, January 6, 1604 James I called about
50 prelates (high ranking church officials) of the church together in an
effort to try to straighten out some problems the two factions were
having. On the second day of the proceedings, the Puritan President of
Corpus Christi College in Oxford, Dr. John Rainolds “moved His Majesty
that there might be a new translation of the Bible, because those which
were allowed in the reign of Henry VIII, and Edward VI were corrupt and
not answerable to the truth of the original.”
The King, sympathetic to the idea, exerted his royal influence to
advance the project. King James said he “wished that some special
pains should be taken in that behalf for one uniform translation
(professing that he could never yet see a Bible well translated in
English, but the worse of all his Majesty through the Geneva to be), and
this to be done by the best learned in both Universities; after them to be
reviewed by the bishops and the chief learned of the Church; from them to
be presented to the Privy Council; and lastly, to be ratified by his royal
authority…He gave this caveat (upon a word cast out by my Lord of London)
that no marginal notes should be added, having found in them, which are
annexed to the Geneva translation, some notes very partial, untrue,
seditious, and savouring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits.”
(The Printed English Bible by Richard Lovett; pp.134-135)
The next step was the actual selection of the men who were to do the
translation work. In July of 1604, King James wrote to Bishop Bancroft
that he had “appointed certain learned men, to the number of four and
fifty, for the translating of the Bible.” These men were the best biblical
scholars and linguists of their day. In the preface to their completed
work it is further stated, “there were many chosen, that were
greater in other men's eyes than in their own, and that sought the truth
rather than their own praise. Again, they came or were thought to come to
the work, learned, not to learn." Other men were sought out,
according to James, “so that our said intended translation may have
the help and furtherance of all our principal learned men within this our
Although fifty-four men were nominated, only forty-seven were known to
have taken part in the work of translation. Historians indicate that a
number of these changes were due to death. It should also be noted, as the
11th Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica says, “It is observable
also that they [the translators] were chosen without reference to party,
at least as many of the Puritan clergy as of the opposite party being
placed on the committees.” (Encyclopedia Britannica – 11th
Edition of 1911; Volume III; p.902)
Bishop Lancelot Andrews, who besides having an intimate knowledge of
Chaldee, Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac, was familiar with 10 other languages,
chaired the translating work. The translating team was divided into 6
divisions; two at Westminster, two at Cambridge, and two
The translation work did not get underway until 1607. When it did, ten
at Westminster were assigned Genesis through 2 Kings; the
second team of 7 had Romans through Jude.
At Cambridge, eight worked on 1 Chronicles through
Ecclesiastes, while seven others handled the Apocrypha.
Oxford employed seven to translate Isaiah through Malachi;
eight occupied themselves with the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation.
As each group completed their particular assigned part, it was then
subjected to the other 5 sets of men so that each part of the Bible came
from all the learned men. When they had completed their work, a final
committee of six members at London carefully reviewed it.
These Fifteen general rules were advanced for the guidance of
The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible,
to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the original will
The names of the Prophets, and the Holy Writers, with the other Names of
the Text, to be retained, as nigh as may be, accordingly as they were
The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be
translated Congregation, etc.
When a Word hath divers Significations, that to be kept which hath been
most commonly used by the most of the Ancient Fathers, being agreeable to
the Propriety of the Place, and the Analogy of the Faith.
The Division of the Chapters to be altered, either not at all, or as
little as may be, if Necessity so require.
No Marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of
the Hebrew or Greek Words, which cannot without some circumlocution, so
briefly and fitly be expressed in the Text.
Such Quotations of Places to be marginally set down as shall serve for the
fit Reference of one Scripture to another.
Every particular Man of each Company, to take the same Chapter or
Chapters, and having translated or amended them severally by himself,
where he thinketh good, all to meet together, confer what they have done,
and agree for their Parts what shall stand.
As any one Company hath dispatched any one Book in this Manner they shall
send it to the rest, to be considered of seriously and judiciously, for
His Majesty is very careful in this Point.
If any Company, upon the Review of the Book so sent, doubt or differ upon
any Place, to send them Word thereof; note the Place, and withal send the
Reasons, to which if they consent not, the Difference to be compounded at
the general Meeting, which is to be of the chief Persons of each Company,
at the end of the Work.
When any Place of special Obscurity is doubted of, Letters to be directed
by Authority, to send to any Learned Man in the Land, for his Judgment of
such a Place.
Letters to be sent from every Bishop to the rest of his Clergy,
admonishing them of this Translation in hand; and to move and charge as
many skilful in the Tongues; and having taken pains in that kind, to send
his particular Observations to the Company, either at Westminster,
Cambridge, or Oxford.
The Directors in each Company, to be the Deans of Westminster, and Chester
for that Place; and the King's Professors in the Hebrew or Greek in either
These translations to be used when they agree better with the Text than
the Bishops’ Bible: Tyndale's, Matthew's, Coverdale's, Whitchurch's,
Besides the said Directors before mentioned, three or four of the most
Ancient and Grave Divines, in either of the Universities, not employed in
Translating, to be assigned by the vice-Chancellor, upon Conference with
the rest of the Heads, to be Overseers of the Translations as well Hebrew
as Greek, for the better observation of the 4th Rule above specified.
“The execution of the work occupied about three years, and both the
length of time employed and the elaborate mode of procedure adopted
indicate the pains that were taken to make the translation worthy of its
high design. In 1611 the new version was given forth to the public.
There seem to have been two impressions of this first edition,
probably due to the impossibility of one printing office being able to
supply in the time allotted the number of copies required, about 20,000.”
(A Brief Sketch of The History of the Transmission of the Bible Down to
the Revised English Version of 1881-1885 by Henry Guppy; 1936).
Before I move on, I want to clarify Guppy’s statement; there seem to
have been two impressions of this first edition. Here is what he is
referring to. There is the so called “she” Bible and the “he”
Bible. The “he” Bible is the rarer of the two. The way to
distinguish between the two is by turning to Ruth 3:15 and if it
reads -- "Also he said, Bring the veil that thou hast upon thee,
and hold it. And when she held it, he measured six measures of
barley, and laid it on her: and she went into the city," it
is a “she” Bible. If, on the other hand, the last part of the verse
reads – “he measured six measures of barley, and laid it on
her: and he went into the city," it is a “he” Bible. All of
the King James Bibles of our time, with the exception of the 1611 Thomas
Nelson reprint, are “she” Bibles. There are those who would point
to this as an error on the part of the translators. I’m not so sure.
Here’s why. There are Hebrew manuscripts that include the same variant.
Therefore, the problem is with the Hebrew as it is confusing.
As I come to the end of this booklet on the King James Version of the
Bible I want to note that in England particularly, it is commonly referred
to as the “Authorized Version.” But strange it was never formally
authorized. To date, no evidence has been produced “to show that the
version was ever publicly sanctioned by Convocation, or by Parliament, or
by the Privy Council, or by the King. It was not even entered at
Stationers' Hall, with the result that it is now impossible to say at what
period of the year 1611 the book was actually published. (Ibid.)
No other translation past or present has been so meticulously done and
carefully reviewed. The superintending hand of God was apparent. As one
author put it, “the result was an edition of the Word of God unrivaled for
its simplicity, for its force, and for its vigor of language. It was, and
is to this day, a compendium of literary excellencies, and much better,
has proved itself to be a faithful and accurate translation of the very
Word of God.”
We can readily discern from the instructions given to the translators
that our King James Bible was “Newly translated out of the original
tongues and with the former translations diligently compared and revised.”
It was, “Printed by His Majesty's special command, and appointed to be
read in the churches.” It is to this day the premier of all English
translations, being a most scholarly, accurate, and faithfully executed
witness of the very mind of God.
King James 1611 First Edition, First Printing
The Great “He” Bible