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A Peek at the Great Bible

By Ruth Magnusson Davis

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N 1536, BY THE PERMISSION OF King Henry VIII, England lawfully received her first
whole English Bible, that of Myles Coverdale. Then in 1537 came the Mathew Bible, a
synthesis of the translations of Coverdale and William Tyndale, containing also notes
and study helps prepared by John Rogers. But the Roman Catholics complained loudly
about these versions. Lord Thomas Cromwell, vice-regent to King Henry, then
commissioned Myles Coverdale to revise the Matthew Bible, hoping to resolve some of the
complaints of the conservatives and finally establish an English version in the Church.
Coverdale was the obvious choice for the work. He was intimately familiar with the
Matthew Bible and had more experience in Scripture translation than any other
Englishman at the time.
And he worked quickly. The new revision contained no
notes, and incorporated certain verses from the Latin
version that were fondly held by the conservatives,
though they were considered to have little manuscript
support. By May of 1538, Coverdale was in Paris, France,
where the first edition was to be printed. However,
despite the concessions to the conservatives, certain
bishops worked behind the scenes to sabotage the
project. They enlisted French authorities to confiscate the
printer’s sheets, and the Paris project had to be
abandoned. In the end, the new Bible was at last printed
in England in April 1539. It assumed the place of “the
Byble of the largest and greatest volume” proclaimed for
use in the churches, and thus became known as the
Great Bible. It was also sometimes called Cromwell’s
Bible, because it was produced under that man’s
oversight, and the King’s Bible. In 1540 it also earned the
Title page, 1539 Great Bible
epithet Cranmer’s Bible, because of a preface that
Thomas Cranmer wrote to the second edition.

Cranmer’s Preface to the Great Bible


Cranmer’s preface to the 1540 Great Bible was entitled “A Prologue or
Preface made by the most reverend father in God, Thomas
Archbishop of Canterbury, Metropolitan and Primate of England.” It
was very Protestant in tone. Part of its interest lies in the picture it
gives us of how Englishmen were receiving vernacular Scriptures at
the time. Reactions were mixed.
Thomas Cranmer Cranmer addressed two sorts of people. First were those who were

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“too slow and need the spur,”1 who refused “to read or hear read the Scripture in the
vulgar tongue.” These were the diehards, mostly the Roman Catholic faithful, who still
resisted an English Bible. Cranmer marvelled that they would “be so mad as to refuse in
darkness, light; in hunger, food; in cold, fire. For the word of God is light … food … fire.”
He understood that at the first people had drawn back because English Scriptures were
new and strange, but, he said, “Such as will persist still in their wilfulness, I must needs
judge not only “foolish, froward, and obstinate, but also peevish, perverse, and indurate.”
The worst of these peevish souls actively discouraged their fellows from reading or
learning the Scriptures, as if it were a bad thing.
The second sort of person Cranmer addressed in his preface were those who were “too
quick and need more of the bridle,” and who, by “inordinate reading, undiscreet speaking,
contentious disputing, or otherwise by their licentious living, slander and hinder the word
of God most of all other, whereof they would seem to be the greatest furtherers.” These
people proclaimed themselves defenders of the Scriptures, but with evil living, or with
constant disputing and wrangling, only hindered its progress. The churches were
sometimes scenes of needless strife.

Proclamations to aid the going forth of the Scriptures


The risk of contention had been foreseen by the authorities. They knew what people could
be like. In a draft 1536 injunction to the clergy (never proclaimed), in which Cromwell had
directed the churches to obtain copies of Coverdale’s 1535 Bible, he had warned against
untoward disputing:
Every parson or proprietary of any Parish Church within this realm, shall on this side the
Feasts of St. Peter ad Veneula next coming, provide a book of the whole Bible, both in Latin,
and also in English, and lay the same in the quire, for every man that will to read and look
therein, and shall discourage no man from the reading any part of the Bible, either in Latin or
in English; but rather comfort, exhort, and admonish every man to read the same as the very
word of God, and the spiritual food of man’s soul … ever gently and charitably exhorting
that, using a sober and modest [be]havior in the reading and inquisition [searching] of the
true sense of the same, they do in no wise stiffly or eagerly contend or strive one with another
about the same.2
But despite such exhortations, people were, it seems, forever arguing. Six years later, in
1542, we have from King Henry a proclamation in which he bemoaned the widespread
discord. He said he had always
intended that his loving subjects should have and use [enjoy] the commodities [blessings] of
the reading of the said Bibles … humbly, meekly, reverently, and obediently, and not that any
of them should read the said Bibles with high and loud voices, in time of the celebrating of

1 Thomas Cranmer, “Preface to the Great Bible,” in Remains of Myles Coverdale … Containing Prologues
to the translation of the Bible. Treatise on death. Hope of the faithful. Exhortation to the carrying of Christ’s
cross. Exposition upon the twenty-second Psalm. Confutation of the treatise of John Standish [etc.]. Edited
by George Pearson (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1846. Facsimile; LaVergne, TN: BiblioLife, LLC), Vol.
II., 104.
2Bishop Gilbert Burnet, History of the Reformation of the Church of England (London: Richard Priestley,

1820), Vol. I, Pt. II, 236. The 1536 injunction relating to Coverdale’s Bible was not proclaimed. This
has been linked to Queen Anne’s fall from favour with the king. She liked the Coverdale Bible, but
when she fell, everything she liked fell with her.

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Holy Mass, and other divine services used in the Church; or that any [of] his lay subjects
reading the same, should presume to take upon them any common disputation, argument, or
exposition of the mysteries therein contained; but that every such layman should humbly,
meekly, and reverently read the same for his own instruction, edification, and amendment of
his life.3
In 1542 the king also lamented that many churches were still without an English Bible.
Some continued to resist, and he found it necessary now to threaten them:
His Royal Majesty is informed that divers and many towns and parishes within this his realm
have neglected their duties … whereof his Highness marvelleth not a little; and minding the
execution of his said former most godly and gracious injunctions, doth straitly charge and
command, that the curates and parishioners of every town and parish within this his realm of
England, not having already Bibles provided within their parish churches, shall on this side
the Feast of All-Saints next coming, buy and provide Bibles of the largest and greatest
volume, and cause the same to be set and fixed in every of the said Parish Churches … upon
pain that the said Curate and inhabitants of the parishes and towns shall lose and forfeit to
the King’s Majesty for every month that they shall lack and want the said Bibles … 40s.4
And so the King was required to force the Great Bible on reluctant parishes by threatening
fines for every month of continuing failure to place it in the church.

Cranmer proves it is not a new thing for ordinary people to have the Scriptures
But to return now to Cranmer’s 1540 preface. Here we find the
archbishop earnestly contending for the people’s right to have the
Scriptures in English, and urging them to take advantage of this
blessing and opportunity. In support of his arguments, he quoted
from the writings of early Church father St. John Chrysostom,
whom he admired a “noble doctor and most moral Divine.” By
quoting this revered teacher, an archbishop of Constantinople in
the 4th century, Cranmer was showing that vernacular Scriptures
and Bible study by the laity were not new things. They were not
16th century innovations by the Reformers, as the Roman
Catholics alleged. The early patriarchs had also thought it
important for ordinary people to oft read and study the Bible. It is St. John Chrysostom
interesting to see what Chrysostom wrote (and how his words to
ancient peoples remain relevant always):
“What sayest thou, man?” sayest [Chrysostom], “Is it not for thee to study and to read the
Scripture because thou art encumbered and distracted with cares and business? So much the
more it is behoveful for thee to have [the] defence of Scriptures [than monks and cloistered
men, seeing] how much thou art the more distressed in worldly dangers … Thou art in the
midst of the sea of worldly wickedness, and therefore thou needest the more of ghostly
succour and comfort. They sit far from the strokes of the battle, and far out of gunshot, and
therefore they be but seldom wounded. Thou that standest in the forefront of the host and
nighest to thine enemies, must needs take now and then many strokes and be grievously
wounded, and therefore thou hast more need to have thy remedies and medicines at hand …
briefly, so divers and so manifold occasions of cares, tribulations, and temptations besetteth

3 Ibid., 364.
4 Ibid., 365.

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thee and besiegeth thee round about. Where canst thou have armour or fortress against thine
assaults? Where canst thou have salves for thy sores, but of holy Scripture?”5
Cranmer then turned to instruct those who like to opine and dispute about the Scriptures.
For this he quoted St. Gregory Nazianzene, also a 4th century archbishop in
Constantinople. Nazianzene wrote, “It is not fit for every man to dispute the high questions
of divinity; neither is it to be done at all times, neither in every audience must we discuss
every doubt; but we must know when, to whom, and how far we ought to enter into such
matters.”6 There follows a discussion of how to judge fitness of topic, time, or audience.
The high questions, he says, are generally for “such as be of exact and exquisite judgments,
and such as have spent their time before in study and contemplation, and such as before
have cleansed themselves as well in soul as body, or at the least endeavoured themselves to
be made clean.”7 Not only long study, but also purity of heart and flesh, are necessary for a
clear vision of the high things.
Nazianzene also said, “Speculation, or high cunning [great
intelligence] and knowledge, if it be not stayed with the bridle
of fear to offend God, is dangerous, and enough to tumble a
man headlong down the hill.” But where the fear of God is,
“there is the keeping of the commandments, there is the
cleansing of the flesh.”8 And there is also peaceableness, with
the prospect of competence in the high questions.
And so the king’s subjects were expected to humbly and
gratefully receive the gift of God’s word in their own tongue,
and to avoid presumption in disputing of the Scriptures.
The Great Bible went to many editions, continuing through the
St. Gregory Nazianzene
reigns of Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth, until replaced by
the Bishops’ Bible, for a total of at least 22 printings. It was the
official Bible of the Anglican Church during the exciting years of the early Reformation.
The people sang its Psalms, and from it were drawn the Scriptures that were read in the
churches and used in the liturgy and common prayers.
In conclusion, the Great Bible was the version that finally established vernacular Scriptures
in the English Church.

© 2018, Ruth Magnusson Davis, www.ruthmagnussondavis.com


Editor, New Matthew Bible Project, www.newmatthewbible.org

5 Cranmer, Preface, 107.


6 Ibid., 113.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., 116.