Rewind: The English Bible

Amy Booth examines the seminal 1535 release of the English bible

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Bizarre as it may seem to today’s modern and increasingly secular population, translation of the Bible into English has historically been a highly controversial endeavour. A Bible accessible to the masses, rather than just educated clergymen well-versed in Latin was once considered to be a dangerously radical idea with the power to topple the authority of the Catholic Church. The eventual publication of such a tome in 1535 marked a huge leap in the people’s ability to think and speak freely about religion. Gone were the days when the only possible interpretation of scripture was whatever your local priest droned through on a Sunday morning.

Work on an English translation began as early as the 14th century, when Oxford scholar and religious dissident John Wycliffe sought to bring the word of God directly to the people without the Church as a middle man. The translation proved popular and, in a shocking turn of events, he and his followers were labelled as heretical by Church authorities and many copies of their work were collected up and burnt.

It was not until the early 16th century that a full Bible in English could finally be compiled and published. This was the work of Wycliffe supporter William Tyndale, who, like his successor before him and Richard Dawkins some time later, incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church. Tyndale fled to mainland Europe to continue his work, and as new portions were completed, they were smuggled onto English shores in covert operations. In a situation uncannily familiar to us today, on the orders of Henry VIII and the Church England’s borders were patrolled by ships and officers tasked with searching incoming vessels from Europe for what was seen as dangerous contraband threatening the English way of life. However, in an act of most admirable spite, following Henry’s noted squabble with the Catholic Church, the newly formed Church of England promoted direct access to the Bible for all Christians and Tyndale’s Bible was circulated with the full support of the king. In fact, by 1539, the royally authorised Great Bible even depicted Henry on its title page!

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Once works as important as the Bible could lawfully be produced in English, the prestige of the language was increased massively. English now commanded power and respect, planting the seed of its later status as the global lingua franca we know today. Who knew the Bible could be so influential?