[Originally written/posted March 18, 2015] This month, March 2015, marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s classic Second Inaugural Address. Historian, author, and college professor Daniel Dreisbach has written a wonderful piece on how the Bible played a key role in that address, which is chiseled in stone on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial. He notes that there are some 45 allusions to the Bible in that one speech, including three complete Bible verses.
Any honest student of American and English history must admit that the English Bible, the King James Version in particular, has played a key role in history. Even the leading atheist in our time, Richard Dawkins, has called it “a treasured heritage.”
What people don’t realize is the high price that was paid to get the Bible into English. A price paid in blood in some cases. In 1408, a law was passed in England that strictly prohibited the translation of the Bible into English.
Knowing that history, when I visited National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. about half a year ago, I was fascinated to carefully examine the large stone pulpit that stands on the right hand side at the front of the sanctuary.
Since the sermon is delivered from this beautiful pulpit, the designers of the Cathedral, who began its construction in 1907, chose to commemorate the history of the English Bible with four carved statues on the corners of the pulpit and carved bas-reliefs on the sides.
The four statues honor men whose lives are significant in the history of the English Bible. Presumably, Alfred the Great (849-899) is there because of his use of the Bible and its principles in his ruling. Winston Churchill once wrote of him, “King Alfred’s Book of Laws…attempted to blend the Mosaic code with Christian principles and old Germanic customs.”
There is also a statue of John Wycliffe, a 14th century Oxford professor. He is credited with being the first to translate the Bible into English (the English of 1383) from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.
Wycliffe is often called, “the morning star of the Reformation.” Reportedly, he first coined the phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”—a concept he saw in the Word of God. For his efforts, Wycliffe’s remains were later desecrated by Church officials who opposed the translation of the Bible into English.
The two other statues on the pulpit memorialize Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, the best known of the translators of the King James Version (1611), and Bishop Brooke Westcott, who helped publish the Revised Version of the Bible in the 1880s.
One of the bas-relief depictions on the pupil shows the martyrdom of William Tyndale (c.1494-1536). Underneath this scene are his last words, a prayer: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” That king was Henry VIII, who later started the Reformation in England by leaving the Roman Catholic Church—but not for noble reasons. He wanted to divorce his wife and marry someone he hoped would give him a son.
Amazingly, just three years after Tyndale prayed, his prayer was answered, King Henry authorized the publishing of a Bible in England—the first time it was legal to do so.
Tyndale played a major role in history, but he is an unsung hero. He was the first major translator of the Bible into English from the original languages. He wanted to see the day when even the “plow boy” would be able to read the Bible for himself.
Although Tyndale was martyred for his efforts, Dr. Harold Rawlings, author of Trial By Fire: The Struggle to Get the Bible into English, notes that major portions of Tyndale’s Bible ended up in the King James Bible of 1611, thus, insuring wide distribution of Tyndale’s work—to this very day.
Tyndale first coined the English words “atonement,” “Passover,” and “scapegoat,” based, of course, on biblical teachings.
Meanwhile, the King James Bible of 1611 is acknowledged as a literary masterpiece, which has had profound and positive influence on the English language and every English speaking culture.
How we got our English Bible is a fascinating story, and for anyone interested in learning more about it, I would recommend Harold Rawlings’ book, Trial by Fire.
In light of the high cost to get us the Word of God in our own language, it is tragic that some people, even professing Christians, neglect the daily reading of the Good Book.
Today, a vast majority of Americans might read a speech as fine as Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and have no clue about the Bible’s incredible influence on it. Nor would they have any idea of the price paid so that the Bible could become available to everyday folks—plow boys, if you will.