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, I was fascinated by the stone pulpit on the right at the front at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., when I visited it about half a year ago. This stone pulpit commemorates in an elaborate way the Word of God in English.
Since this is where the sermon is delivered, the designers of the Cathedral, which began construction in 1907, chose to honor the history of the Bible in English. The pulpit, all made of stone, consists of four miniature statues and a few reliefs in-between.
The men honored in the statues all relate to the Bible and English. They include Alfred the Great (849-899), of whom Churchill once wrote, “King Alfred’s Book of Laws … attempted to blend the Mosaic code with Christian principles and old Germanic customs.” Presumably, Alfred the Great is there primarily because of his use of the Bible and its principles in his ruling.
Wycliffe is often called, “the morning star of the Reformation,” and 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. Wycliffe’s remains were later desecrated by church officials for his efforts.
The other two statues are of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, the best-known of the translators of the King James Version (1611), and of Bishop Westcott (died in 1901), who helped created the Revised Version of the Bible in the 1880s.
One of the reliefs in stone shows a man being burned. It is William Tyndale (c.1494-1536). Underneath this scene of his martyrdom are his last words, a prayer: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” The king was Henry VIII, who brought about Reformation in England, not for noble reasons, but so that he could divorce and remarry a wife that would bear him a son.
Amazingly, in 1539, three years after Tyndale’s prayer, Henry VIII did authorize the publishing of a Bible – the first time it was legal in England – and at the king’s doing no less. Tyndale’s prayer was answered after alls.
Tyndale played a major role in history, but he’s 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 martyred for his efforts, Tyndale indirectly contributed substantially to the major English Bible a century later. 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 (KJV) of 1611, thus, insuring wide distribution – to this very day.
Tyndale first coined the English words “atonement,” “Passover” and “scapegoat,” based, of course, on biblical teachings. One could argue that the KJV’s translators and editors could be accused of plagiarism. But plagiarism laws are modern inventions to protect intellectual capital. Tyndale would have been delighted to know that he helped lay a foundation for the spread of the Word of God in unimaginable ways.
Meanwhile, the King James Version of the Bible of 1611 is a literary masterpiece that has had profound and positive influence on our language and culture.
How we got our English Bible is a fascinating story, and for anyone interested in learning that, I recommend Rawlings’ book, “Trial by Fire.”
Today, a vast majority of Americans could read a speech as fine as Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address and have no clue of the Bible’s incredible influence on it. Nor would they have a clue of the price paid to get the Bible available to everyday folks – plow boys, if you will.