Rev David Cross and his wife Barbara Cross worked in the field of church planting in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales. They have since returned to their native USA and Barbara has written this excellent article. It is published with their kind permission. The Geneva Bible has been too long overlooked in terms of its historical significance.
Sometime in the 1980s I was delighted to visit the birthplace of one of my heroes – Abraham Lincoln. Adding to my excitement was seeing Lincoln family Bible in which his birthday was recorded. The guide told us that it was a Geneva Bible. I was curious. “What was a Geneva Bible?” Though I had a BA degree in Biblical Education I had never heard of the Geneva Bible. My interest was greatly stirred and through many years I have enjoyed getting to know more about this translation of the Bible that predated the King James Bible by 51 years and which, for many reasons, was far superior.
The story behind the Geneva Bible began in 1553 when Queen Mary, (often called “Bloody Mary”) the daughter of Henry the 8th, came to the throne. Her mother Catherine of Aragon, divorced by Henry, had been a fervent Catholic and it was Mary’s great desire that England be returned to the fold of the Roman Church. She was not satisfied with the minor “reforms” made early in her reign, such as dismissing married clergy and the restoration of Catholic doctrine. Becoming totally frustrated by the lack of progress in the country becoming solidly Catholic she began a severe persecution of Protestants. Ultimately, around 300 hundred Protestants were martyred, many being burned at the stake.
Many of the greatest scholars and theologians (as many as 800) began to flee for their lives to Switzerland and Germany. A large number settled in Geneva, under John Knox, the pastor of the English Church and John Calvin, pastor of the French church. Under the protection of the Genevan civil authorities it was determined to produce an English Bible that would not need the official license of the King of England, but more important than that, to produce a Bible that would meet the needs of the common people. This had been the desire of the William Tyndale, one of the first men to translate the whole Bible into English. He had said, “If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow, shall know more of Scripture than thou doest.” (1522, Foxes Book of Martyrs).
Previous English Bibles were very large and very expensive. Added to this was the idea that a Bible translation must be in “holy language” – language that was already becoming outdated. (Court Records in County Durham in the north of England show that “you” had replaced “thou” by 1575.) Also there was the tradition that the Bible must be printed in large black Gothic letters modelled on written script – lettering that made it difficult to read. Now the decision was made to print it in Roman type – a more modern print and much easier to read.
The men who had fled to Geneva desired the same thing as Tyndale. They knew that what was needed was a Bible that was affordable and could be read by the common man. The first translation, produced in 1557, was New Testament. Most of the work was a revision of Tyndale’s 1534 edition. The work was done by Willian Whittingham, who had married the sister of John Calvin. Immediately after the New Testament edition was finished work began on a translation of the entire Bible. The Geneva Bible was the first English version in which all of the Old Testament was translated directly from Hebrew.
The Geneva Bible was, for the very first time, mass produced, mechanically printed and available for the general public. Bibles in the past were only to be used in churches. This Bible was made available directly to the general public. Another thing that made it desirable was its size. It was about 6½ by 9½ inches which made it easy to hold and carry.
John Calvin had stressed to his followers, especially to ministers, “the need to accommodate to the ability of the individual.” This led to another attractive feature of the Geneva which was its illustrations. It had maps of the Holy Land. It had pictures of Biblical stories such as showing the garments of the high priest. It also came with helpful cross referencing – something very new in Bibles. Along with these there was an introduction to each book in the Bible. It also was the first English Bible to be divided into chapters and verses.
Perhaps the best known feature of the Geneva Bible is the marginal notes. Where there were “hard places” in the Bible passages there were explanations given on the side of the text. These “notes” by reformers such as John Calvin and others were written with the idea of helping to interpret the Scripture for the common man. However, they became controversial as they were written from the reformed and Calvinistic perspective, though there were fewer so called “Calvinistic notes” than the enemies of the Geneva Bible would have us to believe. It is no exaggeration to say that the Geneva Bible was the world’s first “study Bible.”
It was also the first Bible printed in Scotland. The Geneva Bible was printed by an Edinburgh published called Thomas Bassandyne and was dedicated to James of 1st England (who was also James 6th of Scotland). The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) ordered that a copy must be in every parish church. The Scottish government decreed that not only every parish church have a copy but every home over a certain income must purchase it.
For several generations it was the most popular Bible in the English speaking world, being the most read from 1560 until its last publication in 1644. Well might we ask why is it almost unknown today?
First, it was either ignored or hated by many authorities in the Church of England. Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, disliked it, not because of its translation, but because of its side notes. He complained to Queen Elizabeth about the “diverse prejudicial notes” (Calvinistic) in the Geneva Bible. In spite of his dislike people kept on buying the Bible even some Catholics who wanted to read the Word of God for themselves.
Second, when King James 6th came to England, having ruled Presbyterians in Scotland. (a group he despised) he had an agenda, “to destroy, discredit or displace” the Geneva Bible by any means. James disliked Presbyterianism because He hated the fact that Presbyterians had no room for bishops. To his mind bishops, who ruled the church, and kings who ruled the country, went along in perfect unity. Not to have bishops would threaten his kingship.
James believed strongly in “the divine right of kings” – the idea that only God was above a king in authority. Some of the notes in the Geneva Bible commented on the fact that there were times when a “tyrant king” could be overthrown. He held that there was never a time that a king could or should be overthrown because of his “divine right.”
The Puritans of England knowing that James had come from a county with strong Puritan convictions were hoping that James would help in the establishment of a national Presbyterian church. But that was the farthest thing from James’s mind. At the point of his arrival in England his strong hatred of puritan ideas was unknown. Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London, took it upon himself to further persuade James that the monarchy was dependent upon the Church of England’s Episcopal system – not the Presbyterian system where there was no supreme head.
In 1604 James called a church conference at Hampton court for the purpose of trying to promote unity between the Puritans and the Church of England. John Reynolds, leader of the Puritan contingent, put forth some of their demands – all of which were rejected. However, later John Reynolds voiced a Puritan demand that “one only translation of the Bible was to be declared, authentical and read in churches.” Some believe that his hope was to secure approval for the Geneva Bible to be authorised as the only Bible to be read aloud in church.
Now James saw his chance to get rid of the Geneva Bible. He declared that he “had yet to see a Bible well translated into English,” and gave his opinion that of all the Bibles, “the Geneva is the worst.” James then directed that the “best learned in both universities should start to work on a new translation.” One key rule for the translation of the KJV was, “No Marginal Notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek Words.” This was his way of getting rid of the notes in the Geneva Bible with a Calvinistic slant as well those notes stating that “tyrant kings” could be removed. He decreed that “special pains be taken for a uniform translation, which should be done by the best learned men in both Universities, then reviewed by the Bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly ratified by the Royal authority…"
By 1611 the new Bible was completed. In England it continues to be known generally as the “Authorised Version” while in America it goes by the name of the “King James Bible.”
Did the New KJV immediately replace the Geneva Bible? No! The reaction to the KJV was “generally negative in tone.” For over 50 years the Geneva Bible still sold much better than the KJV. It was the Bible of Shakespeare (There is no evidence to show that he ever used the KJV.) It was the Bible of John Milton, Sir Water Raleigh, John Bunyan, and was the Bible brought by the Pilgrim Fathers and the early settlers to America. Even those most associated with the translation of the King James Version and political enemies of the Puritans like Archbishop Laud and Bishop Bancroft often took their texts for their sermons from the Geneva Bible!
One of the greatest causes of the Geneva Bible falling into disuse came when Charles 2nd became king after the Commonwealth rule of Oliver Cromwell. The Geneva Bible was seen as the Bible of the Puritans and the KJV the Bible of kings and the establishment. Thus the KJV became the established translation of the new restoration of the monarchy. – How sad that one of the greatest English translations fell into disuse.
If you were to come into our home, you might stop to look at various pictures hanging in our family room but pass right by a framed text that seems almost unreadable. To us this is the prize of the prints that hang there. It is a page from an original Geneva Bible given to us for our 50th wedding anniversary by our daughter who knew my love and interest in this great historic Bible. The page was chosen because it contains my life testimony verse, Psalm 16: 6, “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places: yea, I have a faire heritage.”