Modern democracy's origin: Universal access to the Word

On Books

April 08, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Amid modern furors about insulating state from church, it is comfortable to ignore the immense role that faith played in the evolution of democracy. I know no book that has ever more fascinatingly traced that historic phenomenon than "Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired," by Benson Bobrick (Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $26).

Much of the concept of individual rights, of course, occurred in England, where the principal conventions of Western democratic values grew. England also was a very early venue for Christianity, which was well established by the mid-300s, then virtually wiped out in the 400s by the bloody invasion of Teutonic pagans. But the church was strong and growing again by the early 600s.

That evolution of individual rights took centuries more, while on the European continent religious power vied with sovereigns over both power and wealth. Until well into the 1500s, the church in England and English political institutions were intricately enmeshed in those international power dynamics. But then English theologians -- as Martin Luther did on the Continent -- began getting pushy.

The church's fiercely enforced doctrine was that Christ had given the scriptures exclusively to the clergy, a hierarchical power extending down from the pope (or the various popes during schisms). All scripture -- the Old Testament, originally in Hebrew; the New Testament, composed in Greek -- was the private preserve of the priesthood, usually working with Latin translations. An aspect of that new pushiness of the 1500s was a growing sense that all Christians should have a right to explore on their own the meaning of God's word.

Bible translations into the spoken languages of the laity were regarded as heresy. Writing or reading such texts was liberally discouraged by massive burnings at the stake and other forms of execution by public torture. By as early as 1300, and increasingly after that, there was much such heresy in the works. It's difficult today to comprehend how centrally matters of daily personal faith dominated the lives and consciousnesses of people before the invention of televised basketball.

Bobrick is an American historian who has written six previous books, including a biography of Ivan the Terrible, an examination of stuttering throughout history, and histories of subways, Siberia and the American Revolution. His scholarship is intensely impressive, and in spite of that, he writes extraordinarily clearly.

In his prologue to this book, Bobrick writes: "Once the people were free to interpret the Word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of their inherited institutions, both secular and religious, which led to reformation within the Church, and to the rise of constitutional government in England and the end of the divine right of kings."

The book tells that story powerfully, without stumbling over the clutter of names, titles -- of centuries rushing by. The consummation of the tale is the achievement of what in the United States is called the King James Version of the Bible -- known in Britain simple as the Authorized Version.

Cutting through the immense complexities of the Establishment of the Church of England, the rest of the development of Protestantism, the often grossly misunderstood reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, a simple distillation of the saga must leap to the reign of King James I.

In 1604, James brought together 54 of the greatest scholars of Britain, all but one of them Anglican priests, though some had Puritan leanings, and charged them with writing a complete new English-languge translation of the Bible. "In working over their material," Bobrick writes, "the translators consulted every known text, commentary, and translation, ancient or modern, and as Miles Smith [a senior member of the commission] tells us in the Preface, repeatedly '[brought] back to the anvil that which we had hammered,' and did not 'disdain to revise that which we had done.'" Bobrick judges that "When it was done, it surpassed all others in the majesty and music of its words."

They finished near the end of 1608, and a General Committee of Review spent the first nine months of 1609 carefully going over the text, polishing, authenticating. When completed, it was beautifully simple and very English -- nine tenths of the words were of Saxon origin, minimizing Latinate and other terms. The entire vocabulary was a relatively tiny 8,000 words.

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