Monday, November 12, 2007

400 Years After Jamestown: Where Did the Bible Go?

In recent decades the British and American peoples have increasingly turned away from the Bible. Few can even remember when the Word of God was revered in our nations, but only a century ago it was considered the source of the “ennobling ideals” that united both nations.

by Melvin Rhodes

The Bible was missing.

I searched through the sanctuary. It must be somewhere. After all, it was a church.

I finally gave up and asked a female volunteer if she knew where the Bible was. She explained that it had been moved to an anteroom and that I could find it there. She added that she did not approve of it being moved.

I finally did locate it in a glass case that was hardly noticeable. That Bible, so much a part of the history of the church, had been relegated to a side room, signifying its reduced importance in the fabric of the church and of the nation as a whole.

The Bible in question was presented in 1907 to the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, by Britain's King Edward VII on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the colony of Virginia. The Bible and the lectern on which it had rested, now devoid of any copy of the Scriptures, had been presented to Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg by the president himself.

Times have changed

The dedicatory message from the king read: "This Bible is presented by His Majesty King Edward the Seventh, King of Great Britain and Ireland & Emperor of India to the church of Bruton, Virginia, a shrine rich in venerable tradition of worship, in solemn memories of patriots and statesmen and in historic witness to the oneness of our peoples.

"The King will ever hope and pray that the ties of kinship and of language and the common heritage of ordered worship and of ennobling ideals may through the saving faith in our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ revealed in these sacred pages, continue to unite Great Britain & America in a beneficent fellowship for setting forward peace & goodwill among men. MCMVII [1907]."

How times have changed in just a century! The public reverence for the Bible shown by both the king and the president 100 years ago is sadly lacking in our nations today!

Before visiting Colonial Williamsburg, my wife and I had toured Jamestown, site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. While there we had visited a replica of the original settlement, which included a church building.

In the church our guide asked us if we had heard of the King James translation of the Bible. As soon as the question was raised, people in our group started wandering off looking at other things. The musketry display was of particular interest. The significance of the King James translation of the Bible in the history of early America seemed of no interest to most of those touring Jamestown that day.

The most significant book in history and an inspiration for the settlers of Virginia and the later colonies of New England is now of little interest to the general populace. Yet without this book the United States would not have come into existence.

Historic importance of the Bible

It's no coincidence that the settlement in Jamestown and the publication of the King James Bible coincided. Those first settlers already had Bibles in their possession, translations that went back as far as John Wycliffe in the 14th century, the first man to translate the Scriptures into English.

But in the year the settlers sailed to Jamestown, the greatest English scholars were engaged in translating the Bible from ancient Hebrew and Greek texts into a new "Authorized Version," which was to become the most influential book ever published. Named after the king who authorized the translation work and who himself understood the ancient languages from which the Scriptures were to be translated, the Bible is known to Americans as the King James Version.

In a recent historical account of how we got the English Bible, the American historian Benson Bobrick wrote:"Only in England was the Bible in any sense a national possession . . . Englishmen carried their Bible with them—as the rock and foundation of their lives—overseas . . . Beyond the shores of Albion [Britain] it fortified the spirit of the pioneers of New England, helped to shape the American psyche, and through its impact on thought and culture eventually spread the world over, 'as wide as the waters be'" (Wide as the Waters, 2001, p. 12).

The book's title is taken from a poem about John Wycliffe (1330-1384), the father of the English Bible. Wycliffe was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church as a heretic. By order of Pope Martin V, his bones were to be exhumed and removed from consecrated ground. His remains were disinterred and burned, and his ashes cast into a river.

Bobrick relates how Wycliffe's favorite verse was Philippians 2:12, which admonishes each person to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." This was a revolutionary concept in Europe where for centuries people had been taught that salvation was only possible through the Catholic Church and its priests. Wycliffe is credited with laying a foundation for religious freedom and for the Anglo-American democratic systems that also emphasize individual responsibility.

Historic importance of the Bible

King Henry VIII legalized the publication and distribution of the Bible in 1537.

"By royal injunction, the Lord's Prayer and the 10 Commandments in English were to be taught sentence by sentence on Sundays and holy days throughout the year; at least one sermon on the Gospel was to be preached every quarter . . . ; and every parish church in England was to 'set up in some convenient place' a copy of the English Bible accessible to all as 'the very lively Word of God'" (Bobrick, p. 151).

Throughout the kingdom, copies for public use and edification were soon chained to lecterns in the vestibules of church buildings—six of them in St. Paul's Church alone.

The publication of the Bible was received with great enthusiasm. "It was wonderful to see with what joy the book of God was received," wrote an early biographer of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, ". . . not only among the learneder sort . . . but generally all England over among all the vulgar and common people; with what greediness God's Word was read, and what resort to places where the reading of it was.

"Everybody that could bought the book and busily read it; or got others to read it to them, if they could not themselves; and divers[e people] among the elderly learned to read on purpose. And even little boys flocked among the rest to hear portions of the Holy Scriptures read" (quoted by Bobrick, pp. 151-152).

In their enthusiasm for the Word of God, "crowds sometimes assembled in the church vestibules during Sunday service and eventually the king found it necessary to issue a proclamation (in April 1539) forbidding the reading of the Bible aloud at such times" (p. 152). "In his famous last speech to Parliament the king complained, with tears in his eyes, that the Bible was being 'disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every ale-house and tavern'" (p. 160).

It's striking to note in stark contrast the total lack of enthusiasm for the Bible today. The enthusiasm described here for God's Word was displayed recently upon publication of the latest Harry Potter book. Even many Christians showed a marked preference for the latter over the former!

A president's words of warning

When did all this enthusiasm for God's Word change? "It did not cease for 350 years: 1900 was the first year in which religious works (at least in England) did not outnumber all other publications" (Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 2000, p. 10).

The title of the book cited here is insightful. The enthusiasm for the Bible led to the rise of the English-speaking peoples, the "dawn" of our civilization, while the rejection of the Bible in more recent times has led to the present period of "decadence," defined as the rejection of all the values on which our civilization was built. Such decadence can only precede an inevitable fall.

As noted earlier, "Englishmen carried their Bible with them" everywhere. That sentence reminds me of the title of author James Morris' first volume of his history of the British Empire: By Heaven's Command. People believed they were given a divine responsibility to take Christian civilization, the Bible, the rule of law, parliamentary democracy and free trade to the rest of the world. This fulfilled ancient prophecies about Abraham's descendants through the tribe of Joseph being a blessing to the world (Genesis 12:3; Micah 5:7).

The Bible was to continue to be an inspiration for the English-speaking peoples. In 1789 George Washington took his oath of office and kissed a Bible opened to Genesis 49-50, "passages that include Joseph's dying reminder that God had promised the Israelites a new land" (Paul Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880, 1999, p. 41).

Then "at the end of the oath he added the words 'So help me God' . . . Every president since Washington has repeated this same appeal to God" (Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell, America's Providential History, 1989, p. 174).

In his inaugural address, the first ever in the history of the United States, Washington clearly had the Bible's promises in mind when he said: "No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency . . .

"We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained" (ibid., p. 175).

Today it's fashionable to deny the role the Bible played in the foundation of the United States. Although America's founders were of many different denominations, this was the one book that influenced them all. They were clearly all familiar with the Bible's promises or Washington would not have referred to them in his inaugural address. They knew the promise of blessings made to ancient Israel if they obeyed God and the inevitable curses that would come on the nation if it turned away from God.

Will we listen?

People can deny the importance of the Bible. Churches can even remove the Scriptures from their sanctuaries. But the fact remains that God's Word is just as relevant today as it was when George Washington became the first president of the United States more than 200 years ago.

The Bible being opened to verses about Israel's future was prescient—revealing blessings for the modern descendants of ancient Israel (the American and British-descended peoples, the nations of northwestern Europe and the Jewish state of Israel). Washington was also well aware of the Bible's warnings to Israel—applicable to the same nations. If they want to continue to receive God's physical blessings, they need to return to God and His laws.

The increasing problems that challenge the English-speaking nations are the direct result of turning away from the laws of God. Do we have the wisdom to listen to the words of George Washington, who foresaw the inevitability of failure for his new country if it chose to reject the laws of God and hide the Scriptures in a corner? GN


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