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Study of the King James Bible Part 10

LECTURE V

THE KING JAMES VERSION--ITS INFLUENCE ON ENGLISH AND AMERICAN HISTORY

THE King James version of the Bible is only a book. What can a book do in history?

Well, whatever the reason, books have played a large part in the movements of men, specially of modern men.

They have markedly influenced the opinion of men about the past. It is commonly said that Hume's History of England, defective as it is, has yet "by its method revolutionized the writing of history," and that is true. Nearer our own time, Carlyle's Life of Cromwell reversed the judgment of history on Cromwell, gave all readers of history a new conception of him and his times and of the movement of which he was the life. After the Restoration none were so poor as to do Cromwell reverence until Carlyle's BOOK gave him anew to the world.

There are instances squarely in our own time by which their mighty influence may be tested.

They are of books of almost ephemeral value save for the student of history. As literature they will be quickly forgotten; but as FORCES they must be reckoned with. There is Uncle Tom's Cabin. It would be absurd to say that it brought the American Civil War, or freed the negroes, or saved the Union. It did none of those great things. Yet it is not at all absurd to name it among the potent powers in all three. It is not to our purpose whether it is true or not as a statement of the whole fact.

Doubtless it was not true of the general and common circumstances of Southern slavery; but everything in it was possible, and even frequent enough so that it could not be questioned. It pretended no more. But its influence was simply tremendous. In book form it became available in 1852, and within three years, 1855, it was common property of English-speaking people.

No other book ever produced so extraordinary an effect so quickly in the public mind.[1]

It held up slavery to judgment. It crystallized the thoughts of common people. The work of those strenuous years in the '60's could not have been done without the result of that book. It made history. Come nearer our own day. We could not be long in London without feeling the concern of the better people for conditions in the East End. A new social impulse has seized them. To be sure, it lacks much yet of success; but more has been done than most people realize. The new movement, the awakening of that social sense, traces back to the book of Gen. William Booth, In Darkest England (1890). It has helped to change the life of a large part of London.

[1] Rhodes, History of the United States, vol. i, pp. 185-303.

On this side, the new concern for city conditions dates from the book of a newspaper reporter, Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives.

It thrust the Other Half into such prominence that it has never been possible to forget it.

Marked advance in all American cities, in legislation and life, goes straight back to it. Name one other book still in the field of social service, even so unpleasant, so terrible, so obnoxious a book as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. It started and sustained movements which have unsettled business and political life ever since it appeared.

It made some conditions vivid, unescapable.

Do not misunderstand the argument. No man can tell what will be said in the histories a century from now about these lesser books.

We can never go beyond guesses as to the whole cause of any chain of events.[1] As time passes, incidental elements in the causes gradually sink out of sight and a few great forces take the whole horizon. Whatever the histories a century from now say about the relative place of such books as we have named, it is certain that they have influenced the movements mightily.

The literary histories will say nothing at all about them. They are not great literature, but they were born of a passion of the times and voiced and aroused it anew.

[1] MacPhail, Essays on Puritanism, p. 278.

When, therefore, it is urged that the English Bible has influenced history, it is not making an undue claim for it. When it is further urged that of all books in English literature it has been most influential, it has most made history, it has most determined great movements, the argument only claims for it the highest place among books.

And it would not be surprising if it should have such influence. It is the one great piece of English literature which is universal property.

Since the day it was published it has been kept available for everybody. No other book has ever had its chance. English-speaking people have always been essentially religious. They have always had a profound regard for the terms, the institutions, the purposes of religion. Partly that has been maintained by the Bible; but the Bible in its turn has been maintained by it. So it has come about that English-speaking people, though they have many books, are essentially people of one Book. Wherever they are, the Bible is. Queen Victoria has it near by when the messenger from the Orient appears, and lays her hand upon it to say that this is the foundation of the prosperity of England. But the poor housewife in the cottage, with only a crust for food, stays her soul with it. The Puritan creeps into hiding with the Book, while his brother sails away to the new land with the Book. The settler may have his Shakespeare; he will surely have his Bible. As the long wagon-train creeps across the plain to seek the Western shore, there may be no other book in all the train; but the Bible will be there. Find any settlement of men who speak the English tongue, wherever they make their home, and the Bible is among them. When did any book have such a chance to influence men? It is the one undisturbed heritage of all who speak the English tongue. It binds the daughter and the mother country together, and gathers into the same bond the scattered remnants of the English-speaking race the world around. Its language is the one speech they all understand. Strange it would be if it had not a profound influence upon history!

Another fact that has helped to give the Bible its great influence is the power of the preaching it has inspired. The periods of greatest preaching have always been the periods of freest access to the Bible. No one can overlook the immense power of the sermons of history. There have been poor, inept, banal expositors, doubtless; but even they turned men's minds to the Bible.

Reading the Bible makes men thinkers, and so makes preachers inevitably. Witness the Scotch.

James was raised in Scotland and believed in the power of preaching. At one time he wanted to settle endowments for the maintenance of preaching under government control. But Archbishop Whitgift convinced him that much preaching was "an innovation and dangerous," since it is quite impossible to control a man's mouth once it is given a public chance. Under Charles I. the sermon was mighty in the service of the Puritans until it was suppressed or restricted.

Then men became lecturers and expounded the Bible or taught religious truth in public or private.

Rich men engaged private chaplains since public meetings could not be held. Somehow they taught the Bible still. Archbishop Laud forbade both. Yet the leaven worked the more for its restriction. At least one good cook I know says that if you want your dough to rise and the yeast to work, you must cover it. Laud did not want it to rise, but he made the mistake of covering it.

There has never been a book which has provoked such incessant preaching and discussion as has the Bible. The believers in the Koran teach it as it is, word for word. Believers in the Bible have never stopped with that. They have always tried to come together and hear it expounded. Such gatherings and such constant pressure of the Book on groups of hearers would inevitably give the Bible great influence. When it is remembered that in America alone there are each week approximately four hundred thousand gatherings of people which have for their avowed purpose instruction or inspiration in religion, and that the instruction and inspiration are professedly and openly drawn from the Bible, that more than three hundred thousand sermons are preached every week from it and passages of it read in all the gatherings, it appears that the Bible had and still has such a chance to influence life as no other book has had. President Schurman traces a large part of our own stronger American life to the educative power of our Sundays. But central in the education of those days is now, and has been from the first of our national history, the English Bible.

The influence of the Bible comes also from the fact that it makes its chief appeal to the deeper elements in life. "Human history in its real character is not an account of kings and of wars; it is the unfolding of the moral, the political, the artistic, the social, and the spiritual progress of the human family. The time will yet come when the names of dynasties and of battles shall not form the titles of its chapters.

The truths revealed in the Bible have been the touchstone which has tried men's spirits."[1]

[1] H. B. Smith, Faith and Philosophy, p. 54.

Those words go to the heart of the fact. The influence of the English Bible on English- speaking history for the last three hundred years is only the influence of its fundamental truths. It has moved with tremendous impact on the wills of men. It has made the great human ideals clear and definite; it has made them beautiful and attractive; but that has not been enough. It has reached also the springs of action. It has given men a sense of need and also a sense of strength, a sense of outrage and a sense of power to correct the wrong. There it has differed from most books. Frederick Robertson said that he read only books with iron in them, and, as he read, their atoms of iron entered the blood, and it ran more red for them.

There is iron in this Book, and it has entered the blood of the human race. Where it has entered most freely, the red has deepened; and nowhere has it deepened more than in our English-speaking races. The iron of our blood is from this King James version.

Bismarck explained the victories of the Germans over the French by the fact that from childhood the Germans had been trained in the sense of duty, as the French had not been trained, and as soldiers had learned to feel that nothing could escape the Eye which ever watched their course. They learned that, Bismarck said, from the religion which they had been taught. There is no mistaking the power of religion in rousing and sharpening the sense of duty. Webster spoke for the English-speaking races, and found his phrases in the Bible, when he said that this sense "pursues us ever. It is omnipresent like the Deity. If we take to ourselves the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, duty performed or duty violated is still with us for our happiness or our misery.

If we say the darkness shall cover us, in the darkness as in the light our obligations are yet with us. We cannot escape from their power or fly from their presence." It is religion which makes that sense of duty keen; and, whatever religion has done among English-speaking races, the English Bible has done, for it has been the text-book and the final authority of those races in the moving things of their faith.

It would be easiest in making the argument to single out here and there the striking events in which the Bible has figured and let them stand for the whole. There are many such events, and they are attractive.

We can imagine ourselves standing on the shore at Dover in 1660, fifty years after the version was issued, waiting with the crowd to see the banished King return. The civil war is over, the protectorate under Cromwell is past. Charles II., thick-lipped, sensuous, "seeming to belong rather to southern Europe than to Puritan England,"

is about to land from France, whence the people, wearied with Puritan excesses, have called him back. There is a great crowd, but they do not cheer wildly. There is something serious on hand. They mean to welcome the King; but it is on condition. Their first act is when the Mayor of Dover places in his hands a copy of the English Bible, which the King declares he loves above all things in the world. It proves only a sorry jest; but the English people think it is meant for truth, and they go to their homes rejoicing. They rejoiced too soon, for this is that utterly faithless king for whom his witty courtier proposed an epitaph:

"Here lies our sovereign lord, the king, Whose word no man relies on; Who never said a foolish thing, And never did a wise one."[1]

[1] White, in his History of England, says that Charles replied that the explanation was easy: His discourses were his own, his actions were his ministry's!

As at other times, the King was only talking with no meaning; but the people did not know him yet. They had made their Bible the great test of their liberties: will a king stand by that or will he not? If he will not, let him remember Charles the First! And from that day no English king, no American leader, has ever successfully restricted English-speaking people from free access to their great Book. It has become a banner of their liberties. The child was wiser than he knew when he was asked what lesson we may learn from Charles I., and replied that we may learn that a man should not lose his head in times of excitement. Charles lost his head long before he laid it on the block.

Besides the scene at Dover, we may watch that great emigration of the Scotch-Irish from Ulster, beginning in 1689, seventy years after the Puritan exodus and eighty years after the version was issued, which peopled the backwoods of America with a choice, strong population.

They were only following the right to worship freely, the right to their Bible without chains on its lids or on the lips of its preachers. They were making no protest against Romanism nor against Anglicanism in themselves. They only claimed the right to worship as they would.

Under William and Mary, after James II. had fled to France, toleration became the law in England; but when Ireland was reconquered by William's generals, the act of toleration was not extended to it. Baptists, Presbyterians, all except the small Anglican Church, were put under the ban and forbidden to worship. But the Bible had made submission impossible, and there came about that great exodus to the new land which has so blessed it.

There are other signal events which might be observed. But all the while there would be danger of magnifying the importance of events which seem to prove the point. The view needs to be a more general one instead. The period is not long--three hundred years at the most-- though it has a background of all English history.

We have already seen how from the first there have been determined efforts to make the Bible common to the people; yet, of course, the influence of our version can appear only in these three hundred years since it was issued. That short period has not only been interesting almost to the point of excitement in English life, but it covers virtually all American life. Take, therefore, the broader view of the influence of the English Bible on history, apart from these striking events.

It is to be assumed at once that much of its influence is indirect. Indeed, its chief influence must be through men who prove to be leaders and through that public sentiment without which leaders are powerless. If leaders live by it and stand or fall by its teaching, then their work is its work. If they find a public sentiment issuing from it which gives them power, a sentiment which crystallizes around them when they appear, because it is of kindred spirit with themselves, then the power of that sentiment is the power of the Bible. The influence of Pilgrim's Progress or The Saint's Rest is the influence of Bunyan and Baxter; but back of them is the Bible. In language, in idea, in spirit, they were only making the Bible a common Book to their readers.

Their value for life and history is the Bible's value for life and history.

The power of great souls is frequently and easily underestimated. Scientific study has tended to that by magnifying visible conditions and by trying to calculate the force of laws which are in plain sight. Buckle's theory of civilization has influenced our times greatly.

It explains national character as the outcome of natural conditions, and lays such stress on circumstances as left it possible for Buckle to declare that history and biography are in different spheres. It is still true, however, that most history turns on biography. Great souls have been the chief factors in great movements.

Whether the movement could have occurred without them will never be possible to decide, if it should be disputed. In a chemical laboratory the essential factors of any phenomenon can be determined by the process of elimination.

All the elements which preceded it except one can be introduced; if the result is the same as in its presence, manifestly it is not essential.

So the experiment can go on until the result becomes different, when it is evident that the last omitted element is an essential one. But no such process is possible in great historical movements.

The only course open to us is to consider carefully the elements which do appear.

Take three great movements which are easiest to follow in these three centuries. Whether the spiritual independence of England would have been secured without the Quakers may be debated; but this fact can hardly be debated: certainly it was not so secured; whether or not the Quakers could have been without George Fox, certainly they did not occur without him.

Take the second: whether or not some other movement could have done what Puritanism did is hardly a question for history; Puritanism actually did the work for England and America which gave both their strongest qualities. There is no testing the period to see whether Puritanism could be left out. There it stands as a powerful factor, and no analysis of the history can possibly omit it. Or the third: it is not a question for a historian whether English history could have been the same without Methodism and whether Methodism could have been at all without the Wesleys; certainly nothing took its place, nor did any one else stand at the head of the movement.

Here are these three great movements, not to seek others. All of them have had tremendous influence in the religious and political history of both the nations where they have moved most freely. Each of them is a direct and undisputed result of the influence of the Bible.

Much has already been said of the Puritans in England, and there will be occasion to see what was their influence in America. But think for a moment of the Quakers. James Freeman Clark calls them the English mystics; certainly they were more than that.[1] George Fox had little learning but the Bible; that he knew well.

He first came to himself out in the fields alone with the Bible. He was not stirred to the origin of the movement nor to his greatest activity by experiences he had in public places. He came to those public places profoundly affected by his familiarity with the English Bible. He came at a time when his protest was needed, a protest against formalism, against mere outward conformity.

A thousand years before, Mohammedanism had really saved the Christian faith by its protest, violent and merciless, against its errors, challenging it to purity in faith and life.

Now Fox and the Quakers saved church life by protest against church life. The Bible was still the law, but not the Bible which you read for me, but that which you read for you and I for me, each of us guided by an inner light. The Quaker movement was a distinct protest against church formalism in the interests of freedom of the Bible.

[1] David Gregg, The Quakers in America.

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