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The Bible Revolution

First shown on Channel 4 in April 2007

Rod LiddleThis Channel 4 documentary, presented by Rod Liddle, explores the life and times of the visionaries who fought a powerful and violent church establishment to publish the Bible in English. Their vocation, tenacity and sacrifice left a lasting impression on the language and literature in the centuries that followed. Julia Bard reports.

‘Am I my brothers keeper?’ ‘In the beginning was the word.’ ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’ ‘A law unto himself.’ The inflections, cadences and familiar phrases of the first English Bible set the foundations for the way English has been spoken and written in the five centuries that followed its first publication.

The struggle to translate the Bible into a language that everyone could understand was part of a challenge to the medieval Catholic Church, which conducted its rituals in Latin and invested huge authority in the Pope. Those who wanted to reform the church believed that each individual could relate directly to God, without the mediation of priests, but to do so they needed access to the scriptures.

Direct line to God

In 1370 John Wycliffe, a scholar at Oxford University, challenged the central role of the Catholic Mass. He said that the Bible was the sole source of Christian authority, not the Pope. The Church declared him a heretic and called his followers Lollards (mutterers). But they could not suppress his message: that the people could be trusted to read the Bible for themselves and through that, relate directly to God. By translating the Bible into English, Wycliffe, and those who followed him, not only opened that door to the scriptures, they also started to rescue and define the English language which had become overlaid by French and Latin since the Norman Conquest.

Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible was banned, and possession of a copy was considered evidence of heresy – punishable by burning to death. This even extended to Wycliffe being condemned as a heretic after his death, and his body dug up and burned. Nevertheless, the Lollard Bible continued to be passed from hand to hand and many copies survive today.

Change across Europe

During the reign of Henry VIII, frustration at the Church boiled over simultaneously with a flowering of scholarship and, perhaps most significantly, the invention of printing. There was also a growing challenge to the Catholic Church across Europe from those who believed that the wealth and power of the Church was a betrayal of the people, and that salvation could not be attained by performing rituals or acts of charity.

In Germany, Martin Luther was leading a growing reformation of the Church, with the protection of the local ruler. This inspired the scholar William Tyndale to translate the New Testament from the original Greek into a form of English that would sound familiar to ordinary people. But unlike Luther, he had no powerful protectors, and, in the spring of 1524, he fled from England to Germany. There, in August 1525, he completed his translation of the New Testament and took it to Cologne to be printed. Despite a raid on the printer, a few months later his Bible was printed, and thousands of copies of the compact book found their way to England to be handed round in secret, despite vicious suppression.

Tyndale moved to Antwerp, which was a relatively safe haven, and had an enormous printing industry. The printers boosted their profits by smuggling the new Bible to England as single pages hidden in bigger books. By the time Tyndale died, it is estimated that some 50,000 copies had reached England in this way.

At home, the conflict within Christianity took a new twist when Henry VIII declared himself to be the divinely appointed head of the Church in England. But the reformers still had powerful enemies, and Tyndale was betrayed, arrested and incarcerated in a castle in Brussels before being burnt at the stake in October 1536.

The Bible comes home

His execution did not defeat his mission to bring the Bible directly to English-speaking people, though. A few months after his death, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, recommended that people read Tyndale’s Bible and, in turn, wrote the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

This set the tone for the English Reformation, but it was to turn violent as Thomas Cromwell led the destruction and looting of the monasteries on behalf of Henry VIII. Eventually two versions of the English Bible were licensed: The Matthew Bible and The Great Bible, both largely based on Tyndale’s translation. Not only were they permitted, every parish in the country was forced to buy a copy. This act of defiance against the old Church emphasised the belief that everyone stands before God without the need for clergy – a fundamental aspect of British Protestantism.

Politics and intrigue

During the short reign of Henry’s 9-year-old son, Edward, the destruction of the monasteries and all the art and objects they contained gathered pace. The backlash came after Edward died and was succeeded by Mary. Cranmer was arrested and the Catholic Church’s leading intellectuals were brought in to persuade him to recant – but he turned the tables on them by changing the final paragraph of the speech he had promised to make. He was burnt at the stake in 1556, but the English Bible survived.

In 1558, Elizabeth came to the throne. A sophisticated politician, she presided over the development of a new kind of Protestantism which contained compromises with some Catholic traditions and saved the remaining cathedrals. Some Protestants could not accept these compromises. In an attempt to maintain their support, Elizabeth’s successor, James, commissioned a new Bible, again, largely based on Tyndale’s work. This was the King James Version, which set a standard and influenced writers for four centuries.

Across the Atlantic

This did not stop the divisions and rancour worsening and developing into the English Civil War. When peace, and the throne, were restored, the Bible wars were over, in Britain at least. In America, though, the debate continued among Protestants from all over Europe who had fled persecution. Among their descendents are the USA’s 125,000 English-speaking Protestant churches, which range from champions of Civil Rights to the right-wing Evangelical leaders who preach with missionary fervour that there is no other means to salvation than the Bible.

Perhaps its most important legacy, though, is the Protestant notion put by Jefferson: ‘God hath created the mind free.’ This underpinned the separation of church and state, the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and the right to fight for freedom of choice, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.