President Lincoln stood at Gettyburg and delivered one of the most quoted speeches in history. We especially remember his phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. But did you know that most of those who heard Lincoln’s speech would have recognized that this phrase came from someone else? Lincoln was quoting the prologue to John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English – the very first such translation. The exact words were: “This Bible is for the government of the people, for the people and by the people.” They were penned almost 500 years before Lincoln delivered his timeless address at Gettysburg!
Wycliffe was an odd bird for his time. He believed in the centrality of the Bible when most theologians and people believed in the centrality of the organized church. He was considered a trouble-maker for teaching that ordinary people should read the scriptures and come to their own conclusions, rather than relying on priests and experts to interpret the Bible for them. Because the Bible was only available in Latin at the time, that teaching was pretty meaningless. So he organized the very first translation of the Bible into English. At the time, the translation of the Bible into the language of everyday speech was not just a religious activity. It was a profoundly political one. (One of many historical facts that undermines the very recent notion that religion is something people should live out privately.)
Wycliffe not only knew this, he promoted it. In his mind, having the Bible in the language of the people had profound implications for politics, religion, education and even business. At the time, most believed that affairs of the state were the domain of the King and everyone believed what he believed and did what he said. The same was true of religion. There was only one variety of church in your village, town or city, all teaching the same thing. Everyone was expected to follow that teaching. No thinking for yourself! Wycliffe proposed a revolution: first, people would make up their own mind about what to believe based on their own reading of the Bible. Second, that would flow over into government and politics where people would demand the same right. After all, if people were allowed to make up their minds about the most important truth – that about God – on what basis could they be denied their own opinion about lesser matters, including those of politics and government!?
The thing is, Wycliffe’s “crazy” idea proved right. In his book “Wide as the Waters The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired”, Benson Bobrick traces the political revolution that accompanied the first translations of the Bible into English. He notes that:
The development of the vernacular marked the origin of a culture belonging to the masses, which increasingly reached toward popular and democratic institutions (pg 280)
Today, we see similar things happening in Ghana. In language areas where there is now a translation of the Bible, local people are starting to reconsider and overthrow traditional practices they find harmful. Research shows that the impact of the translations is not limited to spiritual and religious matters. Women have a greater voice in their families and communities, people are more willing to start new small businesses, more children are enrolled in school, people quote the Bible in political meetings to argue for peace instead of conflict.
One of the reasons we translate the Bible is to give people freedom – a situation where they take control of what they believe and what they follow, so that what happens in their nations, communities, families and churches is “of them, by them, and for them”.
PS: Sorry to those of you who recognized similar thoughts to those I wrote last year on a similar theme.