Translation and democracy

Some time back, I read with interest a statement by Dr. Lamin Sanneh to the effect that democracy has its roots in the translation of the Bible into the common language. Coming from a Yale historian, that statement carries some weight.

Wide as the WatersNot long ago, I read Wide as the Waters, by Benson Bobrick. I found it hard to read at first because of the seemingly endless historical facts. I am more the kind of person who wants the facts summarized, with more time spent on the lessons learned from the facts. I am sure that others will appreciate the detailed history for its true worth.

But in the final chapter, my preference for lessons learned from the facts was more than satisfied. Not only that, Bobrick develops Sanneh’s conclusion in some detail. I would summarize his historical finding this way:

If people can know the ultimate truth – the truth about God – and make up their own minds about it, then what rationale could there possibly be for keeping lesser truths from people, and preventing them from making up their own minds about those? That includes knowing the truth about their government and making up their own minds about what it should be and how it should act.

Bobrick sees the translation of the Bible into English as revolutionary. The subtitle of the book is “The story of the English Bible and the revolution it inspired.” Perhaps we do not appreciate the radical nature of the proposition that each person should make up his or her own mind about God and politics. But there was a time, and not that long ago, when that idea was novel and it still is in some parts of the world. At the time of the first translations of the Bible into English, those who believed that people should make up their own minds were considered dangerous to the king and to the church. The Bible is a subversive book. ‘”Few sources”, as one historian notes, “are as rich as the Old Testament in undesirable kings who come to exemplary bad ends”’ (page 279). That kind of book is not what a sovereign king, or any dictatorial government, would want the people to read!

Perhaps the most telling of Bobrick’s arguments in favor of his thesis is that Kings and religious leaders of the time of the first translation of the Bible into English saw clearly that it would ultimately lead to power shifting to the people, and they opposed it for that reason. The book contains quotes from Kings and church leaders of the time saying as much – quotes which eventually came true.

Bobrick traces the link between translation of the Bible into English and political ideas of freedom in the following paragraph:

The Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, of the supremacy of the individual conscience, encouraged many to read their own destiny into such verses as ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Through prayer and meditation, they learned to approach God without assistance, and in reading the Word of God to themselves heard it, as it were, not from a priest on high and at a distance, but from deep within their own immortal souls. They turned out tracts proclaiming themselves “free-born,” and by the time Laud and his prelates attempted to inculcate passive obedience as a virtue of the faith, scriptural notions of their obligations to righteous disobedience had taken hold. (pages 279-280)

Benson Bobrick

Benson Bobrick

He also notes an interesting historical fact – before the translation of the Bible into English, individual freedom in matters of faith and politics was almost absent, but after the first translations appeared, it became prominent:

“The English Bible fairly marks the divide. For despite Cromwell’s dictatorship, by and large those who pleaded for the rights conscience, for free discussion, and for an unrestricted press were those who held to the supreme authority of Scripture in all things. And after James II issued his Declaration of Indulgence, it was the English Nonconformists who held the balance of power and risked their own immediate freedom on behalf of the freedom of the realm.

The development of the vernacular marked the origin of a culture belonging to the masses, which increasingly reached toward popular and democratic institutions.

The position of some that believing the Bible and having a personal faith is anti-democratic, is historically inaccurate. In fact, the opposite is the case.

In a future blog, I will relate how the translation of the Bible into the languages of Ghana has lead to similar developments – making the translation of the Bible into the vernacular a form of political and social empowerment, in addition to its obvious effects on faith.

Source: Wide as the Waters, Benson Bobrick, Penguin Books, 2002, especially pages 280-297

Where did this happen?

I start by paraphrasing a very famous beginning: “Long, long ago in a country far, far away.” The story of this blog is unlike Star Wars in that it is true and has not been made into a major motion picture. But it has many similarities including an oppressive government out to kill reformers who had the “religious” power to overthrow it.

The government of the time was exacting unreasonable taxes from the people keeping them in the most dire poverty while protecting the ruling class who lived in opulence. The religious leaders were allied to the ruling class and shared in its power and wealth. Like much of Africa today, the ruling elite and the religious leaders ran the government and the religion in a language they had learned in school but which the majority of the people did not know. Laws were written in this language and religious services were held in it, leaving most people politically powerless and with a religion of superstition and not of understanding.

Into this situation came a man who was part of the system – a scholar, a theologian and a priest. I’ll call him Dr. X. He came to abhor the suffering and superstition he saw, so he embarked on a dual path to change things. On one hand, he wrote academic theological articles denouncing the abuses and the doctrines that supported them. His other method was more radical and in the end, more successful – he translated the Bible into the local language, began writing about faith in that language and trained a corps of men who traveled from place to place reading the Bible and preaching in the language of the people..

The political and religious powers did not like it, but they let it go on for a while. But, when people began understanding and then demanding real reform, the political and religious powers cracked down. They outlawed the Bible in the language of the people. That did not stop Dr. X and his followers. So the religious and political leaders made a law allowing the execution of anyone following Dr. X’s teachings or possessing any part of his translation. Any student or professor having a copy of any part of Dr. X’s Bible or any of his writings was thrown out of his University. To enforce this, professors and students were questioned every month. (This so stifled academic life that the University eventually went into a long period of academic decline.) But a visiting professor took Dr. X’s ideas back to his country, where he put them into practice. Even though he was eventually killed for them, many people in that country became followers of Dr. X’s religious and political ideas.

Even after Dr. X died of natural causes, and in spite his followers being tortured and killed, they continued their work. Their faith spread especially among the lower classes and went underground. Many stayed outwardly faithful to the official religion in the official language while secretly attending readings of the Bible and preaching in their language. It is reported that some poor peasants paid several day’s wages for just a part of Dr. X’s outlawed translation even long after his death, and that others who wanted it but could not afford it solved that problem by memorizing large portions.

Dr. X’s ideas for political reform also went underground. Official bans could not suppress them.  They grew and circulated until they finally bore fruit more than a century later.

So who was Dr. X? When and where did he live? Into what language did he translate the Bible? Well, the language was English; the man was John Wycliffe; the university was Oxford; the country was Great Britain and the time was the 1300’s. (Sorry to those who thought I was telling a story about some exotic place in Africa or Asia.)

Some scholars trace the beginnings of modern democracy to the translation of the Bible into the language of the average person in Europe. One author writes, “Once 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 religious and secular, which lead to reformation within the church, and to the rise of constitutional government in England and the end of the divine right of kings.” The early pilgrims to the New World came with many ideas about politics and religion which Wycliffe had promoted. So, everyone who voted on November 2 has a Bible translator to thank for setting in motion the actions and ideas which lead to that right. I am in Bible translation because history shows that the Bible in every person’s language eventually leads not only to salvation and healthy churches, but also to profound societal change even if that can take some time.

I would like to hear your reactions to this idea that Bible translation lead to democracy.

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