Jan Hus

Composite - Jan HusToday (July 6) in 1415, Jan Hus was burned at the stake in town of Konstanz, then in Bohemia. A monument still stands in the town marking Hus’ life.

Hus was a theologian and an academic who rose to the position of Rector of the University in Prague. Already when he was a student, Hus had admired the writings of John Wycliffe, an Oxford scholar and theologian who had translated the Bible into English for the first time. Wycliffe’s translation and his writings were much criticized. His critics did not want the Bible in the language of the man on the street, preferring to keep it in Latin only. English, they thought, was not a holy enough language for a translation of the Bible and the ordinary man could not be trusted to interpret it. Wycliffe and Hus believed that the Bible should be the ultimate authority for belief and teaching. He trusted the common man to interpret it better than the theologians of his day.

Wycliffe’s writings came into prominence in Bohemia, where Hus lived, when the sister of the King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus, married King Richard II. of England in 1382. Due to her influence, the writings of John Wycliffe were widely circulated in Bohemia . Hus renewed the attachment to them he had developed as a student. He began promoting them in his sermons and writings.

Eventually, the order was given that all of Wycliffe’s writings be destroyed and all of his followers required to recant. Hus refused even after numerous attempts to persuade him, saying that he would only be persuaded to change his beliefs if they could be shown incorrect according to the Bible. When he was burned at the stake in on 6 July 1415, Wycliffe’s translation and writings were used as kindling for the fire. His last words were: “In 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” In fact, 100 years later, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses of Contention on to the church door at Wittenberg.” Then Luther went on to translate the Bible into German.

So, if you read the Bible in your own language, if you believe that people should be able to express their beliefs freely, or that you should be able to decide for yourself what you believe by reading the Bible for yourself, you owe a debt to the likes of Jan Hus who died for those ideas.

Today, July 6, is an excellent day to remember that. Besides, it’s my wedding anniversary.

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Language, religion, politics and economic growth

On December 31, 1384 Oxford scholar and theologian John Wycliffe died. He was the first to translate the Bible into English. With the proliferation of translations today, that does not sound like a big deal, but in his day it was a very big deal. A ridiculous question will serve to illustrate the point.

Should we use a special language to read the Bible, pray or preach?

You probably have never thought of asking that question, which is good. But 500 years ago it was a burning question. So much so that some were burned at the stake for giving the “wrong” answer. Wycliffe and others had the audacity to use their mother tongue to communicate truth of God. You see, Latin had become the language of the church, of education and of politics, even though only a small minority spoke it.

John Wycliffe

Wycliffe studied at Oxford, and later taught there, all in Latin. When he wrote scholarly articles, they were in Latin. All preaching was in Latin and people were obliged to pray in Latin, whether they understood it or not. Ordinary people understood very little of what was happening in church. This situation created all sorts of problems including corruption in the clergy and a lot of superstition among church goers.

Wycliffe wanted something different. He started by writing some of his academic articles in English. Some were aghast. Then he started translating the Bible into English. He formed a group of like-minded traveling preachers who took his translation to churches where they read it and preached in English.

One of the results was that the common people started questioning some of the things they were being told by the church. The educated elite did not like that. They struck back. They said that:

  • English was too common a language to adequately tell the glorious truth about God
  • The average person would inevitably misinterpret the Bible. Some opponents said “The jewel of the clergy has become the toy of the laity.”
  • Believers should looks to the church to interpret the Bible for them, rather than interpreting it themselves.

But Wycliffe kept at it. After he died, he was judged by a church court and found guilty. His bones were exhumed, burned and scattered in a river. His translation and writings were banned, but the circulated in secret. His ideas did not go away, rather they continued to percolate and eventually became the norm – so much so that many do not know that church services and Bible readings in English were once illegal.

That’s right, illegal. Latin was not just the language of church. It was the language of education and of politics. If you had lived in that day, you would have gone to first grade and had your teacher speak to you in Latin. If you went to court, Latin would be spoken by the attorneys and the judge. Wycliffe’s translation and other reforms eventually led to English becoming the language of education and government in Britain. Some scholars believe that the industrial revolution would have been impossible if Latin had been retained. If the bosses spoke Latin but not the workers, it is hard to see how a factory could work well, for example. Schooling in Latin could not have produced enough skilled workers to sustain industrialization.

Yale professor of history, Dr. Lamin Sanneh, proposes that the translation of the Bible into the language of every man set the stage for democracy. If the most important truth of all – that of God — can be communicated in the common language and everyone can understand it, what rationale could there be to keep lesser information, such as that about government or law, from everyone? If everyone could interpret God’s holy book for themselves, then what rationale could there be for excluding people from making up their own minds about political matters? For Dr. Sanneh, democracy starts with the translation of the Bible into common language. Wycliffe did more than translate the Bible, his ideas ended up reshaping law, business and government.

Some of us believe that we are involved in something similar today. We are doing more than translating the Bible into obscure languages. We are also giving people who speak those languages a new way to engage with the world. One of the findings of an evaluation of a local language literacy program in Ghana was that it gave people greater confidence to undertake new ventures. In addition, it resulted in more children in school and more succeeding in school. A study of Bible translation in the languages of northern Ghana concluded that it gave people a new sense of value and identity and at the same time greater harmony with their neighbors. It turns out that Bible translation is not just a religious endeavor. It also can and does bring changes changes to other parts of life too.

A hand-copied page from Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible

The first translation

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe

The very first Bible in English was translated by an Oxford scholar, theologian and reformer named John Wycliffe. Wycliffe Bible Translators borrowed his name. Anyway, his translation appeared around 1380. Here is the fist chapter of Genesis in the 1395 edition, more than 200 years before King James ordered the translation of the Bible that bears his name. After reading it, or even just a small part of it, you will know why no one is insisting that it still be used today.

1 In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe. 2 Forsothe the erthe was idel and voide, and derknessis weren on the face of depthe; and the Spiryt of the Lord was borun on the watris. 3 And God seide, Liyt be maad, and liyt was maad. 4 And God seiy the liyt, that it was good, and he departide the liyt fro derknessis; and he clepide the liyt, 5 dai, and the derknessis, nyyt. And the euentid and morwetid was maad, o daie. 6 And God seide, The firmament be maad in the myddis of watris, and departe watris fro watris. 7 And God made the firmament, and departide the watris that weren vndur the firmament fro these watris that weren on the firmament; and it was don so. 8 And God clepide the firmament, heuene. And the euentid and morwetid was maad, the secounde dai. 9 Forsothe God seide, The watris, that ben vndur heuene, be gaderid in to o place, and a drie place appere; and it was doon so. 10 And God clepide the drie place, erthe; and he clepide the gadryngis togidere of watris, the sees. And God seiy that it was good; 11 and seide, The erthe brynge forth greene eerbe and makynge seed, and appil tre makynge fruyt bi his kynde, whos seed be in it silf on erthe; and it was doon so. 12 And the erthe brouyte forth greene erbe and makynge seed bi his kynde, and a tre makynge fruyt, and ech hauynge seed by his kynde. And God seiy that it was good. 13 And the euentid and morwetid was maad, the thridde dai. 14 Forsothe God seide, Liytis be maad in the firmament of heuene, and departe tho the dai and niyt; and be tho in to signes, and tymes, and daies, and yeeris; 15 and shyne tho in the firmament of heuene, and liytne tho the erthe; and it was doon so. 16 And God made twei grete liytis, the gretter liyt that it schulde be bifore to the dai, and the lesse liyt that it schulde be bifore to the niyt; 17 and God made sterris; and settide tho in the firmament of heuene, that tho schulden schyne on erthe, 18 and that tho schulden be bifore to the dai and nyyt, and schulden departe liyt and derknesse. And God seiy that it was good. 19 And the euentid and the morwetid was maad, the fourthe dai. 20 Also God seide, The watris brynge forth a `crepynge beeste of lyuynge soule, and a brid fleynge aboue erthe vndur the firmament of heuene. 21 And God made of nouyt grete whallis, and ech lyuynge soule and mouable, whiche the watris han brouyt forth in to her kyndis; and God made of nouyt ech volatile bi his kynde. And God seiy that it was good; 22 and blesside hem, and seide, Wexe ye, and be ye multiplied, and fille ye the watris of the see, and briddis be multiplied on erthe. 23 And the euentid and the morwetid was maad, the fyuethe dai. 24 And God seide, The erthe brynge forth a lyuynge soul in his kynde, werk beestis, and `crepynge beestis, and vnresonable beestis of erthe, bi her kyndis; and it was don so. 25 And God made vnresonable beestis of erthe bi her kyndes, and werk beestis, `and ech crepynge beeste of erthe in his kynde. And God seiy that it was good; and seide, 26 Make we man to oure ymage and liknesse, and be he souereyn to the fischis of the see, and to the volatilis of heuene, and to vnresonable beestis of erthe, and to ech creature, and to ech `crepynge beest, which is moued in erthe. 27 And God made of nouyt a man to his ymage and liknesse; God made of nouyt a man, to the ymage of God; God made of nouyt hem, male and female. 28 And God blesside hem, and seide, Encreesse ye, and be ye multiplied, and fille ye the erthe, and make ye it suget, and be ye lordis to fischis of the see, and to volatilis of heuene, and to alle lyuynge beestis that ben moued on erthe. 29 And God seide, Lo! Y haue youe to you ech eerbe berynge seed on erthe, and alle trees that han in hem silf the seed of her kynde, that tho be in to mete to you; 30 and to alle lyuynge beestis of erthe, and to ech brid of heuene, and to alle thingis that ben moued in erthe, and in whiche is a lyuynge soule, that tho haue to ete; and it was doon so. 31 And God seiy alle thingis whiche he made, and tho weren ful goode. And the euentid and morwetid was maad, the sixte day.


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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