Of, by and for the people

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!

Friend and colleague Arthur Lightbody playing John Wycliffe

Friend and colleague Arthur Lightbody playing John Wycliffe

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 reading his translation

Wycliffe reading his translation

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)

Nawuri Chief: "We have now been counted among the people of God!"

Nawuri Chief: “We have now been counted among the people of God!”

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.

Ghanaian woman learns to read and write her language

Ghanaian woman learns to read and write her language

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.

500 2000 3000 then 2000 again


There are perhaps as many as 500 languages in the world. At least that’s what Wycliffe’s founder William Cameron Townsend thought when he started the organization in the 1930s. The number increased to 1,000. Then by the time I joined in the 1970s, it was over 2000. By then, Wycliffe had published a book entitled Two Thousand Tongues to Go.

Gradually, the number kept increasing. Why? Well, we kept discovering more languages. In the 1990s that stopped. Oh, we still might find a new language here or there, but nothing like the thousands being discovered in the middle of the 20th century. One of the little-heralded scientific achievements of that period was the cataloging of all the languages of the world, largely achieved by people interested in translating the Bible into more languages.

As the number of known languages increased – eventually to over 6,900 – so did the number without a translation of the Bible, reaching 3,000 in the 1990s – a far cry from the estimated 500 of only 60 years earlier.

But even as the number of languages stabilized around 6,900, the number still needing a translation was only decreasing by 25 per year – translation work was starting in about 25 languages every year. Imagine trying to save $3,000 by adding $25 to a cookie jar once a year. Even stalwart supporters of translating the Bible into all languages wondered if it was doable or worthwhile.

Enter John Watters. He had an idea called Vision 2025 which called for starting translation in all languages by 2025. A nice motivational goal, I thought, even if it can’t be done.

Well, Wycliffe just released the latest statistics. You can see them here. The number of languages without the Bible has dropped to less than 2,000 for the first time since we knew how many languages there are! Better, the rate of starting translation in more languages has increased way beyond 25 per year. The current pace has translation in the last language starting in the 2030s. Of course, that requires that giving, going and praying continue at the same pace. On the other hand, if God’s people were to pick up the pace a bit, 2025 is very possible.

This means that my children will see the last translation started and probably finished! Time is running out to be part of this historic moment. Don’t show up at the end of the world, see how proud our God is of those he asked to be involved and regret that you didn’t invest some prayer, money or time in this great thing God is doing.

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.


Bible Translation and WHAT?

It is a truly weird thing. Whoever thought of World Toilet Day? Who thought that it could catch on? In spite of the weirdness, the World Vision Blog on the topic is interesting reading. There is even more weirdness. Why am I as a Bible translator writing about World Toilet Day in a blog about the Heart Language? I’m so glad you asked!

On its blog, World Vision notes that children living in households with no toilet are twice as likely to get diarrhea as those with a toilet, causing more deaths every year than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Toilets, of all things, save lives, especially the lives of children. In addition to installing over 30,000 toilets last year, World Vision also trained more than 165,000 in proper hygiene practices.  — keeping kids and communities safer and healthier.

Training is good, but only if people heed it. Studies have shown that often people do not change after receiving training. One of the reasons for that is the language used. A language is  not just a means of communication, it is also a way to reach people’s emotions and deepest values. When training is given to promote some change – like better hygiene practices – the language needs to be one which touches the emotions and values of the person. Unfortunately, using language people have learned, rather than their heart language, often reaches the intellect, but not the soul. It is very difficult to change behavior without touching the emotions profoundly. Those of us who have always been taught in our heart language do not realize what a powerful advantage we have.

Another problem is understanding. In one case a family planning project in Africa encountered problems because the term “family planning” had been translated as “bar the road to children”. That flew like the proverbial lead balloon. A little cultural research,  of the kind we do when seeking for key terms in Bible translation, discovered a phrase for spacing plants in the field so that they give better yields. A switch to that terminology made all the difference. Sometimes those in evangelism or development complain that people are resistant to change when we have not done our homework to discover their cultural perspective. See my blog on Eternal Life, for a great example.

Recording Mangbetu HIV-AIDS song

Choir singing newly written song about AIDS in their heart language - Mangbetu

Finally, often change involves new beliefs. Many people have never heard the germ theory of disease. They believe that disease is caused by all sort of things from curses, to failure to appease the ancestors or breaking taboos. Teaching hygiene to such people involves getting them to accept a new understanding of the cause of disease. Doing that in a language which might not even have terms for their traditional beliefs and which does not have the power to touch their culture will produce limited results. When we first did AIDS training in the heart language, the group went to prayer and repented at the end of the first day, then went out and began ministering to HIV positive people in the community that they had shunned. They had received the same information in another language but it did not have the that effect.

Our God communicates. He reveals himself. He talked through the prophets in people’s heart language. On the day of Pentecost, everyone heard in their own language. For that reason, missionaries have long used the heart language to communicate and they have translated the Bible into the heart language of many peoples. It is hard work and takes time, but the results are long-term, sustained impact. Plus, it is communication like God himself would do it. It took me two decades in Africa to realize that the power of the heart language can be leveraged for other changes – such as better hygiene – that save lives.

The languages of the world are not a problem, they are God’s vehicles given to each people to “save” them in all kinds of ways. So my focus has expanded. Bible translation is still at the center, but I now work with churches and language communities on all kinds of stuff they want to change wherever the heart language can have its powerful transformative effect even if that has to do with toilets and hygiene. Hence our byline: Connecting at the deepest level – the heart language – for lasting impact.