Born out of Persecution: History of the Early Printed English Bible

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There was a time when there was no printed Bible in English. There was a time in England when under the Roman Catholic Church, it was illegal to translate the Scriptures into the common language from Latin. There was a time when it was illegal to read those illegal translations in public–or to own one. There were times when people were martyred for doing both. In England, William Tyndale, who became known as the Father of the English printed Bible, was forced to leave England in 1525 because of the wide-spread rumors about his project to prepare an English New Testament. He ended up in Germany near Martin Luther and in 1525, the first English Language New Testament was printed and copies smuggled back into England. Tyndale was finally captured in Belgium and his last words before he was burned at the stake in 1536 for printing common language Bibles were: “Oh Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” This prayer would be answered just three years later when King Henry VIII finally allowed, and even funded, the printing of an English Bible. But before that, Myles Coverdale and John Rogers (who used the name Thomas Matthew) continued the work of Tyndale and moved the English Bible project forward. Coverdale finished the translation of the Old Testament and in 1535 he printed the first complete English language Bible. John Rogers went on to print the second complete English Bible in 1537. What is unique about the work of Rogers is that this is the first Bible completely translated from the original Greek and Hebrew sources. Since it was printed using the alias name Thomas Matthew, it is commonly called the Matthew’s Bible. The significance of this Bible is that it set up the basic content, sources, and format of our present English Bible. Rogers was eventually burned at the stake for his translation work.

Tyndale New Testament

Tyndale New Testament page, printed 1535 or 1536

This page from a Tyndale New Testament is from a printing done in 1535 or 1536, probably in Antwerp, Belgium, under the supervision of Myles Coverdale, a close friend of Tyndale. During this time, Tyndale was in prison and would be martyred in 1536. The small size of this printing is indicative of those copies that could be more easily smuggled back into England. The text from the Bible on these two pages is from Romans 10:12 to 11:13.

Coverdale New Testament

Coverdale Bible page, printed 1551

This page from a Coverdale Bible, the first printed English translation of the complete Bible, is from an edition done in 1551 in Zurich, Switzerland. This was the last printing of the 1535 Coverdale Bible issued during the life of Myles Coverdale. The text of the Bible on these two pages is from II Chronicles 12:1 to 14:12. Coverdale would later superintend the work of the preparation and printing of the Great Bible in 1539.

Matthews New Testament

Matthews Bible page, printed 1537

This page from the Matthews Bible is from a first edition published in 1537, possibly printed in Antwerp, Belgium, for a London publisher. Prepared by John Rogers, using one of Tyndale’s assumed names, Thomas Matthews, this version was the first English Bible completely translated using original Greek and Hebrew sources. The text of the Bible on these two pages is from John 11:22 to 13:5. In 1555, John Rogers was burned at the stake for his Protestant beliefs and Bible translation work.


During the reign of King Henry VIII in England, the religious landscape changed. Since the Catholic Church would not grant him a divorce from his wife, he renounced the church and set up his own, which became known as the Anglican Church or the Church of England. He set himself up as its Pope, and chose to defy the wishes of Rome by funding the printing of the Bible in English. What would become known as the Great Bible, first published in 1539, became the first English Bible authorized for public use. The clergy were encouraged to read this Bible to their people. The new translation was known as the Great Bible because of its size - a large pulpit folio. Unfortunately, Queen Mary, or “Bloody Mary,” came to the throne in the 1550's. She wanted to return England to the Roman Catholic Church, and thus it again became illegal to print English Bibles. Hundreds of Protestants lost their lives and many fled to Europe, a number ending up in Geneva, Switzerland. Those in the Church at Geneva determined to produce an English Bible to educate their families while they continued in exile. The completed translation, first published in 1560, became known as the Geneva Bible. Although never officially adopted in England, the Geneva Bible was the most popular of all English versions, 140 editions being published between 1560 and 1640. Because it was the Bible of the English Protestant Reformation, it was brought to America with the early settlers, including the Pilgrims and the Puritans. There are two important characteristics of this new Bible, one being the use of interpretative notes in the margins, representing the views of John Calvin and the protestant reformers, and the other being the numbering of verses for the first time in each of the chapters, contributing to ease of use of the Scriptures.

Great Bible

Great Bible page, printed 1539 or 1540

This page from the Great Bible, the first English Bible authorized for public use, is from a first edition published in 1539 or 1540. The large portfolio format led to this version being described as the “great” Bible, and thus its name. The text on these two pages is from Job 22:1 to 24:20.

Geneva Bible

Geneva Bible, printed 1595

The copy of the Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, is a small quarto edition printed by Christopher Barker in London in 1595 during the reign of Elizabeth I. This Roman letter edition, with a later 19th century binding, also has bound within it a 1594 Psalter, the hymn book of the time. This Geneva Bible is very typical of the copies brought to the New World by the Pilgrims in the early 17th century.


With the end of Bloody Mary and the throne now under Elizabeth I, the printing and distribution of the Geneva Bible was now tolerated. The popularity of the Geneva Bible prompted the Church of England to produce a revision of the Great Bible that would replace the Geneva. It was called the Bishops’ Bible because the translation was prepared by a committee of Bishops–it was of very uneven quality because of inadequate supervision. The first edition was printed in 1568. This translation never gained a foothold among the people, and the Geneva Bible was much better translation. By the 1580's, the Roman Catholic Church had lost the battle to suppress English language translations of the Bible. Thus, the Church of Rome determined that they would at least have their own official Roman Catholic English translation. Using the Latin Vulgate as a source text, the Rheims New Testament was published in 1582. Because it was translated at the Roman Catholic College in the city of Rheims, France, it was known by that name. Since the Church of England was dominant at this time in England, just as protestants were exiled to Europe from England during the reign of Queen “Bloody” Mary, so were Roman Catholics–thus the work was done in France. The Roman Catholic English Old Testament, called the Duoai because it was translated at the Roman Catholic College in the city of Douai, France, was completed in 1609. The combined project is now commonly referred to as the Rheims-Douai Version.

Bishops Bible

Bishops' Bible, printed 1584

This copy of the Bishops’ Bible is a small folio edition published in London in 1584. Though missing a few preliminary pages, it is an excellent example of a Bible used in Church of England pulpits in the 16th century, printed less than 20 years after the first edition in 1568. Bound into the front of the volume is a 17th century Book of Common Prayer. It is interesting to note that this copy was at one time in the collection of the Edinburgh Public Library in Scotland.

Rheims New Testament

Rheims New Testament, printed 1582

This copy of the Rheims New Testament is a first edition published in Rheims, France in 1582. This translation was the first foray of the Roman Catholic Church into the battle for a dominant English language version of the Bible in the 16th century, all of which culminated in 1611 with the completion of the paramount English language Bible, the King James Version. It is interesting to note that the text in this translation is printed in paragraphs, like many translations today, with verse numbers in the margins.

King James Bible: The Project

The King James Version of the Bible was not the first English language version of the Bible, but the culmination of extensive translation activity (some illegal!) in the 1500's. This began with the work of William Tyndale and the printing of the first English New Testament in 1526. Following a tumultuous 75 years, King James I came to power in 1603, unifying a divided England. Three main English Bibles were in use: the Bishops’ Bible (Church of England), the Geneva Bible (Protestants), and the Rheims New Testament (Roman Catholic Church), causing much confusion and dissension. To settle disagreements over reforms in the Church of England and respond to pressure from the Puritans, King James in 1604 approved a new translation of the Bible, primarily because he knew that it would reinforce his image as a political and spiritual leader. He appointed six committees, totaling 54 scholars, to prepare the new translation, using previous English Bible translation work, and using the best Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts and manuscripts. The completed King James Version was first published in 1611. These first editions were large pulpit Bibles (folios) to be read in churches, but were followed within a year by the printing of smaller versions (quartos) for personal use. Though slow to be adopted in the English-speaking world and to replace the more popular Geneva Bible, from the mid-1600's to the late 20th century, the King James Version was THE Bible of the English-speaking church. Though many recent modern translations have gained in popularity at the expense of the KJV, it remains the standard of measure for all new translations, and it still stands as the outstanding masterpiece of the English language.

King James Bible - 1613

King James Bible, printed 1613

This copy of the King James Bible is a first black letter quarto version published by Robert Barker in London in 1613, one year after the first Roman letter quarto version was printed in 1612. This edition is called a “He” Bible because of the “he” instead of “she” reading in Ruth 3:15. Bound in this volume are a Common Book of Prayer and a 1614 Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter.

King James Bible - 1617

King James Bible, 1617

This copy of the King James Bible is a large folio lectern Bible printed in 1617 by Robert Barker in London, the third unrevised edition of the 1611 first printing. Thus this copy is essentially what a first edition looks like. This printing is called a “She” Bible because of the “she” instead of the “he” reading in Ruth 3:15.

King James Bible: The Editions

The first edition of the King James Version was printed in 1611 by Robert Barker in London. It appears that two issues were published that year, the printing being done possibly in two different shops to meet the expected large demand. The first two printings were large folio Bibles for use in churches, but smaller editions were soon produced for personal use, starting in 1612. With the proliferation of printings, early printer errors crept into the editions. For instance, the word “not” was left out of the seventh commandment, in what eventually came to be called the “Wicked Bible,” which said “Thou shalt commit adultery.” As well, if some printed sheets were left over from one printing, they were incorporated into another. Almost no two existing “original 1611" King James Bibles are exactly the same. Eventually there were various calls for the need to correct and revise the King James Version because of printer’s errors over the years and the changes in spelling and word usage. Corrected editions were published by the Cambridge University Press, the first being in 1629, followed by another in 1638. Several of the revisers were part of the original group of translators of the KJV. Carelessly printed copies continued to appear, some even printed on the European continent in Holland. Thus in 1762, the most significant corrections were completed in an edition overseen by Dr. Thomas Paris of Trinity College in Cambridge. The work of Dr. Paris was refined by Benjamin Blayney in 1769; this edition then became the standard King James Bible in use up to today. There were almost 1000 editions printed from 1611 to 1769, all with minor corrections. No comprehensive revision of the King James Version was undertaken again until the middle of the 19th century.

King James Bible - 1629

King James Bible, 1629

This copy of the King James Version, a large quarto edition, is the first Cambridge (England) printing of the KJV. It was the first printing since the first edition in 1611 in which editors included a number of revisions, chiefly incorporating more literal readings originally presented in marginal notes. As well, the editors attempted to restore the proper text which had been affected by many misprints in previous printings. Two who participated in the Cambridge printing, Dr. Samuel Ward and John Bois, worked on the original translation of the King James Version in 1611.

King James Bible - 1762

King James Bible, 1762

This copy of the King James Version, a large quarto edition printed in Cambridge in 1762, is considered to be the “standard” edition of the King James Version, becoming, along with the Blayney Oxford edition of 1769, the foundation of the modern King James Bible. Led by Dr. F. S. Paris as editor, this was the first edition of the KJV with standardized spelling, based on Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. As well, the language was modernized, marginal references were expanded, and previous printing errors were removed.