The Impact of the Bible: #2 - Protestants and Puritans
The printing press spreads the word. The Reformation seizes the Church and spreads to Western governments.
Despite its best efforts to limit the common person's access to the Bible, in the late Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church found itself fighting a losing battle.
Most of us know about the Protestant Reformation in early 16th century, but efforts to spread "the Word" actually began many centuries earlier.
Already by the 14th century disgust with the decadence and corruption of the Church began to create a grass-roots movement of rebellion. One of the earliest acts of defiance was an attempt on the part of several individuals to return the Christian world to its pure roots by re-introducing the Bible to the common man.
In both northern Europe and England illegal copies of the Bible were printed and distributed in the local vernacular. One such version, produced in England in the late 14th century by Oxford theologian, John Wycliffe, had this in its preface:
The Bible is for the government of the people, by the people and for the people. (1)
The people responsible for these "illegal" translations were persecuted and a few of them, such as Jan Hus of Bohemia, were put to death for heresy.
New technology was also to play a major role in the in the spread of the Bible.
New technology was also to play a major role in the in the spread of the Bible. In 1453, in Guttenberg, Germany, the printing press was invented. Before the advent of this invention every book was hand copied, often by monks. This made books both rare and expensive. The printing press could not only produce books at a much faster rate, but it also dramatically lowered the cost of each book. It's no accident that the first book printed in Guttenberg was the Bible. The translation of the Bible into local languages and its mass-production via the printing press led to an explosion in both its popularity and impact.
The 16th century saw tremendous religious changes in Europe: Martin Luther founded a new Christian denomination called Protestantism. The focus of this new movement was primarily to protest against the material excesses of the Catholic Church and re-infuse Christianity with its Biblical spirit.
In 1538 Henry VIII also broke away from Catholicism and founded The Church of England. He issued a proclamation that a copy of the Bible be placed in every Church in England and public reading of the Bible became a regular feature of church worship.
Many other countries followed suit, abandoned the Catholic Church, and became Protestant.
Protestant theologians, realizing that the true religious and ethical spirit of Christianity came from within the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments) put strong emphasis on the individual's right and responsibility to go directly to the Bible and use it as the moral guidebook.
As Martin Luther wrote in a letter to Pope Leo: "... I cannot allow myself to be bound by fixed rules for the interpretation of the Word of God, for the Word, which is the source of all freedom, must itself be free." (2)
In countries allied with Protestantism, translation and mass distribution of the Bible became a regular feature. The decline in the power of the Church, the growth of Protestantism with its strong emphasis on the Bible and the development of the printing press all combined together to blast the Bible into a position of unprecedented religious and political influence in Europe.
One of the best examples of the power of the Bible in modern political development is the 17th century English Civil War known as the Puritan Revolution. The Puritans, who were Protestant fundamentalists, were also devout believers in the Bible. They felt that the Church of England was not in keeping with the true religious spirit which they believed included the right of everyone to interpret God's law. They also rejected the absolutism of the king, then Charles I. The Puritans felt that Parliament, and not the King, should have the final say and that the moral guidance for all legal decision should come from the Bible which they considered to be the highest authority in all matters.
Throughout all these events the Bible played an absolutely central role.
The climax of the revolution was the execution of Charles I -- a watershed in European history that shook the foundations of European nobility. For the first time in the history of Europe, a monarch was not only dethroned by the masses, but also executed. By the end of the Revolution, Parliament ruled supreme under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell.
Throughout all these events the Bible played an absolutely central role. The Puritans were obsessed with the book. They came to identify their political struggle against Charles with that of the ancient Hebrews against Pharaoh or the King of Babylon. Because they identified so strongly with ancient Israel, they chose overwhelmingly to identify with the Old Testament, which of course is the Hebrew Bible. They read it everywhere, studied Hebrew and even gave their children Hebrew names. Cromwell's "New Model Army" marched into battle singing Psalms and carrying banners embroidered with the Lion of Judea; their battle cry was "The Lord God of Hosts."
One has merely to read the writings of the great Puritan poet, John Milton (1608-1674) to appreciate the all-pervasive influence of the Hebrew Bible on the Puritan world view:
There is no song comparable to the song of Zion; no oration equal to those of the prophets; and no politics like those which scripture teach. (3)
An interesting side benefit of the Puritan obsession with the Bible was the rapid rise in the rate of literacy. Throughout human history literacy was a luxury out of most peoples reach and often deliberately withheld by the ruling class. But since the Puritans believed that people should use the Bible to connect directly to God, then that meant that those people had to be literate. So the need to have direct access to the Bible led to a significant rise in the literacy rates in England and other Protestant states.
Although Puritan domination of England did not survive the death of Cromwell in 1658, it did leave a lasting legacy of political reform not only to England, but to the rest of Europe as well. Puritans and other Protestant splinter sects would also play a crucial role in the political and religious formation of America which is the next chapter of our story.
Sivan, Gabriel, "The Bible and Civilization", Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1973, p. 174.
- Dillenberger John and Welch, Claude, "Protestant Christianity: Interpreted Through Its Development", New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1954, p. 68.
- Sivan, p. 70.