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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One thought on “Where did this happen?

  1. That reminds me of a quote from Kevin Phillips in The Cousin’s Wars. He discusses how the Puritans were influential in the English Civil War, and the traditions they started were influential in the American Revolution and the American Civil War.
    He describes the Bible as “–the most influential indictment of pharisees, courtiers, and tyrants ever printed.”

    Kevin Phillips The Cousin’s Wars 1999. Basic Books p 48.


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