Wanted, an English Bible!

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Wanted, an English Bible!
A Suggestion for its Compilation

WT Stead (The Daily Paper, October 4, 1893, pp. 25-26)

The Old Testament, as we have it, is a kind of Review of Reviews edition of a great mass of Hebrew writings which have been lost, but from which the editors of the Sacred Canon extracted that which now forms the collection of booklets, which when bound up is labelled the Old Testament. What we have to do for English literature and history is what the editors of the Sacred Canon did for the Hebrew literature and history: to make a book that will give the condensed essence of the life and history of our race from the earliest times down to the present day.

England, as an entity has hardly any real existence for many of our people. Patriotism, as a result, has, as religious force, little hold upon our millions. But how can we expect to have a religion when we have not a Bible? What is it that constitutes the Bible of the English? To answer that question I ask another. What is it that constitutes your sacred books; what are the writings which have made England real to you, and enabled you to feel what may be called the religious side of imperial patriotism? When you begin to think of the answer to this question the reflection will arise: Has the time not come for collecting our Sacred Canon; can we not compress within the covers of one volume a narrative simple enough to be read by our young children, but true enough and profound enough to be the guide, philosopher, and friend of the greatest of our race, which would enable the ordinary man to see England as she looms through the mists of history as well as the England of to-day and the England that shall be tomorrow?

From seeing that the thing needs to be done to decide to do it, or try to do it if no one else will put their hand to the task, is but a short step. The step I propose to take is the compilation of the ‘Bible of the English.’ Upon this point I daresay you may differ from me, but my idea is to follow, as closely as possible, the one volume which is in the home of almost every English-speaking family, namely, the Old Testament.

My general idea is to begin with Genesis and go down to Malachi, and I would follow pretty closely the familiar outlines of the Hebrew history. Our English Genesis, however, would start from the story of Gelert, which foreshadows in its pathos and tragedy the story of the redemption of mankind. After Gelert would come the Arthurian legends. After King Arthur and the red ruin and breaking up of the laws which followed his disappearance, we have the coming of the English from over the sea., as a kind of parallel to the Deluge, after which the story of the new world begins. The rest of our English Genesis would be made up from the English Saxon Chronicle and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. The reign of King Alfred would be the nearest counterpart which we could find to the part taken by Joseph in the Old Testament.

Of course, I need not say that I do not for a moment wish to draw the parallel too close. The analogy between the Old Testament and our English Bible is to be a clue to help, not a chain to bind. Hence, I do not feel I am taking too great a liberty in comparing the sojourn of Israel in Egypt with the subjugation of the English under the Normans. The parallel is very close in many respects. Israel owed at least as much to her Egyptian taskmaster as the English owed to their Norman lords. I would make the date of the Exodus correspond to the signing of the Magna Charta at Runnymede, and at that point I should bring in some brief statement of what may be called the body of English law, and the fundamental principles of English religion, going back, as far as possible, to the early English missionaries—St. Augustine, St. Columba, and St. Aidan.

Even as I am dictating this, I feel that the mere task of compiling such a Bible would shed a flood of realising light upon the whole of the critical problems raised by modern biblical science.

Our Leviticus must not merely begin with the teachings of the early saints, but must describe the imposing system which found its most complete material embodiment in the Cathedral, and its personification in Becket.

I am not sure whether the Magna Charta should not represent the arrival at the Promised Land rather than the Exodus from Egypt. In that case we might have the troubled period of the Crusades for the wandering in the wilderness.

After the arrival in the Promised Land, or the attainment by the English of their chartered rights of liberty and self-government, we have a period corresponding roughly to that covered by Joshua and the Judges, a period of wars and of commotion, in which we shall have the conquest of Wales, the abortive attempts to conquer Scotland, the ejection from France, and the Wars of the Roses, culminating in the founding of what Green calls the ‘New Monarchy’ under Henry VII., who would be our Saul. It is difficult to say who is our Samuel, Wycliffe was a little too early, but there will not fail us a noble store of heroic figures with which to light up the story of that period.

I should have mentioned that, in the narrative, wherever possible, we should interpolate fragments of songs, poems, or speeches, which have come down to us from the past; and always in telling the story, tell it as Plutarch does, or as the historical writers in the Bible do, as an affair of persons in which you see the hero, or his anti-type, and catch from his own lips the pregnant words which sum up the situation, and give us the key to his action. Froissart will be invaluable in compiling this part of the Bible-book. I am not sure whether we ought not to have a special book devoted to Joan of Arc. There also we have the Gelert myth working itself out, and the story is so piteous and so tragic that I am loath to relegate it to a mere episodical chapter.

Henry VII. is but an indifferent Saul, but he will serve, and if you look at the story of how Saul came to his kingdom, you will find that it is not without points of similarity to the career of the hero of Bosworth field. Henry VII., however, will play but a small part in the story compared with our David, who is Henry VIII— a conception which would rejoice the heart of Mr. Froude. The story of the decay of the old religion, the corruption of the Church, and the demolition of the monasteries, will have to be told with great discretion. Cardinal Woolsey is a greater figure than any priest in David’s reign, and Sir Thomas More a character of finer type than any in Old Judea at that time.

After a brief interlude of Edward and Mary we come to the Elizabethan era, which corresponds to that of Solomon. It is obvious here what a brilliant opportunity there is for making our history live before the eyes of the present generation. Solomon came after our dull Rehoboem James I., and under the Stuarts was accomplished the beginning of the great disruption of the English race. when the men in the Mayflower sailed to the New England, and began the severance of the English-speaking race into two sections, although it was not fully accomplished until later. My Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin, is the Stuart who set up the Golden Calf of Sacerdotalism and tyranny, and made England to sin. The analogy does not work out quite right; but the story of the civil wars and the Protectorate would figure conspicuously in our Bible-book. Then came the Restoration, when our Israel had forgotten God, and they heard the thunder of the Dutch guns in the Medway as a heavenly voice. Charles II., with his painted Jezebels, makes a very good Ahab, and the Nonconformists ejected by the Act of Nonconformity represent Elijah and Elisha. Then comes the Revolution, which corresponds to the reign of Jehoash, and this brings us down to the eighteenth century.

I am not quite sure as to what reign we should put ourselves in, but I should like to locate ourselves in the reign of Josiah. That would enable us to treat the Victorian era as corresponding to the reign of Hezekiah, and there, for a moment, the historical part of the story would cease; for we could not very well have Ezra and Nehemiah, or Daniel, all of which books are subsequent to the Captivity. Our captivity has not yet come. The conquest of India, the colonising of Greater Britain, the American revolt, the wars of the French Revolution, the establishment of modern democracy—all these would have to be told with childlike simplicity and directness, and, above all, plenty of personification; not imaginary personification, but the actual words of the actual men, such as Nelson’s at Trafalgar, and Gordon’s at Khartoum.

So much for the historical part of the narrative. Now for the other half of the book. First and foremost, the Psalms. I should not make them entirely poetical; that is, I should include among the Psalms of our race the utterances of our great ones in moments when their nature was wrung to its depths, as for instance, Cromwell’s prayer before he died, and others of similar description. They should all be the expression of personal experience, and would embody the aspirations of the English heart in all times of danger, perplexity, or prosperity. I would quote from the Prayer Book, the Litany, and many of the Collects and shorter prayers, but I would by no means make it entirely devotional. Wherever man in trouble for his life, or for what he deems of more importance than his life, lets down, as it were, the grappling hook into the unseen depths, to find anchorage, by which he can, if not save his soul, at least stay his mind in peace—the articulate expression of such a moment should be incorporated in our national psalter.

Proverbs presents little difficulty, as the collection of English, Scotch, and American proverbs could be easily made; it is a mere question of collation. I have not yet quite decided what poetry to quote in place of Ruth, but I think it is possible that we might utilise Chaucer.

Shakespeare’s sonnets naturally suggest themselves for the Songs of Solomon.

‘Hamlet’ or ‘Paradise Lost,’ Job.

But for Ecclesiastes, I think the best substitute we could find would be a compound from Bacon’s Essays, Matthew Arnold’s poems, and some of Fitzgerald’s translations from the Persian; but as they have so much of Fitzgerald, they may be regarded as more English than Persian.

This brings us down to the prophets, and prophets open up a wide and most attractive field. Without following the analogy too closely between major and minor prophets, there are a few of the sacred books of our tongue, selections from which should find space in the Canon. Sir Thomas More’s ‘Utopia;’ Milton’s ‘Areopagitica,’ with some passages from his other prose writings. Some of Latimer’s sermons; selections from the Spectator; selections from Edmund Burke; some passages from Jonathan Swift. I am not sure as to whether we should take anything from Locke, Hobbes, Berkeley, but we could give some of Adam Smith; and I am not sure whether we ought not to include some of Cobden’s early political writings, especially those dealing with our relations with Russia, Ireland, and America. John Stuart Mill’s ‘Subjection of Women,’ and his ‘Essay on Liberty,’ should be given, and there should be typical extracts from Carlyle, Emerson, Mazzini (although he was an Italian). There ought also to be some passages from the more eminent exponents of physical science, and there might be some chapters from Professor Seeley’s [‘]Expansion of England.’

Then we have the poets to pillage. Apart from those whose poems have been used in the Psalter in the construction of separate books, as Chaucer for Ruth, Milton for Job, Shakespeare for the Song of Solomon, there remain Spenser, who might be summarised with illustrative passages; possibly some of Dryden, Pope, Gray’s Elegy ‘In a Country Churchyard.’ Then we have Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, the Brownings, Ebenezer Elliott, and Swinburne.

I think it would be possible to get all that into the space of an Old Testament, or, at any rate, of the Old Testament and the New. I think it could be done. I think it would be a marvellous mosaic, which, if it were done at all well, would come to be a companion to the Bible in every English home. Think it over, and ask whether any such book exists, or any semblance of such a book. Further, ask whether it would not be a distinct advantage to be able to have such a book for reading in our schools, and for having ready to our hand in afterlife? I do not think that any such book could be compiled without making England more real and vivid to us all, and thus sowing the seed in the mind of all English-speaking men of the conception of the unity of their race, of its providential mission, and of the lessons which its history teaches.

The scheme seems to me eminently feasible and likely to prove most useful. Many minor suggestions and fancies as to the use to be made of particular bits of literature which occurred to me in reading the prospectus, I pass over for the moment. The time for such an effort to make national history vivid, as it can best be when read in contemporary records and through the literature of the time, has doubtless come.