America's First Bibles

Pacific Coast Tyndale Conference, 29 January to 1 February 1998

The Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. Two centuries later the Spanish Franciscan missionary Padre Junipero Serra began the Spanish conquest of Alta California with the foundation of San Diego Mission. This was the first of 21 Missions that give the coast of California its Spanish heritage of names, architecture and Catholicism. In Serra's lifetime over 5,000 Indians were baptised and more than 5,000 confirmed.

This southern Californian heritage was a strange setting for the Tyndale Society's first American conference. No Protestant martyrs and monuments here; rather, there is a magnificent white statue of an idealised Cabrillo at the end of Point Loma just below the old lighthouse. From this commanding point the Pacific (belying its name thanks to El Niño) stretches west, the coastline of Baja California, Mexico stretches south, and, to the east, downtown San Diego stretches up. There were whales to be seen for those lucky enough to spot them. C5A transports glided past into Coronado Island naval base. Yachts flickered where the America's Cup was defended and then lost. Grey-green chaparral, palm trees and humming birds added to the exotic mixture, new to many of the Europeans who had come to this conference.

Not far from the Cabrillo monument some seventy veterans of past Tyndale conferences and new friends gathered at Point Loma Nazarene College. Host and impresario was Professor Barry Ryan; to him goes out, gratitude for hospitality, for quiet efficiency of organisation, and for yet another marvellously informative and stimulating Tyndale conference.

On the third anniversary of the founding of the Tyndale Society, David Daniell opened the first session, declaring the mission 'to right the gigantic wrong done to this man William Tyndale'. As well as the delegates, some three hundred students from the college heard this declaration. Members of the Society know well the towering importance and the genius of Tyndale, but full general recognition of his stature and importance has still to be achieved.

Andrew Hope, editor of Reformation, followed with a delightfully-titled paper, 'ructions at the mill of salvation', tracing through various woodcuts how the image of the mill of salvation moved from a concentration on the sacraments to the word of Scripture as central for grace in the time of Henry VIII, and sketched how the complications of this shift affected America.

'The emphasis on the word, as always with Tyndale conferences, was central to the papers. From the point of view of translators, Sir Rowland Whitehead and Neil Inglis looked with insight and humour at Bibles ranging from Tyndale's to that of the Jesus Seminar. There were papers on particular points of translation. Among these, John Wright's examination of the way translators have used or avoided the word 'miracle' nicely brought out how theological and communal tendencies influence translation. So the 32 uses of 'miracle' in the KJB New Testament are reduced to 9 in the Revised and American Standard Versions, and 6 in the New Revised Standard Version; 'miracle' disappears from the Gospels. But an evangelical reaction leads to the New International Version using 'miracle' 31 times. Reflecting the other extreme of concern about language, I showed how Noah Webster, the American lexicographer, tried with mixed success to make the language of the KJB conform to the best contemporary American standards.

Some of the papers dealt with commentaries. Nicholas Cranfield gave an enlightening picture of the commentaries that were available to the early Puritans in New England. Then Stephen Stein gave us a fascinating account of the annotations to the Bible made by the eighteenth-century American Calvinist, Jonathan Edwards. This 'Blank Bible', now kept at Yale, is a series of booklets with the KJB text interleaved with some 10,000 mostly exegetical notes. As so often, a general historical picture and an individual study mixed together profitably.

I cannot do justice to all the papers. Those I have mentioned only begin to show the quality and the range of interest. With apologies to the many I have omitted, let me finish with two papers that I found of special interest. Guido Latré showed the physical proximity of a large number of the early printers and translators in Amsterdam in the 1520s and 1510s. English, French and Dutch translations were all produced within a new houses of each other, sometimes with the same people involved. There is a book to be written on the Antwerp printing trade and the creation of vernacular Bibles.

David Daniell brought the conference to a close with his characteristic blending of scholarship with superb insights into the quality of Tyndale's work. Under the title How William Tyndale Came to America, he looked first at the widely-used Bay Psalm Book of 1640. The two biblical quotations

on its title page, following the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter, are not from either the KJB or the Geneva Bible but are essentially Tyndale: so Tyndale came to America in the 40th to 85th words of the first book printed in America. Tyndale has continued to come to America. The Revised Standard Version still has pure Tyndale in it, Tyndale still sounds in parts of the Contemporary English Version. This, of course, is something everyone should know. But we should also remember the quality of Tyndale's work, something nobody brings out better than David. There was, he emphasised, nothing inevitable about Tyndale's work: he was a rhetorician who worked with English as a poet does, as, for instance, in Luke's account of the shepherds coming to Mary: 'And all that heard it, wondered at those things that were told them of the shepherds. But Mary kept all those sayings, and pondered them in her heart'. 'Pondered' has power in the unexpected sense of gravity, and music in the echo of 'wondered'.

David reminded us of a piece of Californian history. 37 years after Cabrillo discovered San Diego and 190 years before Junipero Serra founded the first of his missions, Francis Drake sailed the California coast (missing San Diego presumably because of fog) and landed perhaps somewhere near San Francisco. On June 19th 1579, shocked by the 'bloody sacrifice' of the Indians, he and his men prayed, sang Psalms and read 'certain chapters in the Bible' to them: 'they sat very attentively: and observing the end of every pause, with one voice still cried, "Oh," greatly rejoicing in our exercises'. Very likely it was a Geneva Bible Drake read from, but it was, of course, largely Tyndale that the Indians heard. One thinks of the British influence in America, with Tyndale so prominent and so unrecognised in it, as arriving in New England and gradually moving westward with the pioneers, at last displacing the Spanish heritage. Yet in this story we found a special aptness in having the first American conference of the Tyndale Society on the Pacific coast.


David Norton
School of English, Film and Theatre,
Victoria University of Wellington,
PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand


Complete List of Papers
Mary Jane Ballou and Liana Lupas, Building a Biblical Library the early years at the American Bible Society Library, 1816-1839.

Carol Blessing, The Use of Early American Bibles in the Poetry of Anne Bradstreet.

Kristina Bross, Dangerous Translation: the reception of John Eliot's Indian Bible

Mary Clow, Lands of Milk and Honey.

Nicholas Cranfield, The Transmission of Biblical Commentaries into Puritan New England.

David Daniell, How William Tyndale Came to America.

Rick Duerden, Accuracy, Clarity or Power? Functions of Reformation Bible translation.

Florence Gillman, The Contributions of Ellen Dietrick to the Earliest American Biblical Feminism.

Paul Gutjahr, Iconophohia. Iconofilia, Iconoclasm: the role of illustration in early American Bibles.

Anthony Hope, Ructions at the Mill of Salvation: Henry VIII, the vernacular Bible, and beyond.

Neil Inglis, The Scholars' Version of the Bible Used by the Jesus Seminar: the perspective of a working translator.

Guido Latré, Taking Luther's Bible to New Nations: translation and distribution policies of William Tyndale and his Antwerp colleagues.

David Norton, 'Amendments of the Language' in Noah Webster's Bible.

Jim Owen, Historic Fundamentalism and Scripture, a Reformation Legacy: questioning Mark Noll ''s fundamentalist historiography.

Herbert Samworth, The Puritan Dilemma Revisited: New England's first theological controversy.

Stephen Stein, Jonathan Edwards 'Blank Bible Illustrated. the case of his commentary on the Epistle of James.

Tony Tyndale, Tyndale's Kith and Kin.

Sir Rowland Whitehead, Tyndale's English.

Leland Wilshire, As We Translate So We Relate: vernacular translations of 1 Timothy 2: 12, their present understandings and translational histories.

John Wright, 'Miracle' and the Historical/Theological Horizons of Anglo-American Biblical Translations: from Tyndale to the NIV.

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