Friday, August 28, 2009

Books We Won't Read . . .

. . . but you should know about them anyway. Several influential texts either shaped the Puritans' worldview, or articulated that view to others. The fact that printing presses sprang up in Puritan colonies almost as fast as the first houses just goes to show how very much the Puritans valued education and literacy.
The Geneva Bible -- This translation of scripture was created by dissenters for dissenters. It was the work of John Calvin's brother-in-law, William Whittingham, and others, done in, where else? Geneva. The translators worked from Hebrew and Greek documents, bypassing the Latin that had Catholic connotations. The New Testament was finished in 1557, with the Old Testament following almost two years later. The Geneva Bible was THE popular Bible in English-speaking Europe, predating the King James by fifty years. It did not wane in popularity until the middle of the 17th Century, going through 144 editions.

The King James Bible -- Also known as the "authorized" version, this one was popular with Puritans after John Winthrop used one in 1630. It's a little surprising that a Puritan would use this version, because King James made certain that the anti-king references in the Geneva Bible were removed. A lot of the heavily Calvinist wording was changed as well. The KJV was finished about 1607 and has remained popular because of the beauty of its language. It is not, as some have suggested, the version God Himself authorized.

The Bay Psalm Book -- The work of a man named Stephen Daye, this 1640 text translates the entire book of Psalms into rhyming English. Needless to say, some of the rhymes are a little strained. The idea was to create scripture that could be sung. It was hugely popular for awhile, but then people's good taste rebelled against the forced rhymes and the detraction from the meaning of the originals.

The New England Primer -- This textbook for young children is, amazingly enough, still in print. Its first edition came out somewhere between 1687-1690, and it has gone through many editions since. The 1770 edition is considered the "best," in terms of print quality and content, but there's a lot of competition. The Primer uses images and stories from the Bible and from the natural world to teach children to read. Some of the images are pretty gory, which is probably why it's still popular. Children have a natural affinity for the bloodthirsty. In place of the usual "A is for Apple," the Primer states, "In Adam's fall, we sinned all." There's also a picture of the unfortunate Uriah's wife, naked, on a rooftop, which was probably the Puritan child's equivalent to the National Geographic.


  1. Now that I know the basic history behind the translations of the Bible, I'm really surprised that the Puritans even allowed the King James Bible at all, let alone read it. Since so much was changed from the Geneva Bible, wouldn't they consider the KJ verson of the devil, and that you would go to hell or something for reading it? Changing the Bible is big no no, and I don't really see the Puritans having much tolerance, even if the changes were minor, because they were so strit about everything religious.

  2. Aww... I wrote a huge comment, and it didn't post it! :(

  3. I moderate the posts, so there's a delay between posting and seeing it up. Sorry about that; it's a spam thing. John Winthrop's use of the KJV carried a lot of weight in Puritan circles. Plus, the Geneva Bible, which had Calvin's notes attached, was a big, unwieldy tome. The new version was sleeker and easier to carry around. And both were considered vernacular -- kind of like the Message, now. It just goes to show how "vernacular" has changed.

  4. Hmmm, well that does make sense. I could see them wanting to carry their Bibles everywhere they went.