The Pilgrims landed in America in 1620. The King James Bible was published in 1611. So, you would think the Pilgrims would have gotten off the Mayflower with King James Bibles in their hands. Not so. When the Pilgrims landed, they set foot on American soil with the Geneva Bible. It was this Bible which was published in 1560 that they had been using for years and was the most popular Bible in the English language at that time. Dr. Marshall Foster writes concerning the Geneva Bible, “Nearly forgotten by the modern world, this version of the Holy Scriptures was researched, compiled, and translated into English by exiled Reformers in Geneva, Switzerland, between 1557 and 1560, and was destined to be the major component of the English-speaking people’s rise from the backwaters of history to the center of civilization…The Geneva Bible surely was carried aboard their (the Jamestown settlers) three ships that sailed from England in December of 1606. The New England Pilgrims likewise relied on the Geneva Bible for comfort and strength on their 66-day voyage aboard the Mayflower in 1620, and were even more dependent upon it as they wrote the Mayflower Compact, a document unique in world history and the first constitutional government in the western hemisphere….It is no exaggeration to say that the Geneva Bible was the most significant catalyst of the transformation of England, Scotland, and America from slavish feudalism to the heights of Christian civilization.” (p. xxiii, 1599 Geneva Bible)
Prior to the Reformation, ordinary believers did not have access to the Bible. It was not until the printing of Luther’s German Bible in 1534 and the printing of the Geneva Bible in English in 1560, that the Christian public could own and hold the Bible in their own hands for personal and family reading and study. At one time it was a capital crime even to read the Bible in England in the English language. William Tyndale risking his own life translated the New Testament into English and published it for the first time in 1526. Tyndale had said to a clergyman, “…if God spare my life, ere many years pass I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of Scripture than thou (a theologian) dost.” (p. xxiv, 1599 Geneva Bible) This New Testament was smuggled into England from Belgium. For this great work of Tyndale, he was hunted down in Belgium and captured and on March 6, 1536 was burned at the stake. His Bible, however, did not die and made it to some English preachers and even to King Henry VIII himself who became a supporter of Protestant reformers. The English Bible, however, was still reserved for pulpits and was not yet available to the people.
In 1553, Mary Tudor became queen of England and had resolved to force England back to Roman Catholicism and ordered the burning of all English Bibles. Marshall Foster writes, “She caused more than 300 reformers, pastors and Bible translators to be burned at the stake, well earning her for all of history the sobriquet Bloody Mary.” (p. xxiv, 1599 Geneva Bible) Because of her persecution of protestants, approximately 800 English scholars had to flee to the Continent. Many of these went to Geneva and studied under John Calvin. They were “some of the finest theologians and Biblical scholars in history” relates Foster. It was these Bible Scholars who translated the Geneva Bible between 1557 and 1560. They not only translated the whole Bible into English but also included their notes with it. Foster writes, “The completed Geneva Bible was published in 1560 and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, who had succeeded her half-sister Bloody Mary to the throne and, at least for political reasons, supported a definitive break with the Church of Rome. The Geneva Bible was an instant success that captured the hearts of the people with its powerful, uncompromising prose and more than 300,000 words of annotations in the margins to aid in personal study and understanding.” (p. xxiv, 1599 Geneva Bible) It went through many editions and was an instant hit with the people. Now they could have their own personal Bibles to read and study. It was used by generations of English speakers in England, Scotland, and America.
It was the notes of the Geneva Bible that upset King James I. The notes taught that the Law of God was over the King and that he was not supreme. God was sovereign over all including churches and kings. The notes taught that a tyrant could be held accountable to God’s Word. Because of such notes, King James had Bible scholars in England to come up with a new translation of the Bible without notes and the Geneva Bible was eventually outlawed in the English realm.
The Geneva Bible was a Bible of firsts. It was the first English Bible to be translated wholly from the original languages. It was the first Bible to be printed in easy to read type. It was the first study Bible with the notes of the reformers on every page. It was the first Bible with chapter and verse numbers. It was the first Bible to be printed in smaller versions that were portable and affordable for the common man.
Dr. Joseph C. Morecraft writes concerning the Geneva Bible, “The Geneva Bible was translated by members of John Knox’s English Puritan church in Geneva, Switzerland, during the last years of John Calvin’s ministry there. This Bible was the Bible of the English Reformation. William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, John Milton, the Pilgrims, and the Jamestown settlers, along with most other English and Scottish Protestants, used the Geneva Bible almost exclusively….The Geneva Bible was not only a popular and readable text because it was translated into the language of the common man, but it also had commentary on each page that was reflective of the theology of John Calvin, John Knox, and the Protestant Reformation with significant political and social applications.” (p. 253-254 - John Calvin, Man of the Millennium)
The Geneva Bible was recently republished in 2006 by Tolle Lege Press. In his closing remarks in the introduction of this new edition, Dr. Marshall Foster says, “Many people have forgotten, abandoned, or rejected the great lessons of the Reformation and the Biblical theology that inspired the greatest accomplishments of Western Civilization. We fervently pray that the re-introduction of this powerful tool of Godly dominion, the Geneva Bible, will, with God’s favor light the fires of another powerful reformation.” (p. xxvi, 1599 Geneva Bible)
May we continue to remember the Pilgrims and their faith and be inspired by the Word of God as they were to establish the Kingdom of God on the shores of America. May we in our day promote that same Kingdom and its teachings in this great land.
Vollmer, Philip. John Calvin - Man of the Millennium. The Vision Forum, Inc., San Antonio, TX, 2008.
1599 Geneva Bible. Tolle Lege Press, White Hall, West Virginia, 2006.