Thomas Cranmer's Preface to the Great Bible

Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury under King Henry VIII. He convinced the King to commission an authorized English version of the Bible from Coverdale, who in fulfillment of his commission presented a revision of the earlier "Matthew's Bible." The new version was first published in 1539, but was quickly followed by a somewhat revised edition in 1540. This second edition bore a preface by Cranmer, and at the foot of the title page appeared the words, "This is the Bible appointed to the use of the churches." This was the first officially approved English Bible, sometimes called "Cranmer's Bible" after the name of its sponsor, and sometimes the "Great Bible" because of its large size. The Cranmer Preface was later also included in the front matter of the Bishops' Bible

The text of Cranmer's Preface below is based upon the electronic text in the Chadwyck-Healey "Bible in English" CD-ROM. I have modernized the spelling and punctuation, and have supplied some explanatory notes in square brackets. - M.D.M.

A prologue or preface made by the most reverend father in God, Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury, Metropolitan Primate of England

FOR two sundry sorts of people, it seemeth much necessary that something be said in the entry of this book by the way of a preface or prologue, whereby hereafter it may be both the better accepted of them which hitherto could not well bear it, and also the better used of them which heretofore have misused it. For truly some there are that be too slow and need the spur, some other seem too quick, and need more of the bridle; some lose their game by short shooting, some by overshooting; some walk too much on the left hand, some too much on the right. In the former sort be all they that refuse to read or to hear read the scripture in the vulgar tongue; much worse, they that also let or discourage the other from the reading or hearing thereof. In the latter sort be they which by their inordinate reading, indiscrete speaking, contentious disputing, or otherwise by their licentious living, slander and hinder the word of God most of all other, whereof they would seem to be greatest furtherers. These two sorts, albeit they be most far unlike the one to the other, yet they both deserve in effect like reproach. Neither can I well tell whether of them I may judge the more offender: him that doth obstinately refuse so godly and goodly knowledge, or him that so ungodly and so ungoodly doth abuse the same. And as touching the former, I would marvel much that any man should be so mad, as to refuse in darkness, light; in hunger, food; in cold, fire. For the word of God is light: Lucerna pedibus meis, verbum tuum. (See Psalm 119) Thy word is a lantern unto my feet. It is food: Non in solo pane viuit homo, sed in omni verbo dei. (See Matthew 4) Man shall not live by bread only, but by every word of God. It is fire: Ignem veni mittere in tertam, & quid volo nisi vt ardeat? (See Luke 12) I am come to send fire on the earth, and what is my desire but that it be kindled? I would marvel (I say at this) save that I consider how much custom and usage may do. So that if there were a people as some write, de Cymeriis, which never saw the sun, by reason that they be situated far toward the North pole, and be enclosed and overshadowed with high mountains, it is credible and like enough, that if by the power and will of God, the mountains should sink down and give place, that the light of the sun might have entrance to them, at the first some of them would be offended therewith. And the old proverb affirmeth, that after tillage of corn was first found, many delighted more to feed of mast and acorns wherewith they had ben accustomed, than to eat bread made of good corn. Such is the nature of custom, that it causeth us to bear all things well and easily wherewith we have been accustomed, and to be offended with all things thereunto contrary. And therefore I can well think them worthy pardon, which at the coming abroad of scripture doubted and drew back. But such as will persist still in their wilfulness, I must needs judge not only foolish, froward and obstinate, but also peevish, perverse, and indurate.

And yet, if the matter should be tried by custom, we might also to allege custom for the reading of the scripture in the vulgar tongue, and prescribe the more ancient custom. For it is not much above one hundred years ago, since scripture hath not been accustomed to be read in the vulgar tongue within this realm. And many hundred years before that, it was translated and read in the Saxons' tongue, which at that time was our mother tongue, whereof there remain yet divers copies found lately in old abbeys, of such antique manner of writing and speaking, that few men now be able to read and understand them. And when this language waxed old and out of common usage, because folk should not lack the fruit of reading, it was again translated into the newer language, whereof yet also many copies remain and be daily found.

But now to let pass custom, and to weigh - as wise men ever should - the thing in his own nature: Let us here discuss what it availeth scripture to be had and read of the lay and vulgar people. And to this question I intend here to say nothing but that was spoken and written by the noble doctor and most moral divine, saint John Chrysostom in his third sermon de Lazaro; albeit, I will be something shorter, and gather the matter into fewer words and less room then he doth there, because I would not be tedious. He exhorteth there his audience, that every man should read by himself at home in the mean days and time, between sermon and sermon, to the intent they might both more profoundly fix in their minds and memories that he had said before upon such texts whereupon he had already preached, and also that they might have their minds the more ready and better prepared to receive and perceive that which he should say from thenceforth in his sermons, upon such texts as he had not yet declared and preached upon. Therefore saith he there, My common usage is to give you warning before what matter I intend after to entreat upon, that you yourselves in the mean days may take the book in hand, read, weigh, and perceive the sum and effect of the matter, and mark what hath been declared and what remaineth yet to be declared, so that thereby your mind may be the more furnished to hear the rest that shall be said. And that I exhort you (saith he) and ever have and will exhort you, that you not only here in the Church give ear to that that is said by the preacher, but that also when ye be at home in your houses, ye apply yourselves from time to time to the reading of holy scriptures, which thing also I never lin [i.e. spare] to beat into the ears of them that be my familiars, and with whom I have private acquaintance and conversation. Let no man make excuse and say (saith he), I am busied about matters of the commonwealth; I bear this office, or that; I am a craftsman, I must apply mine occupation. I have a wife, my children must be fed, my household must I provide for. Briefly, I am a man of the world. It is not for me to read the scriptures. That belongeth to them that have bidden the world farewell, which live in solitariness and contemplation, and have been brought up and continually nuzzled in learning and religion. To this answering, What sayest thou man? (saith he) Is it not for thee to study and to read the scripture, because thou art encumbered and distracted with cares and business? So much the more it is behoveful for thee to have defense of scriptures, how much thou art the more distressed in worldly dangers. They that be free and far from trouble and intermeddling of worldly things live in safeguard and tranquility, and in the calm, or within a sure haven. Thou art in the midst of the sea of worldly wickedness, and therefore thou needest the more of ghostly succor and comfort! They sit far from the strokes of battle, and far out of gunshot, and therefore they be but seldom wounded. Thou that standest in the forefront of the host, and nighest to thine enemies, must needs take now and then many strokes, and be grievously wounded, and therefore thou hast most need to have thy remedies and medicines at hand. Thy wife provoketh thee to anger; thy child giveth thee occasion to take sorrow and pensiveness; thine enemies lie in wait for thee; thy friend (as thou takest him) sometime envieth thee; thy neighbor misreporteth thee or picketh quarrels against thee; thy mate or partner undermineth thee; thy lord, judge, or justice, threateneth thee; poverty is painful unto thee; the loss of thy dear and wellbeloved causeth thee to mourn; prosperity exalteth thee, adversity bringeth thee low. Briefly, so divers and so manifold occasions of cares, tribulations, and temptations, beset thee and besiege thee round about. Where canst thou have armor or fortress against thine assaults? Where canst thou have salves for thy sores but of holy scripture?

Thy flesh must needs be prone and subject to fleshly lusts, which daily walkest and art conversant among women, seest their beauties set forth to the eye, hearest their nice and wanton words, smellest their balm, chive, and musk, with many other like provocations and stirrings: except thou hast in a readiness wherewith to suppress and avoid them, which cannot elsewhere be had, but only out of the holy scriptures. Let us read and seek all remedies that we can, and all shall be little enough. How shall we then do, if we suffer and take daily wounds, and when we have done, will sit still and search for no medicines? Dost thou not mark and consider how the smith, mason, or carpenter, or any other handy craftsman, what need soever he be in, what other shift so ever he make, he will not sell nor lay to pledge the tools of his occupation. For then how should he work his feat, or get his living thereby? Of like mind and affection ought we to be towards holy scripture. For as mallets, hammers, saws, chisels, axes, and hatchets, be the tools of their occupation; so be the books of the prophets, and Apostles, and all holy writers inspired by the holy ghost, the instruments of our salvation. Wherefore let us not stick to buy and provide us the Bible, that is to say, the books of holy scripture; and let us think that to be a better jewel in our house than either gold or silver. For like as thieves be loth to assault an house where they know to be good armor and artillery, so wheresoever these holy and ghostly books be occupied, there neither the devil nor none of his angels dare come near. And they that occupy them be in much safeguard, and have a great consolation and be the readier unto all goodness, the slower unto all evil; and if they have done anything amiss, anon even by the sight of the books their consciences be admonished, and they wax sorry and ashamed of the fact.

Peradventure they will say unto me, How and if we understand not that we read, that is contained in the books? What then? Suppose thou understand not the deep and profound mysteries of scriptures. Yet can it not be but that much fruit and holiness must come and grow unto thee by the reading, for it cannot be that thou shouldest be ignorant in all things alike. For the holy ghost hath so ordered and tempered the scriptures, that in them as well publicans, fishers, and shepherds may find their edification, as great doctors their erudition. For those books were not made to vain glory, like as were the writings of the gentile philosophers and rhetoricians, to the intent the makers should be had in admiration for their high styles and obscure manner and writing, whereof nothing can be understood without a master or an expositor. But the Apostles and prophets wrote their books so that their special intent and purpose might be understood and perceived of every reader, which was nothing but the edification of amendment of the life of them that read or hear it. Who is it that reading or hearing read in the Gospel, Blessed are they that be meek, Blessed are they that be merciful, Blessed are they that be of clean heart, and such other like places, can perceive nothing except he have a master to teach him what it meaneth? Likewise the signs and miracles with all other histories of the doings of Christ or his Apostles. Who is there of so simple wit and capacity, but he may be able to perceive and understand them? These be but excuses and clokes for the rain, and coverings of their own idle slothfulness. But still ye will say I can not understand it. What marvel? How shouldest thou understand, if thou wilt not read, nor look upon it? Take the books into thine hands, read the whole story, and that thou understandest, keep it well in memory; that thou understandest not, read it again, and again. If thou can neither so come by it, counsel with some other that is better learned. Go to thy curate and preacher; show thyself to be desirous to know and learn, and I doubt not but God - seeing thy diligence and readiness (if no man else teach thee) - will himself vouchsafe with his holy spirit to illuminate thee, and to open unto thee that which was locked from thee. Remember the Eunuch of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia, which albeit he was a man of a wild and barbarous country, and one occupied with worldly cares and business, yet riding in his chariot, he was reading the scripture. Now consider, if this man passing in his journey was so diligent as to read the scripture, what thinkest thou of like was he wont to do sitting at home? Again, he that letted [i.e. omitted] not to read, albeit he did not understand: what did he then, trowest thou, after that when he had learned and gotten understanding? For that thou mayest well know that he understood not what he read, hearken what Philip there saith unto him: Understandest thou what thou readest? And he nothing ashamed to confess his ignorance, and answered, How should I understand, having nobody to show me the way? Lo, when he lacked one to show him the way, and to expound to him the scriptures, yet did he read; and therefore God the rather provided for him a guide of the way that taught him to understand it. God perceived his willing and toward mind, and therefore he sent him a teacher by and by. Therefore let no man be negligent about his own health and salvation. Though thou have not Philip always when thou wouldest, the holy ghost which then moved and stirred up Philip, will be ready and not fail thee if thou do thy diligence accordingly. All these things be written unto us for our edification and amendment, which be born towards the latter end of the world. The reading of the scriptures is a great and strong bulwark or fortress against sin; the ignorance of the same is a greater ruin and destruction of them that will not know it. That is the thing that bringeth in heresy; that is it that causeth all corrupt and perverse living; that is it that bringeth all things out of good order.

Hitherto all that I have said, I have taken and gathered out of the foresaid sermon of this holy doctor, saint John Chrysostom. Now if I should in like manner bring forth what the selfsame doctor speaketh in other places, and what other doctors and writers say concerning the same purpose, I might seem to you to write another Bible, rather than to make a preface to the Bible. Wherefore in few words to comprehend the largeness and utility of the scripture, how it containeth fruitful instruction and erudition for every man: if anything be necessary to be learned, of the holy scripture we may learn it. If falsehood shall be reproved, thereof we may gather wherewithal. If anything be to be corrected and amended, if there need any exhortation or consolation, of the scripture we may well learn. In the scriptures be the fat pastures of the soul, therein is no venomous meat, no unwholesome thing; they be the very dainty and pure feeding. He that is ignorant, shall find there what he should learn. He that is a perverse sinner, shall there find his damnation to make him to tremble for fear. He that laboureth to serve God, shall find there his glory, and the promissions [i.e. promises] of eternal life, exhorting him more diligently to labor. Herein may princes learn how to govern their subjects; Subjects obedience, love, and dread to their princes; Husbands how they should behave them unto their wives, how to educate their children and servants; and contrary, the wives, children, and servants may know their duty to their husbands, parents, and masters. Here may all manner of persons, men, women, young, old, learned, unlearned, rich, poor, priests, laymen, lords, ladies, officers, tenants, and mean men, virgins, wives, widows, lawyers, merchants, artificers, husbandmen, and all manner of persons of what estate or condition soever they be, may in this book learn all things what they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do, as well concerning almighty God, as also concerning themselves and all other. Briefly, to the reading of the scripture none can be enemy, but that either be so sick that they love not to hear of any medicine, or else that be so ignorant that they know not scripture to be the most healthful medicine. Therefore, as touching this former part, I will here conclude, and take it as a conclusion sufficiently determined and appointed, that it is convenient and good the scriptures to be read of all sorts and kinds of people, and in the vulgar tongue without further allegations or probations for the same, which shall not need, since that this one place of John Chrysostom is enough and sufficient to persuade all them that be not frowardly and perversely set in their own willful opinion, specially now that the king's highness, being supreme head next under Christ of this Church of England, hath approved with his royal assent the setting forth hereof, which only to all true and obedient subjects ought to be a sufficient reason for the allowance of the same, without further delay, reclamation, or resistance, although there were no preface nor other reason herein expressed.

Therefore now to come to the second and latter part of my purpose. There is nothing so good in this world, but it may be abused, and turned from unhurtful and wholesome, to hurtful and noisome. What is there above better than the sun, the moon, and the stars? Yet was there that took occasion by the great beauty and virtue of them, to dishonor God, and to defile themselves with idolatry, giving the honor of the living God and creator of all things, to such things as he had created. What is there here beneath better than fire, water, meats, drinks, metals of gold, silver, iron, and steel? Yet we see daily great harm and much mischief done by every one of these, as well for lack of wisdom and providence of them that suffer evil, as by the malice of them that work the evil. Thus to them that be evil of themselves, everything setteth forward and increaseth their evil, be it of his own nature a thing never so good. Like as contrarily, to them that study and endeavor themselves to goodness, everything prevaileth them, and profiteth unto good, be it of his own nature a thing never so bad, as S. Paul said, Hiis qui diligunt deum, omnia cooperantur in bonum, All things do bring good success, to such as do love God, even as out of most venomous worms is made treacle [an antidote], the most sovereign medicine for the preservation of man's health in time of danger. Wherefore I would advise you all that come to the reading or hearing of this book, which is the word of God, the most precious jewel and most holy relic that remaineth upon earth; that ye bring with you the fear of God, and that ye do it with all due reverence, and use your knowledge thereof, not to vain glory of frivolous disputation, but to the honor of God, increase of virtue, and edification both of yourselves and other. And to the intent that my words may be the more regarded, I will use in this part the authority of saint Gregory Nazianzus, like as in the other I did of saint John Chrysostom. It appeareth that in his time there were some (as I fear me there be also now at these days a great number) which were idle babblers and talkers of the scripture out of season and all good order, and without any increase of virtue, or example of good living. To them he writeth all his first book, de theologia. Wherefore I shall briefly gather the whole effect, and recite it here unto you. There be some (saith he) whose not only ears and tongues, but also their fists be whetted [i.e. sharpened] and ready bent all to contention and unprofitable disputation, whom I would wish, as they be vehement and earnest to reason the matter with tongue, so they were all ready and practive [i.e. active] to do good deeds. But forasmuch as they, subverting the order of all godliness, have respect only to this thing, how they may bind and loose subtle questions, so that now every marketplace, every alehouse and tavern, every feast house, briefly every company of men, every assembly of women, is filled with such talk - since the matter is so (saith he) and that our faith and holy religion of Christ beginneth to wax nothing else but as it were a sophistry or a talking craft, I can no less do but say something thereunto. It is not fit (saith he) for every man to dispute the high questions of divinity. Neither is it to be done at all times, neither in every audience must we discuss every doubt. But we must know when, to whom, and how far we ought to enter into such matters. First, it is not for every man, but it is for such as be of exact and exquisite judgments, and such as have spent their time before in study and contemplation and such as before have cleansed themselves as well in soul as body, or at the least endeavored themselves to be made clean. For it is dangerous (saith he) for the unclean to touch that thing that is most clean, like as the sore eye taketh harm by looking upon the sun. Secondarily, not at all times, but when we be reposed, and at rest from all outward dregs [i.e. defiling matters] and trouble, and when that our heads be not encumbered with other worldly and wandering imaginations - as if a man should mingle balm and dirt together. For he that shall judge and determine such matters and doubts of scriptures, must take his time when he may apply his wits thereunto, that he may thereby the better see and discern what is truth. Thirdly, where, and in what audience? There and among those that have been studious to learn, and not among such as have pleasure to trifle with such matters, as with other things of pastime, which repute for their chief delicates [i.e. delights], the disputation of high questions, to show their wits, learning, and eloquence in reasoning of high matters. Fourthly, it is to be considered how far to wade in such matters of difficulty. No further (saith he) but as every man's own capacity will serve him, and again no further than the weakness or intelligence of the other audience may bear. For like as to great noise hurteth the ear, too much meat hurteth the man's body, heavy burdens hurt the hearts of them, too much rain doth more hurt than good to the ground, briefly in all things, too much is noxious; even so, weak wits and weak consciences may soon be oppressed with over hard questions. I say not this to dissuade men from the knowledge of God, and reading or studying of the scripture; for I say that it is as necessary for the life of man's soul, as for the body to breathe. And if it were possible so to live, I would think it good for a man to spend all his life in that and to do none other thing. I commend the law which biddeth to meditate and study the scriptures always both night and day, and sermons and preachings to be made both morning, noon, and eventide, and God to be lauded and blessed in all times, to bed-ward, from bed, in our journeys, and all our other works. I forbid not to read, but I forbid to reason [i.e. argue]. Neither forbid I to reason so far as is good and godly: but I allow not that is done out of season, and out of measure and good order. A man may eat too much of honey, be it never so sweet; and there is time for everything, and that thing that is good is not good if it be ungodly done. Even as a flower in winter is out of season, and as a woman's apparel becometh not a man, neither contrarily, the man's the woman, neither is weeping convenient at a bridal, neither laughing at a burial. Now if we can observe and keep that is comely and timely in all other things, shall not we then the rather do the same in the holy scriptures? Let us not run forth as it were wild horses, that can suffer neither bridle in their mouths nor sitter on their backs. Let us keep us in our bounds, and neither let us go too far on the one side, lest we return into Egypt, neither too far over the other, lest we be carried away to Babylon. Let us not sing the song of our Lord in a strange land, that is to say, let us not dispute the word of God at all adventures, as well where it is not to be reasoned, as where it is, and as well in the ears of them that be not fit therefore, as of them that be. If we can in no wise forbear but that we must needs dispute, let us forbear thus much at the least, to do it out of time and place convenient. And let us entreat of those things which be holy, holily: and upon those things that be mystical, mystically: and not to utter the divine mysteries in the ears unworthy to hear them, but let us know what is comely, as well in our silence and talking, as in our garments wearing, in our feeding, in our gesture, in our goings, in all our other behaving. This contention and debates about scriptures and doubts [i.e. disputed points] thereof (specially when such as do pretend to be the favorers and students thereof cannot agree within themselves) doth most hurt to ourselves, and to the furthering of the cause and quarrels that we would have furthered above all other things. And we in this (saith he) be not unlike to them that, being mad, set their own houses on fire, and that slay their own children, or beat their own parents. I marvel much (saith he) to recount whereof cometh all this desire of vain glory, whereof cometh all this tongue itch, that we have so much delight to talk and clatter? And wherein is our communication? Not in the commendation of virtuous and good deeds, of hospitality, of love between Christian brother and brother, of love between man and wife, of virginity and chastity, and of alms toward the poor; not in psalms and godly songs, not in lamenting for our sins, not in repressing the affections of the body, not in prayers to God. We talk of scripture, but in the meantime we subdue not our flesh by fasting, watching, and weeping, we make not this life a meditation of death, we do not strive to be lords over our appetites and affections, we go not about to pull down our proud and high minds, to abate our fumish and rancorous stomachs, to restrain our lusts and bodily delectations, our indiscrete sorrows, our lascivious mirth, our inordinate looking, our insatiable hearing of vanities, our speaking without measure, our inconvenient thoughts; and briefly, to reform our life and manners. But all our holiness consisteth in talking. And we pardon each other from all good living, so that we may stick fast together in argumentation, as though there were no more ways to heaven but this alone, the way of speculation and knowledge (as they take it); but in very deed it is rather the way of superfluous contention and sophistication. Hitherto have I recited the mind of Gregory Nazianzus in that book which I spake of before. The same author saith also in another place that the learning of a Christian man ought to begin of the fear of God, to end in matters of high speculation; and not contrarily to begin with speculation, and to end in fear. For speculation (saith he), either high cunning or knowledge, if it be not stayed with the bridle of fear to offend God, is dangerous, and enough to tumble a man headlong down the hill. Therefore saith he, the fear of God must be the first beginning, and as it were an A.B.C. or an introduction to all them that shall enter into the very true and most fruitful knowledge of holy scriptures. Where as is the fear of God, there is (saith he) the keeping of the commandments; and where as is the keeping of the commandments, there is the cleansing of the flesh, which flesh is a cloud before the soul's eye, and suffereth it not purely to see the beam of the heavenly light. Where as is the cleansing of the flesh, there is the illumination of the holy ghost, the end of all our desires, and the very light whereby the verity of scriptures is seen and perceived. This is the mind and almost the words of Gregory Nazianzus, doctor of the Greek Church, of whom saint Jerome saith that unto his time the Latin Church had no writer able to be compared and to make an even match with him. Therefore to conclude this latter part: every man that cometh to the reading of this holy book, ought to bring with him first and foremost this fear of almighty God, and then next, a firm and stable purpose to reform his own self according thereunto, and so to continue, proceed, and prosper from time to time, showing himself to be a sober and fruitful hearer and learner; which, if he do, he shall prove at the length well able to teach, though not with his mouth, yet with his living and good example, which is sure the most lively and effectuous form and manner of teaching. He that otherwise intermeddleth with this book, let him be assured that once he shall make account therefore, when he shall have said to him as it is written in the prophet David, Peccatori dicit deus. &c. Unto the ungodly said God: Why dost thou preach my laws, and takest my testament in thy mouth? Whereas thou hatest to be reformed, and hast been partaker with adulterers. Thou hast let thy mouth speak wickedness, and with thy tongue thou hast set forth deceit. Thou sattest and spakest against thy brother, and hast slandered thine own mother's son. (See Psal. 50) These things hast thou done, and I held my tongue, and thou thoughtest wickedly that I am even such a one as thyself: But I will reprove thee, and set before thee the things that thou hast done. O consider this ye that forget God, lest I pluck you away, and there be none to deliver you. Whoso offereth me thanks and praise, he honoreth me: and to him that ordereth his conversation right, will I show the salvation of God.

God save the King.