|Bible Research > English Versions > McAfee > The Bible's Influence on History|
The King James version of the Bible is only a book. What can a book do in history? Well, whatever the reason, books have played a large part in the movements of men, specially of modern men.
They have markedly influenced the opinion of men about the past. It is commonly said that Hume's History of England, defective as it is, has yet "by its method revolutionized the writing of history," and that is true. Nearer our own time, Carlyle's Life of Cromwell reversed the judgment of history on Cromwell, gave all readers of history a new conception of him and his times and of the movement of which he was the life. After the Restoration none were so poor as to do Cromwell reverence until Carlyle's BOOK gave him anew to the world.
There are instances squarely in our own time by which their mighty influence may be tested. They are of books of almost ephemeral value save for the student of history. As literature they will be quickly forgotten; but as FORCES they must be reckoned with. There is Uncle Tom's Cabin. It would be absurd to say that it brought the American Civil War, or freed the negroes, or saved the Union. It did none of those great things. Yet it is not at all absurd to name it among the potent powers in all three. It is not to our purpose whether it is true or not as a statement of the whole fact. Doubtless it was not true of the general and common circumstances of Southern slavery; but everything in it was possible, and even frequent enough so that it could not be questioned. It pretended no more. But its influence was simply tremendous. In book form it became available in 1852, and within three years, 1855, it was common property of English-speaking people. No other book ever produced so extraordinary an effect so quickly in the public mind. 1 It held up slavery to judgment. It crystallized the thoughts of common people. The work of those strenuous years in the '60's could not have been done without the result of that book. It made history. Come nearer our own day. We could not be long in London without feeling the concern of the better people for conditions in the East End. A new social impulse has seized them. To be sure, it lacks much yet of success; but more has been done than most people realize. The new movement, the awakening of that social sense, traces back to the book of Gen. William Booth, In Darkest England (1890). It has helped to change the life of a large part of London.
On this side, the new concern for city conditions dates from the book of a newspaper reporter, Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives. It thrust the Other Half into such prominence that it has never been possible to forget it. Marked advance in all American cities, in legislation and life, goes straight back to it. Name one other book still in the field of social service, even so unpleasant, so terrible, so obnoxious a book as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. It started and sustained movements which have unsettled business and political life ever since it appeared. It made some conditions vivid, unescapable.
Do not misunderstand the argument. No man can tell what will be said in the histories a century from now about these lesser books. We can never go beyond guesses as to the whole cause of any chain of events. 2 As time passes, incidental elements in the causes gradually sink out of sight and a few great forces take the whole horizon. Whatever the histories a century from now say about the relative place of such books as we have named, it is certain that they have influenced the movements mightily. The literary histories will say nothing at all about them. They are not great literature, but they were born of a passion of the times and voiced and aroused it anew.
When, therefore, it is urged that the English Bible has influenced history, it is not making an undue claim for it. When it is further urged that of all books in English literature it has been most influential, it has most made history, it has most determined great movements, the argument only claims for it the highest place among books.
And it would not be surprising if it should have such influence. It is the one great piece of English literature which is universal property. Since the day it was published it has been kept available for everybody. No other book has ever had its chance. English-speaking people have always been essentially religious. They have always had a profound regard for the terms, the institutions, the purposes of religion. Partly that has been maintained by the Bible; but the Bible in its turn has been maintained by it. So it has come about that English-speaking people, though they have many books, are essentially people of one Book. Wherever they are, the Bible is. Queen Victoria has it near by when the messenger from the Orient appears, and lays her hand upon it to say that this is the foundation of the prosperity of England. But the poor housewife in the cottage, with only a crust for food, stays her soul with it. The Puritan creeps into hiding with the Book, while his brother sails away to the new land with the Book. The settler may have his Shakespeare; he will surely have his Bible. As the long wagon-train creeps across the plain to seek the Western shore, there may be no other book in all the train; but the Bible will be there. Find any settlement of men who speak the English tongue, wherever they make their home, and the Bible is among them. When did any book have such a chance to influence men? It is the one undisturbed heritage of all who speak the English tongue. It binds the daughter and the mother country together, and gathers into the same bond the scattered remnants of the English-speaking race the world around. Its language is the one speech they all understand. Strange it would be if it had not a profound influence upon history!
Another fact that has helped to give the Bible its great influence is the power of the preaching it has inspired. The periods of greatest preaching have always been the periods of freest access to the Bible. No one can overlook the immense power of the sermons of history. There have been poor, inept, banal expositors, doubtless; but even they turned men's minds to the Bible. Reading the Bible makes men thinkers, and so makes preachers inevitably. Witness the Scotch. James was raised in Scotland and believed in the power of preaching. At one time he wanted to settle endowments for the maintenance of preaching under government control. But Archbishop Whitgift convinced him that much preaching was "an innovation and dangerous," since it is quite impossible to control a man's mouth once it is given a public chance. Under Charles I. the sermon was mighty in the service of the Puritans until it was suppressed or restricted. Then men became lecturers and expounded the Bible or taught religious truth in public or private. Rich men engaged private chaplains since public meetings could not be held. Somehow they taught the Bible still. Archbishop Laud forbade both. Yet the leaven worked the more for its restriction. At least one good cook I know says that if you want your dough to rise and the yeast to work, you must cover it. Laud did not want it to rise, but he made the mistake of covering it.
There has never been a book which has provoked such incessant preaching and discussion as has the Bible. The believers in the Koran teach it as it is, word for word. Believers in the Bible have never stopped with that. They have always tried to come together and hear it expounded. Such gatherings and such constant pressure of the Book on groups of hearers would inevitably give the Bible great influence. When it is remembered that in America alone there are each week approximately four hundred thousand gatherings of people which have for their avowed purpose instruction or inspiration in religion, and that the instruction and inspiration are professedly and openly drawn from the Bible, that more than three hundred thousand sermons are preached every week from it and passages of it read in all the gatherings, it appears that the Bible had and still has such a chance to influence life as no other book has had. President Schurman traces a large part of our own stronger American life to the educative power of our Sundays. But central in the education of those days is now, and has been from the first of our national history, the English Bible.
The influence of the Bible comes also from the fact that it makes its chief appeal to the deeper elements in life. "Human history in its real character is not an account of kings and of wars; it is the unfolding of the moral, the political, the artistic, the social, and the spiritual progress of the human family. The time will yet come when the names of dynasties and of battles shall not form the titles of its chapters. The truths revealed in the Bible have been the touchstone which has tried men's spirits." 3
Those words go to the heart of the fact. The influence of the English Bible on English-speaking history for the last three hundred years is only the influence of its fundamental truths. It has moved with tremendous impact on the wills of men. It has made the great human ideals clear and definite; it has made them beautiful and attractive; but that has not been enough. It has reached also the springs of action. It has given men a sense of need and also a sense of strength, a sense of outrage and a sense of power to correct the wrong. There it has differed from most books. Frederick Robertson said that he read only books with iron in them, and, as he read, their atoms of iron entered the blood, and it ran more red for them. There is iron in this Book, and it has entered the blood of the human race. Where it has entered most freely, the red has deepened; and nowhere has it deepened more than in our English-speaking races. The iron of our blood is from this King James version.
Bismarck explained the victories of the Germans over the French by the fact that from childhood the Germans had been trained in the sense of duty, as the French had not been trained, and as soldiers had learned to feel that nothing could escape the Eye which ever watched their course. They learned that, Bismarck said, from the religion which they had been taught. There is no mistaking the power of religion in rousing and sharpening the sense of duty. Webster spoke for the English-speaking races, and found his phrases in the Bible, when he said that this sense "pursues us ever. It is omnipresent like the Deity. If we take to ourselves the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, duty performed or duty violated is still with us for our happiness or our misery. If we say the darkness shall cover us, in the darkness as in the light our obligations are yet with us. We cannot escape from their power or fly from their presence." It is religion which makes that sense of duty keen; and, whatever religion has done among English-speaking races, the English Bible has done, for it has been the text-book and the final authority of those races in the moving things of their faith.
It would be easiest in making the argument to single out here and there the striking events in which the Bible has figured and let them stand for the whole. There are many such events, and they are attractive.
We can imagine ourselves standing on the shore at Dover in 1660, fifty years after the version was issued, waiting with the crowd to see the banished King return. The civil war is over, the protectorate under Cromwell is past. Charles II., thick-lipped, sensuous, "seeming to belong rather to southern Europe than to Puritan England," is about to land from France, whence the people, wearied with Puritan excesses, have called him back. There is a great crowd, but they do not cheer wildly. There is something serious on hand. They mean to welcome the King; but it is on condition. Their first act is when the Mayor of Dover places in his hands a copy of the English Bible, which the King declares he loves above all things in the world. It proves only a sorry jest; but the English people think it is meant for truth, and they go to their homes rejoicing. They rejoiced too soon, for this is that utterly faithless king for whom his witty courtier proposed an epitaph:
"Here lies our sovereign lord, the king, Whose word no man relies on; Who never said a foolish thing, And never did a wise one." 4
As at other times, the King was only talking with no meaning; but the people did not know him yet. They had made their Bible the great test of their liberties: will a king stand by that or will he not? If he will not, let him remember Charles the First! And from that day no English king, no American leader, has ever successfully restricted English-speaking people from free access to their great Book. It has become a banner of their liberties. The child was wiser than he knew when he was asked what lesson we may learn from Charles I., and replied that we may learn that a man should not lose his head in times of excitement. Charles lost his head long before he laid it on the block.
Besides the scene at Dover, we may watch that great emigration of the Scotch-Irish from Ulster, beginning in 1689, seventy years after the Puritan exodus and eighty years after the version was issued, which peopled the backwoods of America with a choice, strong population. They were only following the right to worship freely, the right to their Bible without chains on its lids or on the lips of its preachers. They were making no protest against Romanism nor against Anglicanism in themselves. They only claimed the right to worship as they would. Under William and Mary, after James II. had fled to France, toleration became the law in England; but when Ireland was reconquered by William's generals, the act of toleration was not extended to it. Baptists, Presbyterians, all except the small Anglican Church, were put under the ban and forbidden to worship. But the Bible had made submission impossible, and there came about that great exodus to the new land which has so blessed it.
There are other signal events which might be observed. But all the while there would be danger of magnifying the importance of events which seem to prove the point. The view needs to be a more general one instead. The period is not long—three hundred years at the most—though it has a background of all English history. We have already seen how from the first there have been determined efforts to make the Bible common to the people; yet, of course, the influence of our version can appear only in these three hundred years since it was issued. That short period has not only been interesting almost to the point of excitement in English life, but it covers virtually all American life. Take, therefore, the broader view of the influence of the English Bible on history, apart from these striking events.
It is to be assumed at once that much of its influence is indirect. Indeed, its chief influence must be through men who prove to be leaders and through that public sentiment without which leaders are powerless. If leaders live by it and stand or fall by its teaching, then their work is its work. If they find a public sentiment issuing from it which gives them power, a sentiment which crystallizes around them when they appear, because it is of kindred spirit with themselves, then the power of that sentiment is the power of the Bible. The influence of Pilgrim's Progress or The Saint's Rest is the influence of Bunyan and Baxter; but back of them is the Bible. In language, in idea, in spirit, they were only making the Bible a common Book to their readers. Their value for life and history is the Bible's value for life and history.
The power of great souls is frequently and easily underestimated. Scientific study has tended to that by magnifying visible conditions and by trying to calculate the force of laws which are in plain sight. Buckle's theory of civilization has influenced our times greatly. It explains national character as the outcome of natural conditions, and lays such stress on circumstances as left it possible for Buckle to declare that history and biography are in different spheres. It is still true, however, that most history turns on biography. Great souls have been the chief factors in great movements. Whether the movement could have occurred without them will never be possible to decide, if it should be disputed. In a chemical laboratory the essential factors of any phenomenon can be determined by the process of elimination. All the elements which preceded it except one can be introduced; if the result is the same as in its presence, manifestly it is not essential. So the experiment can go on until the result becomes different, when it is evident that the last omitted element is an essential one. But no such process is possible in great historical movements. The only course open to us is to consider carefully the elements which do appear.
Take three great movements which are easiest to follow in these three centuries. Whether the spiritual independence of England would have been secured without the Quakers may be debated; but this fact can hardly be debated: certainly it was not so secured; whether or not the Quakers could have been without George Fox, certainly they did not occur without him. Take the second: whether or not some other movement could have done what Puritanism did is hardly a question for history; Puritanism actually did the work for England and America which gave both their strongest qualities. There is no testing the period to see whether Puritanism could be left out. There it stands as a powerful factor, and no analysis of the history can possibly omit it. Or the third: it is not a question for a historian whether English history could have been the same without Methodism and whether Methodism could have been at all without the Wesleys; certainly nothing took its place, nor did any one else stand at the head of the movement.
Here are these three great movements, not to seek others. All of them have had tremendous influence in the religious and political history of both the nations where they have moved most freely. Each of them is a direct and undisputed result of the influence of the Bible. Much has already been said of the Puritans in England, and there will be occasion to see what was their influence in America. But think for a moment of the Quakers. James Freeman Clark calls them the English mystics; certainly they were more than that. 5 George Fox had little learning but the Bible; that he knew well. He first came to himself out in the fields alone with the Bible. He was not stirred to the origin of the movement nor to his greatest activity by experiences he had in public places. He came to those public places profoundly affected by his familiarity with the English Bible. He came at a time when his protest was needed, a protest against formalism, against mere outward conformity. A thousand years before, Mohammedanism had really saved the Christian faith by its protest, violent and merciless, against its errors, challenging it to purity in faith and life. Now Fox and the Quakers saved church life by protest against church life. The Bible was still the law, but not the Bible which you read for me, but that which you read for you and I for me, each of us guided by an inner light. The Quaker movement was a distinct protest against church formalism in the interests of freedom of the Bible.
That Quaker influence was far stronger in America than it ever proved to be in England. George Fox himself visited the colonies and extended its influence. Three great effects are easily traceable. The very presence of the Quakers in the New England colonies, notably in Massachusetts, and the persecutions which they endured, did more to purify the Puritans than any other one influence. One is only loyal to the Puritan character and teaching in declaring that in the manner of the Puritans toward the Quakers they were wrong; they were wrong because they were untrue to their own belief, untrue to their own Bibles, and when the more thoughtful among them found that they were taking the attitude toward the Quakers which they had resented toward themselves, remembering that the Quakers were drawing their teaching from the same Bible as themselves, they were naturally checked. And, while the Quakers in New England suffered greatly, their suffering proved the purification of the Puritans. It accented and so it removed the narrowness of Puritan practice. Further, the Quaker movement gave to American history William Penn and the whole constitution of Pennsylvania. It was there that a state first lived by the principle which William Penn pronounced: "Any government is free where the people are a party to the laws enacted." So it came about that Independence Hall is on Quaker soil. The Declaration of Independence appeared there, and not on Puritan soil. It may be there was more freedom of thought in Pennsylvania. It may be explained on purely geographical ground, Philadelphia being the most convenient center for the colonies. But it remains significant that not on Cavalier soil in Virginia, not on Dutch soil in New York, not on Puritan soil in Boston, but on Quaker soil in Philadelphia the movement for national independence crystallized around a general principle that "any government is free where the people are a party to the laws enacted," but that no government is free whose people have not a voice. That is not minimizing the power of Puritanism, nor forgetting Fanueil Hall and the Tea Party. It only accents what should be familiar: that Puritanism drew into itself more of the fighting element of Scripture, while the Quaker movement drew into itself more of the uniting, pacifying element of Scripture. The third effect of the Quaker movement is John Greenleaf Whittier, with his gentle but never weak demand that national freedom should not mean independence of other people alone, but the independence of all people within the nation. So that while the Quaker spirit helped the colonies to break loose from foreign control and become a nation, it helped the nation in turn to break loose from internal shackles. The nation stood free within itself as well as free from others. Yet the Quaker movement—and this is the argument—is itself the result of the English Bible, and the Quaker influence is the influence of the English Bible on history.
There is not need for extended word about the great Wesleyan movement in the midst of this period, which has so profoundly affected both English and American history. It has not worked out into such visible political forms. But any movement that makes for larger spiritual life makes for the strengthening of the entire life of the nation. The mere figures of the early Wesleyan movement are almost appalling. Here was a man, John Wesley, an Oxford scholar, who spent nearly fifty years traveling up and down and back and forth through England on horseback, covering more than two hundred and fifty thousand miles, preaching everywhere more than forty thousand times, writing, translating, editing two hundred works. When death ended his busy life there were in his newly formed brotherhood one hundred and thirty-five thousand members, with five hundred and fifty itinerants who were following his example with incessant preaching and Bible exposition. It was the old Wiclif-Lollard movement over again. And here was the other Wesley, Charles, teaching England to sing again, teaching the old truths of the Bible in rhyme to many who could not read, so that they became familiar, writing on horseback, in stage-coaches, everywhere, writing with one passion, to help England back to the Bible and its truth. Such activity could not leave the nation unmoved; all its religious life felt it, and its political life from serf to king was deeply affected by it. It is a common saying that the Wesleyan movement saved English liberty from European entanglement. Yet the Wesleyan movement issued from the Bible and led England back to the Bible.
But apart from these wide movements and the great souls who led them, there is time for thought of one typical character on each side of the sea who did not so much make a movement as he proved the point around which a great fluid idea crystallized into strength. Across the sea the character shall be that man whom Carlyle gave back to us out of obloquy and misunderstanding, Oliver Cromwell. Choosing him, we pass other names which crowd into memory, names of men who have served the need of England well-Wilberforce, John Howard, Shaftesbury, Gladstone—who drew their strength from this Book. Yet we choose Cromwell now for argument. On this side it must be that best known, most beloved, most typical of all Americans, Abraham Lincoln.
An English historian has said that the most influential, the most unescapable years in English history are those of the Protectorate. That is a strong saying. They were brief years. There were many factors in them. Oliver Cromwell was only one, but he was chief of all. He was not chief in the councils which resulted in the beheading of Charles I. on that 30th of January, 1649, though he took part in them. Increasingly in the movements which led to that event and which followed it he was growing into prominence. After Marston Moor, Prince Rupert named him Ironsides, and his regiment of picked men, picked for their spirit, went always into battle singing psalms, "and were never beaten." As he rode out to the field at Naseby (1645) he knew he faced the flower of the loyalist army, while with him were only untrained men; yet he smiled, as he said afterward, in the "assurance that God would, by things that are not, bring to naught things that are." Then he adds, "God did it." Never did he raise his flag but in the interests of the liberty of the people, and back of every movement of his army there was his confidence in the Bible, which was his mainstay. They offered him the throne; he would not have it. He dissolved the Parliament which had dragged on until the patience of the people was exhausted. He called another to serve their need. The evening before it met he spent in meditation on the One hundred and third Psalm. The evening before the second Parliament of his Protectorate he brooded on the Eighty-fifth Psalm, and opened the Parliament next day with an exposition of it. The man was saturated with Scripture. Yes, the times were rude. It was an Old Testament age, and in right Old Testament spirit did Cromwell work. And it seemed that his work failed. There was no one to succeed him, and soon after his death came the Restoration and the return of Charles II., of which we have already spoken, in which occurred that hint of the real sentiment of the English people which a wise man had better have taken. Yet, recall what actually happened. Misunderstanding the spirit of the English people, which Cromwell had helped to form, but which in turn had made Cromwell possible, the servile courtiers of the false king unearthed the Protector's body, three years buried, hanged it on a gallows in Tyburn for a day, beheaded it, and threw the trunk into a pit. His head they mockingly set on a pinnacle of the Parliament Hall, whence for some weeks it looked over the city which he had served. Then, during a great storm, it came clattering down, only a poor dried skull, and disappeared no one knows where. But when you stand opposite the great Parliament buildings in London to-day, the most beautiful buildings for their purpose in the world, the buildings where the liberties of the English express themselves year after year, whose is the one statue that finds place within the inclosure, near the spot where that poor skull came rattling down? Not Charles II.—you shall look in vain for him. Not George Monk, who brought back the King—you shall not find him there. The one statue which England has cared to plant beside its Parliament buildings is that of Oliver Cromwell, its Lord Protector. There he stands, warning kings in the interests of liberty. John Morley makes no ideal of him. He thinks he rather closed the medieval period than opened the modern period; but he will not have Cromwell compared to Frederick the Great, who spoke with a sneer of mankind. Cromwell "belonged to the rarer and nobler type of governing men, who see the golden side, who count faith, piety, hope among the counsels of practical wisdom, and who for political power must ever seek a moral base." That is a rare and noble type of men, whether they govern or not. But no man of that type governs without red blood in his veins; and the iron that made this man's blood run red came from the English Bible.
It is a far cry from Oliver Cromwell to Abraham Lincoln—far in years, far in deeds, far in methods, but not far in spirit. Great men are kindred, generations over. We pass from the Old Testament into the New when we pass from Cromwell to Lincoln; but we still feel the spirit of liberty. From the days of the Puritans, the Quakers and the Dutch, history had been preparing for this time. Benjamin Franklin had done his great work for human liberty; he had summed up his hope for the nation in his memorable address in 1787, when he stood eighty-one years old, before the convention assembled to frame a constitution for the new government. He reminded them that at the beginning of the contest with the British they had had daily prayers in that room in Philadelphia for the Divine protection, and said: "I have lived for a long time, and the longer I live the more convincing proof I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that 'Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.' I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall proceed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. I therefore beg leave to move that, henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberation be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service."
George Washington sounded a familiar note in his farewell address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. A volume could not trace all their connection with private and public felicity. Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles." Thomas Jefferson, of whom it is sometimes said that he was indifferent to religion, had yet done his great work under inspiration, which he himself acknowledges in his inaugural address, when he speaks of the nation as "enlightened by a benign religion, professed indeed, and practised in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensation proves that it results in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter." Greater than Jefferson had appeared John Marshall, greatest of our Chief Justices, like in spirit to that John Marshall Harlan, whose death marked the year which has just closed, of whom his colleagues said that he went to his rest each night with one hand on the Bible and the other on the Constitution of the United States, a description which could almost be transferred to his great predecessor in that court. Moreover, when Lincoln came, Joseph Story, the greatest teacher of law which our country had produced, had only just died from his place on the Supreme Bench, In his Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard (1826), in a brilliant and masterful analysis of "The Characteristics of the Age," he had paid tribute after tribute to the power of religion and the Bible. He had declared his belief that the religion of the Bible had "established itself in the hearts of men by all which genius could bring to illumine or eloquence to grace its sublime truths." Of the same period with Lincoln was also Webster, who was called the "concordance of the House." Many of his stately periods and great ideas came from the Bible. Indeed, there is no oratory of our history, which has survived the waste of the years, which does not feel and show the power of the Scriptures. The English Bible has given our finest eloquence its ideas, its ideals, its illustrations, its phrases.
The line is unbroken. And it leads to this tall figure, crowned with a noble head, his face the saddest in American history, who knew Gethsemane in all its paths. The heart of the American people has always been touched by his early years of abject poverty. But there were compensations. He had few books, and they entered his blood and fiber. In his earliest formative years there were six books which he read and re-read. Nicolay and Hay name the Bible first in the list, with Pilgrim's Progress as the fourth. Mr. Morse calls it a small library, but nourishing, and says that Lincoln absorbed into his own nature all the strong juice of the books. 6 How much he drew from the pages of the Holy Book let any reader of his speeches say. Quotation, reference, illustration crowd each other. The phrases are familiar. The man is full of the Book. And what the man does is part of the work of the Book.
One of his biographers says that there is nothing in the life or work of Lincoln which cannot be explained without reference to any supernatural influence or power. That depends on what is meant by supernatural. There were no miracles, no astounding visions nor experiences. But there ran into Lincoln's life from his young manhood onward this steady and strong current of ideas and ideals from the Bible. In his second inaugural address he worded the thought that was the deepest horror of the Civil War—that on both sides of the strife men were reading the same Bible, praying to the same God, and invoking His aid against each other! In that very brief inaugural Mr. Lincoln quotes in full three Bible verses, and makes reference to two others, and the whole address lasted barely four minutes. There could be no mistaking the solemn importance of the fact to which he referred in the inaugural, the presence on the other side of men who held their Bibles high in regard. "Stonewall" Jackson was devout beyond most men. The two books always at his hand were his Bible and the Manual of the Rules of War. Robert E. Lee was a cultured, Christian gentleman, as were many others with him, while throughout the South were multitudes who loved and reverenced the Bible as fully as could any in the North. As we look back over half a century, this comes out plainly: that so far as the American civil war was a strife about union pure and simple, having one nation or two here in our part of the continent, it was matter of judgment, not of religion. There grew around that question certain others of national honor and obligation, which were not so clear then as now. But men on opposite sides of the question might read the same Bible without finding authoritative word about it. In so far, however, as the war had at its heart the matter of human slavery, it was possible for men to differ only when one side read the letter of the Bible while the other read its manifest spirit. Written in times when slavery was counted matter of course, its letter dealt with slavery as a fact. It could be read as though it approved slavery. But long before this day men had found its true spirit. England had abolished slavery (1808) under the insistence that it was foreign to all right understanding of God's Word. Lincoln knew its letter well; he cared for its spirit more, and he found his strength not in the familiar saying that God was on his side, but in the more forceful one that he believed himself to be on God's side. So he became a point around which the great fluid idea crystallized into strength—a point made and sustained by the influence of the Bible, which he knew only in the King James version.
We have spoken of some wide movements and of men around whom they crystallized, finding in them the influence of the Bible. It will be well to note two outstanding traits of the Bible which in English or any other tongue would inevitably tend to strong and favorable influence on the history of men. Those two traits are, first, its essential democracy, and, secondly, its persistent moral appeal.
Here must be recalled that century before the King James version, when by slow filtration the fundamental ideas of the Bible were entering English life. Surely it is beyond words that the Bible made Puritanism, though it was in strong swing when James came to the throne. Now John Richard Green is well within the fact when he says that "Puritanism may fairly claim to be the first political system which recognized the grandeur of the people as a whole." 7 It, was the magnifying of the people as a whole over against some people as having peculiar rights which marked Puritanism, and which is democracy. Shakespeare knew nothing of it, and had no influence on the movement for larger democracy. After we have said our strong word of Shakespeare's powerful influence upon literature it yet must be said that it is difficult to lay finger on one single historical movement except the literary one which Shakespeare even remotely influenced. The Bible, meanwhile, was absolutely creating this movement. Under its influence "the meanest peasant felt himself ennobled as the child of God, the proudest noble recognized a spiritual equality with the meanest saint." That was the inevitable result of a fresh reading of the Bible in every home. It assured each man that he is a son of God, equal in that sonship with all other men. It assured him no man has right to lord it over others, as though his relation to God were peculiar. The Bible constantly impresses men that this relation to God is the essential one. Everything else is incidental. Granted now a people freshly under the influence of that teaching, you have a large explanation of the movement which followed the issuance of this version.
James opened his first parliament (1604) with a speech claiming divine right, a doctrine which had really been raised to meet the claim of the right of the pope to depose kings. James argued that the state of monarchy is the supremest thing on earth, for kings are not only God's lieutenants on earth and set upon God's throne, but even by God Himself are called gods. (He never found that in the Genevan version or its notes!) As to dispute what God may do is blasphemy, so it is sedition in subjects to dispute what the king may do in the height of his power. "I will not be content that my power be disputed on." The House of Commons sat by his grace and not of any right.
Set that idea of James over against the idea which the Bible was constantly developing in the mind of the people, and you see why Trevelyan says that the Bible brought in democracy, and why he thinks, as we have already seen, that the greatest contribution England has made to government is its treatment of the Stuarts, when it transferred sovereignty from the king to Parliament. Among the men who listened to that kind of teaching were Eliot, Hampden, Pym, all Puritans under the spell of the Bible. But the strife grew larger than a merely Puritan one. The people themselves were strongly feeling their rights. "To the devout Englishman, much as he might love his prayer-book and hate the dissenters, the core of religion was the life of family prayer and Bible study, which the Puritans had for a hundred years struggled not in vain to make the custom of the land." It was this spirit which James met.
We have already thought sufficiently of the events which actually followed. The final rupture of Charles I. with parliamentary institutions was due to the religious situation. There were many Bible-reading families, learning their own rights, while kings and favorites were plotting war. Laud and the bishops forbade non-conforming gatherings, but they could not prevent a man's gathering his household about him while he read the great stories of the Bible, in which no king ruled when he had ceased to advance his kingdom, in which each man was shut up to God in the most vital things of his life. The discussion of the time grew keen about predestination and free-will. One meant that only God had power; the other meant that men, and if men, then specially kings, might control other men if only they could. Not fully, but vaguely, the crowd understood. Very fully, and not vaguely, the leaders understood. Predestination and Parliament became a cry. That is, control lifted out of the hands of the free-will of some monarch into the hands of a sovereign God to whom every man had the same access that any other man had. Laud decreed that all such discussion should cease. He revived an old decree that no book could be printed without consent of an archbishop or the Bishop of London. So the books became secret and more virulent each year. The civil war (1642-46) between Charles and Parliament was a war of ideas. It is sometimes called a war of religion, not quite fairly. It was due to the religious situation, but actually it was for the liberties of the people against the power of the king. And that question rooted far down in another regarding the rights of men to be free in their religious life. Charles struck his coin at Oxford with the Latin inscription: "The Protestant religion; the laws of England; the liberties of Parliament." But he struck it too late. He had been trifling with the freedom of the people, and they had learned from their fireside Bibles and from their pulpits that no man may command another in his relation to God. It was long after that Burns described "The Cottar's Saturday Night"; but he was only describing a condition which was already in vogue, and which was having tremendous influence in England as well as in Scotland:
"The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face, They, round the ingle, form a circle wide; The sire turns o'er, wi' patriarchal grace, The big ha' Bible, ance his father's pride: His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside, His lyart haffets wearing thin an' bare; Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide, He wales a portion with judicious care, And 'Let us worship God!' he says, with solemn air."
Under such guidance as this the people of England, Puritans and others, relaxed the power of the Stuarts and became a democracy. For democracy is not a form of government. It can exist under monarchy, provided the monarchy is a convenience of the will of the people, as it is in England. It can exist under institutions like our own, provided they also are held as a convenience of the people. This was no rebellion against some form of monarchy. It was simply a claim of every man to have his rights before God. Under the Parliament of eighteen years duration, the Independensts, Presbyterians, and all other non-conforming bodies suffered as heavily as under James and Charles, yet they did not flee the land. Their battle was really won. They believed the time would come when they as part of "the people" who now governed should assert themselves. If they were persecuted, it was under a government where yet they might hope for their rights. Fleeing from England in 1620 was heroism; fleeing in 1640 would have been cowardly. It is impossible to calculate what was the revelation to the readers of the English Bible of their rights.
Let Trevelyan tell the story: "While other literary movements, however noble in quality, affect only a few, the study of the Bible was becoming the national education. Recommended by the king, translated by the Bishops, yet in chief request with the Puritans, without the rivalry of books and newspapers, the Bible told to the unscholarly the story of another age and race, not in bald generalization and doctrinal harangue, but with such wealth of simple narrative and lyrical force that each man recognized his own dim strivings after a new spirit, written clear in words two thousand years old. A deep and splendid effect was wrought by the monopoly of this Book as the sole reading of common households, in an age when men's minds were instinct with natural poetry and open to receive the light of imagination. A new religion arose, of which the mythus was the Bible stories and the pervading spirit the direct relations of man with God, exemplified in the human life. And while imagination was kindled, the intellect was freed by this private study of the Bible. For its private study involved its private interpretation. Each reader, even if a Churchman, became in some sort a church to himself. Hence the hundred sects and thousand doctrines that astonished foreigners and opened England's strange path to intellectual liberty. The Bible cultivated here, more than in any other land, the growth of intellectual thought and practice." 8
All that has seemed to refer only to England, but the same essential democracy of the Bible came to America and founded the new nation. It was a handful of Puritans turned Pilgrims who set out in the Mayflower to give their Bible ideas free field. In a dozen years (1628-40), under Laud's persecution, twenty thousand Englishmen fled to join those Pilgrims. And how much turned on that! Suppose it had not happened. Then the French of the North and the cavaliers of Virginia, with the Spanish of the South, would have had only the Dutch between them. And of the four, only the Dutch had free access to the Bible. The new land would not have been English. It is an English writer who says that North America is now preparing the future of the world, and English speech is the mold in which the folk of all the world are being poured for their final shaping. 9 It is the democracy of the Bible which is the fundamental democracy of America, in which every man has it accented to him that he is so much a child of God that his rights are inalienable. They cover life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And though we have held that principle of democracy inconsistently at times, and have paid a terrible price for our inconsistency in the past, and may pay it in the future again, it is still true that the fundamental democracy of our American life is only that essential democracy of the Bible, where every man is made the equal of his fellow by being lifted into the same relation with Almighty God.
The Bible makes its moral appeal on the same basis. If a man is a child of God, then he is shut up to duties which cannot be avoided. Some one else may tell a man his duty in a true monarchy. In a democracy each man stands alone at the most solemn point of his duty. There is no safe democracry where men refuse to stand alone there. In Jefferson's great speech, replying to the forebodings of Patrick Henry, he insisted that if men were not competent to govern themselves they were not competent to govern other people. The first duty of any man is to take his independent place before God. Democracy is the social privilege that grows out of the meeting of these personal obligations.
Several facts strengthen this persistent moral appeal. For one thing, the Book is absolutely fair to humanity. It leaves out no line or wrinkle; but it adds none. The men with whom it deals are typical men. The facts it presents are typical facts. There are books which flatter men, make them out all good, prattle on about the essential goodness of humanity, while men who know themselves (and these are the only ones who do things) know that the story is not true. On the other hand, there are books which are depressing. Their pigments are all black. They move from the dignity of Schopenhauer's pessimism to the bedlam of Nietzsche's contempt for life and goodness. But here, also, the sane common sense of humanity comes to the rescue. The picture is not true if it is all white or all black. The Bible is absolutely fair to humanity. It moves within the circle of man's experience; and, while it deals with men, it results in a treatment of man.
That is how it comes about that the Bible inspires men, and puts them at their best. No moral appeal can be successful if it fails to reach the better part of a man, and lays hold on him there. Just that it did for the English people. "No greater moral change ever passed over a nation than passed over England during the years that parted the middle of the reign of Elizabeth from the meeting of the Long Parliament. England became the people of a Book, and that Book was the Bible." 10
Add to that personal appeal and that absolute fairness to humanity the constant challenge of the Bible to the nobler elements of humanity. It never trifles. It is in deadly earnest. And it makes earnest men. Probably we cannot illustrate that earnestness more clearly than by a study of one element in Puritan history, which is confused in many minds. It is the matter of the three great antagonisms of Puritanism in England and America. They can never be understood by moral triflers. They may not be approved by all the morally serious, but they will be understood by them. What are those three marked antagonisms? The antagonism to the stage, to popular frivolity, and to the pleasure Sabbath.
1. The early English stage had the approval of virtually all the people. There were few voices raised against the dramas of Shakespeare. But the cleavage between the Puritans and the stage grew greater as the years went on. There were riotous excesses. The later comedy after Shakespeare was incredibly gross. The tragedies were shallow, they turned not on grave scenes of conscience, but on common and cheap intrigues of incest and murder. In the mean time, "the hatred of the Puritans for the stage was only the honest hatred of God-fearing men against the foulest depravity presented in poetic and dramatic forms." The Bible was laying hold on the imagination of the people, making them serious, thoughtful, preparing them for the struggle for liberty which was soon to come. The plays of the time seemed too trifling or else too foul. The Puritans and the English people of the day were willing to be amused, if the stage would amuse them. They were willing to be taught, if the stage would teach them. But they were not willing to be amused by vice and foulness, and they were not willing to be taught by lecherous actors who parroted beautiful sentiments of virtue on the stage and lived filthy lives of incest and shame off the stage. Life had to be whole to the Puritan, as indeed it has to be to other thoughtful men. And the Bible taught him that. His concern was for the higher elements of life; his appeal was to the worthier values in men. The concern of the stage of his day was for the more volatile elements in men. The test of a successful play was whether the crowds, any crowds, came to it. And as always happens when a man wants to catch the interest of a crowd, the stage catered to its lowest interests. You can hardly read the story of the times without feeling that the Puritan made no mistake in his day. He could not have been the thoughtful man who would stand strong in the struggle for liberty on that side of the sea and the struggle for life on this side of the sea without opposing trifling and vice.
2. The antagonism of the early Puritan to popular frivolity needs to have the times around it to be understood. No great movement carries everybody with it, and while it is still struggling the majority will be on the opposing side. While the real leadership of England was passing into the stronger and more serious hands the artificial excesses of life grew strong on the people. "Fortunes were being sunk and estates mortgaged in order that men should wear jewels and dress in colored silks." 11 In the pressure of grave national needs men persisted in frivolity. The two reigning vices were drunkenness and swearing. In their cups men were guilty of the grossest indecencies. Even their otherwise harmless sports were endangered. The popular notion of the May-pole dances misses the real point of the Puritan opposition to it in Old and New England. It was not an innocent, jovial out-door event. Once it may have been that. Very often it was only part of a day which brought immorality and vice in its train. It was part of a rural paganism. Some of the customs involved such grave perils, with their seclusion of young people from early dawn in the forests, as to make it impossible to approve it. Over against all these things the Puritans set themselves. Sometimes they carried this solemnity to an absurd length, justifying it by Scripture verses misapplied. Against the affected elegancies of speech they set the plain yea, yea and nay, nay of Scripture. In their clothing, their homes, their churches, they, and in even more marked degree, the Quakers, registered their solemn protest against the frivolity of the times. If they went too far, it is certain their protest was needed. Macaulay's epigram is familiar, that the Puritan "hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators." In so far as that is true, it is to the credit of the Puritan; for the bear can stand the pain of being baited far better than human nature can stand the coarsening effects of baiting him, and it is nobler to oppose such sport on human grounds than on animal grounds. But, of course, the epigram is Macaulay's, and must be read with qualification. The fact is, and he says it often enough without epigrams, that the times had become trifling except as this grave, thoughtful group influenced them.
3. The attitude of the Puritans toward the Sabbath came from their serious thought of the Bible. Puritanism gave England the Sabbath again and planted it in America as an institution. Of course, these men learned all that they knew of it from the Bible. From that day, in spite of much change in thought of it, English-speaking people have never been wilful abusers of the Sabbath. But the condition in that day was very different. Most of the games were on the day set apart as the Sabbath. There were bull-baiting, bear-baiting, and football on Sunday. Calvin himself, though not in England, bowled on Sunday, and poor Knox attended festivities then, saying grimly that what little is right on week-days is not wrong on Sundays. After the service on Sunday morning the people thronged to the village green, where ale flowed freely and games were played until the evening dance was called. It was a work-day. Elizabeth issued a special injunction that people work after service on Sundays and holidays if they wished to do so. Employers were sustained in their demand for Sunday work.
4. There are always people in every time who count that the ideal Sabbath. The Puritans found it when they appeared. The English Reformation found it when it came. And the Bible found it when at last it came out of obscurity and laid hold on national conditions. Whatever is to be said of other races, every period of English-speaking history assures us that our moral power increases or weakens with the rise or fall of Sabbath reverence. The Puritans saw that. They saw, as many other thoughtful people saw, that the steady, repeated observance of the Sabbath gave certain national influences a chance to work; reminded the nation of certain great underlying and undying principles; in short, brought God into human thought. The Sunday of pleasure or work could never accomplish that. Both as religionists and as patriots, as lovers of God and lovers of men, they opposed the pleasure-Sunday and held for the Sabbath.
But that comes around again to the saying that the persistent moral appeal of the Bible gives it inevitable influence on history. It centers thought on moral issues. It challenges men to moral combats.
Such a force persistently working in men's minds is irresistible. It cannot be opposed; it can only fail by being neglected. And this is the force which has been steadily at work everywhere in English-speaking history since the King James version came to be.
1 Rhodes, History of the United States, vol. i, pp. 185-303.
2 MacPhail, Essays on Puritanism, p. 278.
3 H. B. Smith, Faith and Philosophy, p. 54.
4 White, in his History of England, says that Charles replied that the explanation was easy: His discourses were his own, his actions were his ministry's!
5 David Gregg, The Quakers in America.
6 American Statesman Series, Abraham Lincoln, i, 12, 13.
7 Short History of the English People, chap. vii, sec. vii.
8 England under the Stuarts.
9 Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts, p. 174.
10 Green, Short History of the English People.
11 Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts, p. 66.
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