English Protestant Bibles: from Coverdale to the King James Version

Despite Tyndale’s fate, English Protestants still attempted to translate the Bible in their own language. In 1535, a Cambridge-educated scholar living on the Continent, Myles Coverdale, published the first complete Bible in English. His translation was based on Martin Luther’s German Bible and the Vulgate, and carried a prologue and dedication supporting Henry VIII and the Church of England. Two years later, in defiance of English law, Coverdale’s translation was being printed in London.

In 1538, reversing over a century of English policy towards vernacular translations of the Bible, Henry VIII ordered that copies of the Bible in English should be placed in churches throughout the nation. A Bible translation was endorsed by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and published the following year. Known as the Great Bible because of its size, this translation was based on the work of Tyndale and Coverdale. Cranmer also produced an English-language prayer book with scriptural text and readings for various services and rites of the new Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer, in 1549.

During the reign of Mary I, Catholicism was reinstated as the official state religion of England. A group of Protestant scholars, fleeing persecution, found refuge in Calvinist Switzerland, where they began work on an English translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew, borrowing heavily from the work of Tyndale. Their New Testament appeared in 1557, followed by the printing of the entire Bible in 1560. It would not be printed in England until 1575, well into the reign of Elizabeth I. The Geneva Bible, as this translation is called, included marginal commentary and annotations which expressed Calvinist ideas. The Geneva Bible was popular in Scotland and among Puritan sects in England; over 150 editions of this translation were printed during the next 80 years.

In response to the Geneva Bible, leaders of the Church of England authorized a new translation project, one that would reflect conventional religious practice and would omit the textual commentary. Matthew Parker, the archbishop of Canterbury, chaired a committee of scholars (many of whom were Anglican bishops) who produced a Bible in 1568. However, the translation, known as the Bishop’s Bible, never gained the popularity of the Geneva Bible.

Both the Geneva Bible and the Bishop’s Bible were eventually superseded by the Authorized, or King James, version of the Bible, first published in 1611. The translation was first proposed in 1604, under the patronage of James I, who as king was also the head of the Church of England. In authorizing a new translation of the Bible, the king and other church leaders sought to minimize the controversies over interpretations of the Bible in the coexisting Geneva and Bishop’s versions. Some 47 different scholars, working in six committees, collaborated on translating the original Greek and Hebrew texts, following the renderings in the Bishop’s Bible. Stylistically, the translators retained much of the language which had originated with Tyndale’s translation nearly a century earlier.

Upon its first publication the King James Version was adopted for reading in services in the Church of England. However, the Geneva Bible remained popular, especially among Puritan congregations. Because of its association with the Puritan regime of the Commonwealth period (1649-60), the Geneva translation fell into disfavor after the restoration of the English monarchy. Thus the King James Version came to be the sole Bible issued for use in England and the English colonies. Even today, it remains the most widely-published book in the English language.

Selected resources at L. Tom Perry Special Collections

The Coverdale Bible, 1535 (facsimile, 1975).
Facsimile from a copy held by the British Library, with an introductory essay by S. L. Greenslade.

Call number: Rare Book Collection Quarto BS 145.5 .H64 1975

Great Bible (London: Edward Whitchurch, 1549).

The Great Bible went through six different revisions between 1539 and 1541. This edition contains illustrated woodcut initials, and an index to the New Testament.

Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 220.51 G798 1549

Geneva Bible bound with The whole book of Psalmes collected into English meetre (London: Deputies of Christopher Barker, 1594).

The Geneva Bible is often called the “Breeches Bible” after the translators’ rendering of the word “breeches” for “aprons” in Genesis 3:7. Features like numbered verses, a concordance, and marginal notes facilitated reading and comprehension of the text. This edition of the Geneva Bible was owned by members of the Harrison family, who have signed the book throughout. It is bound with a 1594 edition of Thomas Sternhold’s rendering of the Psalms into English verse.

Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 220.51 G286 1594

Bishop’s Bible (London: Richard Jugge, 1572).

BYU’s earliest copy of the Bishop’s Bible, this fragment is comprised of the New Testament only. This specific edition is known as the “Leda” Bible because of the picture of Leda and the Swan in the initial letter of the epistle to the Hebrews.

Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 220.51 B471 1572.

The Booke of Common prayer and administration of the sacraments (London: Robert Barker, 1610)

BYU’s oldest copy of the Book of Common Prayer is bound with a 1610 edition of the Geneva Bible. It is lacking the first few leaves.

Call number: Vault Collection 220.51 G286 1610

Authorized (King James) Bible (London: Robert Barker, 1611).

Second issue of the first edition.

Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 220.53 B47 1611

Selected online resources

Coverdale Bible (Cologne, 1535) from Early English Books Online (accessible through BYU)
Black-and-white copy digitized from a microfilm of the original in the British Library.

Authorized (King James) Bible (London: Robert Barker, 1611) from the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image, University of Pennsylvania Library