A Note to my Inquiring Friends
I have been asked very often, both verbally and by letters from all parts of the world, to inform my friends what is, or was, my object in making so entirely new a translation as I have done of the bible.
When questioned, He "Who spoke as no man ever spoke," often answered by relating an anecdote, which we call a "Parable"; and perhaps my best plan will be to follow His example by relating the following incident which actually occurred.
Some years ago I was sitting at my desk with a Hebrew Bible before me and my manuscript book by my side, studying the Prophet Isaiah, and noting down a rough draft for a translation, when a very dear and familiar friend was shown in, who, glancing over my shoulder and seeing what I was doing, exclaimed--
"What on earth are you doing?"
"Making part of my translation of the Bible into Modern English, which I decided upon as the great object of my life long ago, and which I have been preparing for a considerable time past," I responded.
"What a fool you are to waste your time on such a thing!" cried my vehement friend. "Nobody cares a halfpenny for the Bible nowadays, so it will only involve you in stupendous labour, and bring no profit. Why have you not turned your talents to Political Agitation? You have the intellect of twenty men and the courage of a dozen rolled into one, and besides are a born orator, so that if you had, you might have become Prime Minister of England, or anything you chose in public life. But as for the Bible! in our day, as I said at first, nobody cares a halfpenny for the Bible; so the work you are at can gain you neither fame, cash, nor a position, but cost you money and labour as its only result. Give it up!"
I was startled, for I knew the speaker to be a professedly religious person.
"You astonish me," I answered, dropping my pen. "You profess to be a Christian, so I never expected such an expression of opinion from you although I have had the same from others. Have you given up your faith?"
"Oh, no! I was not speaking of my own position regarding the Scriptures, but of that of our whole literary and educated classes, as well as the larger part of the masses, and I wish you to have a career where you can use your talents and acquirements to secure a place in the world. You'll never gain one by wasting your time on the Bible; our age has given it the go-by and flung it aside."
"I know it," I replied. "I have seen the facts you state, perhaps more clearly than yourself; and they are the very reasons why I determined to devote myself to the task, if God gave me opportunity and time, as the leading object of my life, all other business being only looked upon by me as a means to it. Do you not remember," I in my turn asked my friend, "when at College what your teacher, Professor Karl Behr, of Munich, in his lectures on the Philosophy of History, told you and his other students? 'That the best-established doctrine of Historical Philosophy was, that all the power, prosperity, and mental energy of a Race or Nation sprang from and lived by its Religion; that when its Religion ceased to be its Faith--that is, its energizing principle--the intellect, power, vigour, and prosperity of that Race or Nation died away in proportion, and ultimately perished, both mentally and physically.' And how he illustrated his doctrine by a wide survey and a series of illustrations from the history of all nations, Asiatic, African, and European, both Ancient and Modern, dwelling especially upon the fact that this Law of National Life did not depend upon any particular Religion, but was manifested by them all, Pagan, Jewish, Mohammedan, and Christian? Do you not also remember that the learned Professor added, he did not urge a regard to that Law of History for any ecclesiastical purpose, for he himself was not personally, he said, a professed disciple of any Christian Church? And therefore he emphasized it by a review of the Arabian Civilization under the Kaliphat?"
"Yes!" answered my friend, "I fully remember his teaching, and my own study of History confirms his doctrine; but I know the People and Government of our Empire and Race have flung to the winds the belief that the Christian Religion is of any value, or worth the spending a shilling--nay, a halfpenny--upon, and you cannot alter that decision as embodied in the Education Act, and the withdrawal of Grants for Theological Professorships in our Universities, and the actual abandonment of religious teaching in the great schools, such as Eton, Rugby, Harrow, and London, where all sciences except it are taught, or may be taught, and are paid for by Public Grants or Endowments, whilst nothing is allowed for instruction in the Nominally National Faith. The Nation has decided to drop its former Faith. Why wreck your prospects in life by fighting a hopeless battle in its defense? Turn to Political Agitation! and, believe me, with your gift of eloquence and your mental power and acquirements, you can earn fame and money, but by your Bible work nothing."
"I am flattered by your high opinion of my talents," I replied, "but the very reasons you urge against my devotion to Biblical exposition are those which induced me to make it the great object of my life. I know the accuracy of Professor Behr's teaching, and that the position the British race has won in the world is founded upon the Protestant Religion, which takes as its origin the Bible, and therefore I am convinced that with the decay of Faith in the Scriptures our National vigour and prosperity, as a Race, will waste away; not only in the British Isles, but, as with all Races, in every State or Colony sprung from them, no matter upon what part of the Earth's surface they are situated. Consequently, I will try at least to avert, or retard, so great a catastrophe and calamity to the whole of mankind. I have decided, God helping me, to execute the work you see I am doing."
"How can your work do anything to avert the catastrophe?" my friend interrupted.
"My conviction is," I answered, "that the real origin of the cessation of a belief in any Revelation of Religion from God to Man has not sprung in the National Mind from any deliberate purpose of doubt, sin, or depravity, but from the simple fact that the absolutely organic change which has been evolved in the grammar, vocabulary, structure, inflections, and actual meaning of the words of our language, since the time when old Tyndale and Coverdale, in the days of Henry the Seventh and Eighth, by their translation fixed the diction and style to which the authorized version of the English Bible has been pinned, have made that version unintelligible as a medium of thought. It has never been altered to adapt it to the evolution of our Mother Tongue. It has consequently become especially unintelligible to our educated classes, and also to the greater number of the masses, and is daily becoming more so. In fact, only the most illiterate portion of our villagers, in the remote mining or sheep-farming districts in the North of England, can mentally follow its meaning; for they still in their daily life speak a similar dialect, but are fast ceasing to do so under the influence of our State Education. That is my conviction, impressed upon me by my familiar intercourse during a busy life with every class of my countrymen, from the most highly-born and cultured scholars to the most illiterate and uncultured colliers, navvies, and bargemen.
"But I am as deeply convinced, that if the Sacred Scriptures are again made clearly intelligible to the whole of our Race, by being translated absolutely afresh from the Hebrew and Greek, into the same style and diction as all our current literature, our people will again see their Divine Teachings with the delight and devoted faith their forefathers did in the days of the Tudors, and from that faith, and its inspiration, will spring a harvest of Genius like that which ennobled the heroic reign of Elizabeth. As Napolean the Great said to his Cabinet Ministers, when they resisted and ridiculed his proposal to restore a National Religion to France during his Consulate, 'Gentlemen! the first necessity of Man is an Object of Worship, a Religion, and I intend to supply the food for that necessity whatever you say to the contrary.' He did so, and it was followed by such a period of creative life in every field of human endeavor as France had never before seen.
"With God's blessing upon my effort, my friend, to try and procure the same result for my Race as Napolean did for his," I continued; "and also to present to them a clearer light of life, the Library of God contained in the Inspired Scriptures, than Napolean did in his restored Church of France."
"But our people do not now believe in such a thing as Revelation," urged my friend; "so you have no such ground to go upon as Napolean had in the traditions of the French Church."
"Come, friend," I replied, "you are an accomplished linguist, so reflect upon philology a little, and you will find that all mankind, of every race or period, instinctively believe in supernal inspiration, as proved by the fundamental structure of their languages."
"How?" demanded my interlocutor.
"Why in such idioms as these.--
"'Inspired by a Genius for poetry.'
"'An inspiration seized Alexander and pointed a way out of the danger.'
"'Caesar inspired by the Goddess Fortune in whom he trusted.'
"'A thought was breathed into my mind.'
"'The enthusiasm of the occasion' (the Greek meaning being God breathing into me').
"I only use illustrations from secular literature, not from sacred, that you may see my doctrine without bias. Seeing then that every language shows man's instinctive belief in revelation from without, in all action not actually simply animal, I hold that when the supreme and sublime series of inspired Revelations of all the great laws of the physical universe, of human life, society, social and political organization, culture, evolution, progress in mental development, spiritual comprehension, and the research into the laws of creation, add utilization of the products of our earth, all of which their essentials are contained in the Bible, are put into intelligible language again, so as to be understood by our people, they will see and follow them as they did formerly; for disbelief arises from ignorance, and never from clear and perfect knowledge. In this belief," I concluded, "I intend to do my translation of the Bible, and leave the result to God. Probably I shall be ridiculed or abased in the Press and Pulpit for it, and it will cost me money, not earn either it or fame, but neither of them are my object. My object is to try and save the British Race from decay and dissolution by restoring to it the vital element of Faith in Revelation, for unless its Faith is revived our doom is certain."
To this never-forgotten conversation with my friend I add a remark of the late Professor Seely in his profound work, "The Expansion of England," read by me long after the above conversation, to show that I am not alone in my doctrine, or only supported in it by the learned German Professor Karl Behr. Seely then says,--
"I have always held that Religion is the great State-building principle; these Colonists could create a new State because they were already a Church; since the Church, so at least I hold, is the soul of the State; where there is a Church a State grows up in time; but if you find a State which is not also in some sense a Church, you find a State which is not long for this world."1
I have tried above to reply to my correspondents scattered over the world who have asked my objects. I may add that, contrary to my expectation, my version of the Bible, so far as issued, has been favourable received by all classes and countries, from the most accomplished scholars to simple villagers, colliers, factory hands, soldiers, seamen, military and naval officers, and educated men of foreign lands, royal personages, university professors, bishops and divines, and has thus, I hold, justified my contention, that an intelligible Bible means a restoration of Faith.
Having spoken to my correspondents, I may perhaps be allowed to do the same to my critics in the World's Press. Nearly all its reviewing writers have hailed my effort to elucidate the sacred Scriptures in the most friendly spirit. Some, however, have hesitated as to the wisdom of that effort, but without condemning it; and only about half-a-dozen have spoken of my work with contempt or scorn, and of them I think I may safely say the internal evidence of the strictures proves that no one of them had much knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, Chaldee, or Greek.
Their usual objection is put in the form of a few traditional phrases about "our beautiful Old Version," "pure Old Saxon tongue," "the grand language and sweet rhythm of our fathers' Bible; which calls for no change," "our fine Old Version is a classic,--why alter it?" By which these men show their total ignorance of the fact that all our greatest scholars, theologians and Biblical Critics, from Melville to John Selden and Milon, on to Dean Prideaux, Bishop Lowth, and other eminent Hebraeists, down to Dr. S. Parr and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, in our own day, have with an unbroken voice for three centuries been entreating for an amended and more mentally accurate translation of the Holy Scriptures into the mother tongue of the world-wide nations who speak English;--nay, even more than that, as an eminent Continental Philologist wrote me, after reading my version of St. Paul's Epistles, the language of Though of the World!
All these have called for such a translation,--but in vain. No University Professoriate would produce it, and no Individual amongst the petitioners had the courage to do the work themselves. I saw the need also, not only as a student, but from intercourse with all classes of my countrymen, and God inspired me with courage to undertake it, and with inborn perseverance during a period of fifty years to carry it through, by devoting every leisure moment of a busy commercial life to the preparation for, and execution of, that one object.
Another sneer of those few assailants has been that my work "is not a translation, but a mere paraphrase." The remark shows they do not know the difference between one and the other, or a perusal of my rendering of the Hebrew of the two first chapters of Genesis, and my notes thereon, and of the first five chapters of St. Paul to the Romans, would show to them the purely philological basis of my translation. Modern English has not been my object, but merely an instrument to restore a knowledge of revelation again to the minds and souls of the British race.
In concluding my chat with my friends and foes, I beg to return my hearty thanks to the great body of review writers in the public press of the British Empire, and of the Great Imperial Republic of the United States of America; and also to that numerous band of divines and scholars who have welcomed my effort so cordially; and also to the General Public, who, by purchasing the Bible of the Old and New Testaments in the present mother tongue of our Race are in the hands of our People, and open to the world in the same noble and powerful language, a language which I believe,--like those of Hebrew and Greek in the past,--to have been developed for that special purpose by the Creator
Ferrar Fenton, M.R.A.S.