“It was a tough call. . . . The church was packed . . . this voice was not mine, out there was something both me and not me.” Melvyn Bragg recalls being dwarfed by the “eagle-masted lectern” in St. Mary’s, Wigton, some sixty-five years ago, when, as the youngest choirboy, he was required to read from the King James Bible.
The Bible, and specifically the King James Bible, the abiding centre of that Anglican up-bringing in Wigton, shaped the man he became and it “has driven the making of the world over the last four hundred years”.
The indomitable William Tyndale – “a quiet fervent scholar, whose voice . . . rattled the gilded cage of Henry VIII” - translated much of the Bible into English. He let “fresh air” into “the tyrannical suppression” imposed by the Latin of the Catholic Church. The martyred Tyndale made “the founding and empowering sacrifice”. He gave the Bible to the people and it is his language, the words, the phrases and the rhythms, which formed the bedrock of the Bible of 1611.
That Bible, compiled by fifty-four scholars, at the behest of a king seeking to unify and consolidate church and state – “the most pivotal book ever written” - has, according to Bragg’s argument, been the driving force behind the growth of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the development of science and education, as well as the fountain-head of language on which all our greatest writers, British and American, have drawn.
It is a tough call not only to encapsulate the history of the modern world but also to demonstrate how it was the particular qualities of the King James Bible that were essential and instrumental in the growth of those central values of freedom, democracy and knowledge that have characterized our history. The role of the Bible cannot be teased out from the social, intellectual and spiritual complexities of change and growth.
Bragg can only make his case, energetically and enthusiastically, by illustration. William Wilberforce, “a roué of twenty-five”, tutored by the “remarkable” Isaac Milner, later Dean of Carlisle, “emerged as a devout, rigorous student of the Bible, a disciplined Christian”. In one of Parliament’s greatest speeches, he turned the direction of history towards the abolition of the slave trade. In America, the slaves themselves adopted the deeply felt spirit of the Bible when they sang, “Go down Moses, Let my people go”. The words of the Bible provided sustenance and support not only to the abolitionists in the North, but to Jefferson Davis and the secessionists in the South.
Melvyn Bragg glories in the triumph of Bible-inspired values, but merely acknowledges the ways in which the contradictions and ambiguities in this most powerful of books have also served the forces of tyranny and repression. The Bible may have inspired the Christian Socialism of F D Maurice and Octavia Hill, but it has also provided the rallying cry for many reactionaries. However, he does show how, though the Bible has been used “to reduce the vast majority of women to little more than vassals, objects, marginal creatures”, women “have used the same Bible to reinforce the liberated, complex, rich history and future of women”.
The bold, polemical argument he makes with the fervour of a lifelong advocate is stimulating and challenging, and, in his belligerent side-swipe at atheists like Richard Dawkins, compelling.
However, as a man who finds, “The whole idea – God, Genesis, Christ, Resurrection - . . . a moving metaphor, a poetic way of attempting to understand what may be for ever incomprehensible”, he finds that, like Isaac Newton and the rest of us, he is “a boy merely collecting pebbles on the shore, ‘whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me’.”
The story of the King James Bible is the story of everybody, of the people and community of Wigton which Lord Bragg has displayed in the three windows he has placed in the church where he once stood as a nervous choirboy. Its rich language and profound meanings resonate throughout our history.