The Bible at the World’s Fair

FFF 12:3 (March 1966)

The Bible at the World’s Fair

Edward F. Armstrong

When the final figures of attendance at the World’s Fair were released, it was a surprise to learn that 27,020,857 people had visited the Vatican Pavilion. This was the largest number of people to visit any pavilion, with one exception.

The question arises, what attracted so many millions to this building? In 1964, the main attractions were the “Pieta” by Michael Angelo, the “Little Shepherd” and other works of art. In 1965 the Vatican Pavilion was loaned Bibles, the principal one being the “Wycliffe”, our first manuscript Bible in English, translated from the Latin version of Jerome in 1380 by John Wycliffe.

Then there was also the “Gutenburg Bible” of forty-two lines. It is interesting to note that this was the first Bible, and probably the first complete book, printed from movable metal type in 1450-1455.

John Gutenberg intended his book to be as handsome in letter, and in ink and format as possible, and great expense and a number of years went into the effort. It was printed at Mainz, Germany, and was also from the Latin version by Jerome.

The writer was at the Vatican Pavilion in August, 1965, to view these Bibles. The people were there three and four deep to get a look at the Holy Books. So, in addition to the works of art, the people wanted to view the display of these wonderful, rare Bibles. And now, a most important thing has happened, the Roman Catholics are permitted to read and own a Bible. There also were at the Fair faithful Evangelicals, displaying rare Bibles and presenting gospel tracts and booklets to the people.

We might consider a short history of the man whom God raised up to give us our first manuscript Bible in the English language. Remember he was a Roman Catholic priest, and that it was one of his Bibles that was displayed at the World’s Fair.

John Wycliffe was born at Yorkshire, England, and entered Queen’s College, Oxford, at 16 years of age. He was made Chancellor of Oxford at 36, and Theological Lecturer at 48.

In the documents which have come down to us, it is interesting to see how earnestly the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ were pressed upon the attention of the hearers. Services of one kind or another were recognized as having something to do with the acceptance of the sinner, and men had confidence in them, instead of depending only on that blood which has been shed for many for the remission of sins.

The following is an excerpt from Wycliffe’s writing (this is of great importance as we preach the gospel today to Roman Catholics):

“Many think that if you give a penny to a pardoner, they shall be forgiven the breaking of all the commandments of God, but I say thee for certain though thou have Priests and Friers to sing for thee, and each day hear many masses, and found Charities, and Colleges, and go on long pilgrimages all thy life, and give all thy goods to pardoners, all this will not bring the soul to Heaven.”

This remarkable man was a devout student of Scripture; it was his constant companion, his absolute standard of appeal, and he showed the most intimate acquaintance with its text.

“The Sacred Scriptures,” he said, “are the property of the people, and one which no one should be allowed to wrest from them. Christ and His apostles converted men by making known the Scriptures in a form familiar to them.”

“God grant us,” runs the prayer in the Old Wycliffe preface, “To ken and kepe well Holie writ, and to suffer joiefulli some paine for it at the Taste.”

What a meaning that prayer must have had when the readers of this Bible were burned with the copies around their necks, or when they were hunted as if they were wild beasts.

John Wycliffe wrote a number of tracts and books; one is called “The Last Age of the Circle,” The manuscript is in Trinity College in Dublin. In this tract, he points out the security God gives to those who believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Well might he be called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” Wycliffe’s Bible was the version that unlocked the treasures of God’s Word to the English nation.

It was a privilege a short time ago to read and hold in my hand a priceless copy of this Bible. It has a remarkable history because it was owned by Margaret Boyer, the loving daughter of Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII. He was the most powerful man in the realm at this time and a Catholic of great renown. He hated the name of Wycliffe “without a cause” (John 15:25), yet his daughter’s Bible in excellent condition has come down to us after almost 600 years.

Is it not inspiring to read in Old English this beautiful text written by hand?:

“For God lued so the world; that he zaf his own bigetun sone; that eche man that bileueth in him perisch not; but have everlastynge liif.”

Let us briefly review Wycliffe’s third and final trial on the charge of heresy. It was held in May, 1378, at London. He had suffered much for the Word of God. He stood before his judges a very sick man, looking older than his 54 years.

History records how purple robes and gowns of satin, monks and abbots, Bishops and Doctors of the Church, assembled for the trial of John Wycliffe, the parish priest of Lutterworth; the great hall was crowded. Eyes were fixed on the pale, stern man who stood before the dais, stood silently facing his judges. He was alone this time (Matt. 26:56), and no doubt thought of his previous trials when the people, the nobles and the King were standing by his side. He had learned since then not to put his trust in Princes. All had forsaken him whom the Church had resolved to crush.

The judges had taken their seats and the accused stood waiting for the charges to be read, when suddenly there was a quick cry of terror, a strange rumbling sound filled the air, the walls of the hall trembled to their base. The city of London had been shaken by an earthquake. All grow pale with superstitious awe; twice before had the arraignment of Wycliffe been strangely interrupted. The elements seemed to be in league with the troubles of the Church. Shall they give up the trial? “No!” thunders the Archbishop rising in his place, “We will not give up this trial! This earthquake but portends the purging of the Kingdom. For as there are in the bowels of the earth noxious vapors which only by a violent earthquake can be purged away, so are there evils brought by such men upon this land which only by a very earthquake can ever be removed; let the trial go forward.”

After three days deliberation, Wycliffe’s teaching was condemned and he was excommunicated. He was allowed to return to his parsonage at Lutterworth, and there, with his old Latin manuscripts, he labored on at the great work of his life, translating the Bible into the “Modir Tonge”. England thus received for the first time in her history a version of the Scriptures in the language of the people.

God took him home before he was able to complete all of the Bible. He died on the last Sunday of 1384, in England. England lost one of her best and greatest sons, one who had ventured his life for the freedom of the Bible.

Sometime after John Wycliffe’s death a petition was presented to the Pope praying him that he order Wycliffe’s body be taken out of consecrated ground and buried in a dunghill. This petition was refused; however, 40 years later, by a decree of the Council of Constance, his bones were dug up and burned, and the ashes flung into the River Swift, from whence they went through rivers and seas, into the ocean. The ashes of Wycliffe are an emblem of his teaching which is now dispersed over all the world. It was the translation of Wycliffe that was displayed at the Catholic Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1965.

In our October number of “Food for the Flock,” Page 157, we read these words: “Sometimes one wonders when he reads the confessions of individuals in this system, how they can remain connected with it at all, with the knowledge they had of the Lord.” Yes, there are many things hard to understand. William Tyndale was a great scholar and God used him to give us in English our first Bible from the Greek and Hebrew languages. Being a Roman Catholic priest, it is wonderful to see how God instructed him and delivered him again and again from the commandments of men. After his arrest and imprisonment he wrote these beautiful words:

“Oh, what a happy thing it is to suffer for righteousness’ sake! If I am afflicted on earth with Christ, I have joy in the hope that I shall be glorified with Him in Heaven. Trials are most wholesome medicine and I will endure them with patience. My God will not forsake me. Oh, Christ, Thy blood saves me, God, as great as He is, is mine with all that He hath.”

In our 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible, Dr. Miles Smith, chief translator, gives a long preface from “The Translators to the Reader.” It is most unfortunate that it is left out of our Bibles today as it would be most helpful to all Christians.

Dr. Smith says: “Whosoever attempeth anything for the public, especially if it pertain to religion, and the opening and the clearing of the Word of God, the same setteth himself upon a stage to be gloured upon by every evil eye. Yes, he casteth himself headlong upon the pikes to begored by every sharp tongue. For he that meddleth with their customs, and though they find no content in that which they have, yet they cannot abide to hear of altering. Zeal, to promote the common good, whether it be by devising anything ourselves, or revising that which hath been laboured by others deserveth certainly respect and esteem, yet findeth cold entertainment in the world. It is welcomed by suspicion instead of love. It is sure to be misconstrued and in danger to be condemned.”

“The Holy Scriptures” (Translators to the Reader): “If we are ignorant, they will instruct us, If out of the way, will bring us home; If out of order, they will transform us, If dull, quicken us, If cold, warm us.”