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BISHOP OF EXETER.
MILES COVERDALE was a native of Yorkshire, where he was born in 1487.
In early life he was a zealous papist, and became an Augustine monk. He entered into orders in 1514, but continued in the monastery of the Augustines at Cambridge, of which Dr. Barnes, afterwards martyr, was prior. About 1526, the doctrines of the reformation began to influence many at Cambridge. Serious persons resorted together for conference sake, and attended the sermons of such preachers as were inclined to the protestant faith. Their meetings for edification were chiefly at a house called the White Horse, which was consequently nicknamed Germany by their enemies, in allusion to the German Reformation. This house was convenient for the private access of students from several of the colleges.
Coverdale and his superior, Dr. Barnes, were amongst the earliest who threw off the errors of popery. From the recantation of Thomas Topley, a friar at Stoke Clare, in Suffolk, we find Coverdale at Bumstead in Essex in 1528, where he declared openly against the mass, the worship of images, and private confession. He maintained that contrition for sin, between God and a man’s own conscience, was enough, without confession to a priest.
This was in conversation. Topley also states, that by Coverdale’s preaching, his mind was drawn from the Romish doctrine of the sacrament.
He also had heard Coverdale preach against images. Fox, the curate of Bumstead, seems to have been intimate with Coverdale, and to have held similar views.
Coverdale appears very soon to have devoted himself to the important work of translating the scriptures into the English language. He was on the Continent in 1530, where he had gone to escape the persecution then commenced. While there he assisted Tindal in his translation of the Pentateuch after the first copy had been lost. He continued to take part in the biblical labors of that reformer, and when Tindal had fallen a victim to the malice of his enemies, Coverdale pursued these studies, till 1535, when the first complete translation of the English bible appeared. It seems to have been printed at Zurich. By residing on the Continent, he was enabled to carry it through the press without interruption. He also had the assistance of the Lutheran divines, many of whom were well skilled in Hebrew, as well as the German translation. These helps he acknowledges in his preface, which is given in the following pages. Coverdale’s version was dedicated to Henry VIII, and allowed by royal authority; the interest Cranmer took in these labors has been noticed in his life.
Fulk relates from Coverdale’s own statement, that Henry VIII gave this translation to some of the bishops to peruse, who alleged there were faults therein, but admitted that no heresies were maintained thereby. “If there be no heresies,” said the king, “let it go abroad among the people.”
In 1538, Coverdale was employed in France in superintending another edition of the English scriptures, then printing at Paris; on account of the skill of the workmen, and the superiority of their materials. The attention of the papists, however, was attracted to the work, and the “lieutenant criminel” was ordered to seize the edition, consisting of 2500 copies. The greater part were burned, some copies, however, escaped which had been sold to a haberdasher. The types and workmen were then removed to London, and in 1539, Cranmer’s, or “the great bible,” appeared with the advantage of farther corrections from Coverdale, who was much assisted in these labors by the protection of Cromwell. The opposition of the prelates to the English translation of the bible has been noticed in the life of Cranmer, and elsewhere.
Coverdale maintained his ground during the chequered proceedings of the latter, years of Henry VIII and hesitated not to defend the memory of his former prior and friend, Dr. Barnes. He was almoner to queen Catherine Parr, and assisted in the translation of the paraphrase of Erasmus, carried forward under her influence, he wrote a preface to the epistle to the Romans. He preached at the funeral of this pious queen in 1548, when he warned the people that the offerings then made, were for the benefit of the poor and the honor of the clergyman, “not any thing to profit the dead.”
He was also chaplain to king Edward VI.
In August, 1551, Coverdale was nominated to the see of Exeter, in the place of Veysey, a decided romanist; to this he was presented, on account of his knowledge of the scriptures, and his unblemished character. He had previously attended the king’s commissioners, who were sent to quiet the disturbances in the west of England, and preached the public thanksgiving sermon on that occasion. He was then appointed coadjutor to the bishop, an office not uncommon in those days. At the intercession of Cranmer, the payment of first fruits was remitted on account of his poverty. Veysey also had much injured the revenues of the see.
Coverdale exerted himself to promote the reformed religion in his diocese.
His conduct was most exemplary. Like a true primitive bishop, he was a constant preacher, and ranch given to hospitality. He was sober and temperate in all things, holy and blameless, friendly to good men, liberal to the poor, courteous to all, void of pride, clothed with humility, abhorring covetousness and every vice. His house was like a little church, in which was exercised all virtue and godliness. He suffered no one to abide under his roof, who could not give some satisfactory account of his faith and hope, and whose life did not correspond with his profession. He preached constantly on Sundays, and lectured during the week in the churches of Exeter, but notwithstanding his charity, humility, and hospitality, the papists exerted themselves to oppose his labors.
Immediately after queen Mary came to the throne, Coverdale was deprived and imprisoned. He was comfined with the other leading reformers, and signed with them the confession of faith. During his imprisonment, he wrote An Exhortation to the Cross, which is noticed by Strype. He therein says, “Pray for us, for, God willing, we will not leave you; we will go before you. You shall see in us that we preached no lies, nor tales of tubs, but even the true word of God, for which we, by God’s grace, and help of your prayers, will willingly and joyfully give our blood to be shed for confirmation of the same.”
Hoist up the sails, lift up your hearts and hands unto God in prayer; and keep your anchor of faith to cast in time on the rock of God’s word, and on his mercy in Christ, and I warrant you.” He also wrote a confutation of a sermon preached at Paul’s Cross by Dr. Weston, in which that bigoted romanist had called the people to pray for souls departed, “who were neither in heaven nor hell, but in a place not yet sufficiently purged to come to heaven, in order that they might be relieved by the devout prayers of the congregation.”
It was intended that he should stiffer martyrdom, but he had become related by marriage to the chaplain of the king of Denmark, who interfered in his behalf. His release being procured with some difficulty, not till twelve months after the first application, and on condition of his leaving the kingdom, F150 Coverdale went to Denmark, where the king wished him to remain, but this he declined, being unable to preach in that language. He then proceeded to Geneva, where he occupied himself partly in preaching and partly as a teacher. But labors connected with the English scriptures again claimed his attention, with the assistance of several fellow exiles he set forth the English Bible, usually called the Geneva Bible, with brief explanatory notes. His coadjutors in this work are said to have been Gilby, Goodman, Whittingham, Cole, and Sampson, to whom some add Knox, Bodleigh, and Pullain. This version is in some respects superior to our present translation; it passed through above thirty editions during the reign of queen Elizabeth, mostly set forth by the royal printers. It was sanctioned by archbishop Parker and bishop Grindal. Some of the notes offended James I who in the conference at Hampton Court, in the early part of his reign, said, that “he had never yet seen a bible well translated in English, though he thought the Geneva the worst, and therefore wished that some special pains should be taken for one uniform translation.” He added,” that there should be no marginal notes, having found in those annexed to the Geneva translation, some very partial, untrue, seditious, and savoring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits.” It is hardly necessary to say that such blame from such a character, may be considered as a testimony in favor of the version. This opinion of the Geneva Bible, made king James more zealous in promoting our present authorized translation. The Geneva Bible, however, continued to be very generally used in families during a great part of the seventeenth century. The first edition of the new testament printed in 1557, was the earliest English translation in which the verses were numbered.
The following extract from the address to the christian reader, prefixed to this version, shows the spirit in which this important work was executed, and the attention bestowed upon it. “Besides the manifold and continual benefits which almighty God bestoweth upon us, both corporeal and spiritual, we are especially bound, dear brethren, to give him thanks without ceasing, for his great grace and unspeakable mercies, in that it hath pleased him to call us into this marvellous light of his gospel, and mercifully to regard us after so horrible backsliding and falling’ away from Christ to Antichrist, from light to darkness, from the living God to dumb and dead idols, and that after so cruel murder of God’s saints, as also hath been among us, we are not altogether cast off, as were the Israelites, and many others for the like, or not so manifest wickedness, but received again to grace, with most evident signs and tokens of God’s especial love and favor. To the intent, therefore, that we may not be unmindful of these great mercies, but seek by all means, according to our duty, to be thankful for the same, it behooveth us so to walk in his fear and love, that all the days of this life we may procure the glory of his holy name. “Now, forasmuch as this is chiefly to be attained by the knowledge and practicing of the word of God, which is the light to our paths, the key of the kingdom of heaven, our comfort in affliction, our shield and sword against Satan, the school of all wisdom, the glass wherein we behold God’s face, the testimony of his favor, and the only food and nourishment of our souls, we thought that we could bestow our labor and study in nothing which could be more acceptable to God, and comfortable to his church, than in translating the holy scriptures into our native tongue. Which albeit divers heretofore have endeavored to achieve, vet considering the infancy of those tittles, and imperfect knowledge of the tongues, in respect of this ripe age and clear light which God hath now revealed, the translations required greatly to be perused and reformed. Not that we vindicate anything to ourselves above the least of our brethren, for God knoweth with what fear and trembling we have been for the space of two years and more, day and night, occupied therein, but being earnestly desired, and by divers, whose learning and godliness we reverence, exhorted, and also encouraged by the ready wills of such, whose hearts God likewise touched, not to spare any charges for the furtherance of such a benefit and favor of God towards his church, though the time was then most dangerous, and the persecution sharp and furious, we submitted ourselves at length to their godly judgments.
And seeing the great opportunity and occasions which God presented unto us in his church, by reason of so many godly and learned men, and such diversities of translations in divers tongues, we undertook this great and wonderful work, with all reverence, as in the presence of God, as enreating the word of God whereunto we think ourselves insufficient, which now, God, according to his divine providence and mercy, hath directed to a most prosperous end. And this we may with good conscience protest, that we have in every point and word, according to the measure of that knowledge which it pleased almighty God to give us, faithfully rendered the text, and in all hard places most sincerely expounded the same. For God is our witness, that we hare by all means endeavored to set forth the purity of the word, and right sense of the Holy Ghost, for the edifying of the brethren in faith and charity.”
After particularly stating their anxiety to render this work as nearly as possible conformable to the originals, they proceed, “Therefore, as brethren that are partakers of the same hope and salvation with us, we beseech you that this rich pearl and inestimable treasure may not be offered in vain, but as sent from God to the people of God, for the increase of his kingdom, the comfort of his church, and discharge of our consciences, whom it hath pleased him to raise up for this purpose, so you would willingly receive the word of God, earnestly study it, and in all your life practice it, that ye may now appear indeed to be the people of God, not walking any more according to this world, but in the fruits of the Spirit, that God in us may be fully glorified, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth for ever. Amen.”
On the accession of queen Elizabeth, Coverdale returned from the Continent. Experience had tended to make him anxious for a more thorough reformation from popery, than was agreeable to many leading characters in church and state at that period. He, therefore, with Fox, Jewell, and others, regretted much the futile efforts made to conciliate the papists, and was in consequence ranked among the moderate nonconformists; thus for some time, preferment was not offered to him.
Coverdale’s advanced age also unfitted him for resuming episcopal duties, but he preached repeatedly at Paul’s Cross. Grindal, being much attached to him, was uneasy at this neglect of one, who, as he expressed it, “was in Christ before them all,” and now was left without support. The bishopric of Landaft appears to have been offered to Coverdale in consequence of this interference, but his age and infirmities, with the reasons above mentioned, decided him against accepting it. Grindal then presented him to the rectory of St. Magnus, London Bridge, this his poverty prevented him from entering upon till the first fruits were forgiven. He wrote to archbishop Parker in January, 1564, requesting him to favor his suit to the queen for this benefit, urging the destitute condition in which he had been, since his bishopric was violently taken from him. In affecting’ terms he notices that he was not likely, “long to enjoy this benefice, going upon my grave as they say, and not likely to live a year.” Soon after, he wrote to Cecil for his interest, to the same effect, adding, that if now poor old Miles might thus be provided for, he should think “this enough,” to be as good as a feast.
The queen granted Coverdale’s request. He lived till February, 1568, having been “quiet,” as he promised archbishop Parker, though he came not up to the uniformity required. A short time before his death, he resigned the living, probably on the above account, but was allowed to continue officiating, though he refused to wear the surplice. His last hours were happy, and he departed at the age of eighty-one. He was buried in the church of St. Bartholomew, by the Exchange, his remains being attended to the grave by a numerous and sorrowing concourse of citizens.
The writings of Coverdale are principally his versions of the scriptures, and translations of several tracts of Bullinger and other German Reformers, among these “A spiritual and precious Pearl,” by Wormerius, is the most valuable. He also wrote a few English tracts, but the Preface to his translation of the bible, some extracts from his defense of Dr. Barnes, and his preface to the invaluable collection of the Letters of the Martyrs, published by him, exhibit him as a writer at different periods of his life, and appear most suitable for the present collection of the writings of the British Reformers, which would tie very imperfect without some notice of one who had so materially benefited the church of Christ in England during four successive reigns.