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(Originally Titled "The Learned Men": The Text Here Used Is That Of "The Learned Men")
Chapter 5: The Oxford Groups
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The Oxford Groups 

At Oxford the Hebrew group, which worked on the Major and the Minor Prophets and on Lamentations, was headed by Dr. John Harding, who had just risen to be regius professor of Hebrew. With him were John Rainolds, Thomas Holland, Richard Kilby, Miles Smith, Richard Brett, William Thorne, and Daniel Fairclough. The group had frequent meetings in Rainolds’ quarters at Corpus Christi College.

            Americans often find it difficult to understand the college system of Oxford and Cambridge universities. In the time of King James, and for long before, each college had its own distinct philosophy and was not merely a place for students to live but a unit in which each one with his special leanings might feel fairly at ease. Colleges differed in way of life as well as thought. A head such as Rainolds at Corpus Christi might set the tone, but perhaps even more he expressed traditions long present, or developing trends.

            How the translators may have differed because of their college ties is beyond present seeking, but what of Oxford itself? Not long before, the university had nurtured Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Walter Raleigh, and such notable Elizabethan writers as John Lyly, Sir Henry Wotton, Francis Beaumont, and John Donne. George Chapman worked at Oxford on his Homer. At Christ Church College, since 1599, young Robert Burton had been writing his massive, magic Anatomy of Melancholy. How much did Oxford’s literary air inspire the translators?

            One who may have been so inspired was Dr. Thomas Holland, who was at once urbane and hidebound, a thorough Calvinist, yet a prodigy in literature. Born in Shropshire about 1538, Holland was one of the older translators. He traveled abroad but took his degree at Exeter College, of which he became master in 1592. Although he often refused to act in accord with forms and rules, he opposed any novel doctrines or ways of worship. In public he maintained—in contrast with the views of Dr. Hadrian Saravia and of Bishop Bancroft—that bishops were no distinct order from presbyters (elders or clergy of a second rank) and not at all superior to them. But the bishops let him alone, as just Dr. Holland and harmless—a renowned old codger whom all Oxford loved.

            Of Holland it was said that he was “so familiarly acquainted with the fathers as if himself had been one of them, and so versed in the schoolmen as if he were the seraphic doctor,” and “so celebrated for his preaching, reading, disputing, moderating, and all other excellent qualifications that all who knew him commended him, and all who heard of him admired him.” Even while he labored on the Bible he gave much time to fervent prayers and meditations, with an ever-growing ardor for heaven. His farewell to his fellows, when he went on any long journey, was – in Latin – “I commend you to the love of God, and to the hatred of popery and superstition.”

            Rainolds the Puritan, whom we already know as the father of the new Bible, would have had little use for Lyly or Beaumont or any Oxford dramatist. We have seen how he repudiated his own youthful play acting. Another serious scholar with his mind on sermons was Richard Kilby, who also sought to escape the errors of his past. Kilby was born of humble parents at Ratcliffe on the Wreake, in Leicestershire. He went to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he became a fellow, then rector in 1590, and a doctor of divinity in 1596. He repaired the library there, making new shelving, and gave it many of his own books. In 1601 he was a prebend of Westminster Abbey.

            In his sermon on “The Burden of a Loaden Conscience,” Kilby implied that he had liked to sin, and had the common pride at having been a sinner, like a modern reformed drunkard. Speaking of what he called his “reprobate heart, which being utterly hardened in sin, and void of repentance, causeth me to heap wrath upon wrath and vengeance upon vengeance to the increasing of mine over-lasting torments in hell fire,” he pleaded, “all manner of people, young and old, take heed by me. Have no more Gods but one.”

            For, he continued, “Consider well what He hath done for you. He made you at the first like unto Himself, in wisdom and holiness, and when you were by sin made like the devil, and must therefore have been condemned to hell torments, God sent His only son who taking unto him a body and soul, was a man and suffered great wrong and shameful death, to secure your pardon, and to buy you out of the devil’s bondage, that ye might be renewed to the likeness of God ... to the end ye might be fit to keep company with all saints in the joys of heaven.” Today Kilby would be preaching a revivalist gospel.

            In the same sermon he quoted his own bedtime prayer, in which he abased himself and at the same time seemed confident that he would be all right: “O most mighty and most gracious Lord God, I, wretched man, the worst of the world, do cry Thy mercy for all my sins, which this day or at any time have come out of my heart, by way of word, deed or thought. I heartily thank Thee for all the blessings which Thou has graciously and plentifully given me. . . .” He ended with a blanket petition: “Be merciful . . . unto all those for whom I ought to pray.”

            Kilby also left us some verses, which you will find in no volume of great Elizabethan poems: 

With truth, repentance and right faith

Mine heart and soul fulfil,

That I may hate all wickedness,

And cleave fast to Thy will.

Yet there is some ground for thinking that Kilby was among the more precise translators, a stickler for the right word, the right phrase. His plain, direct prose style may have served those Old Testament prophets who in English needed something of his simple glow. We may think of him as well-equipped to render the dirges in the Lamentations, with their occasional words to lift us out of despair. “It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord. . . . Thou drewest near in the day that I called upon Thee; Thou saidst. Fear not.”

            Miles Smith of this Oxford group was perhaps the most useful of all the learned men. In the end he went over the whole Bible as an editor, taking the greatest pains from first to last. He wrote the preface once printed in all King James Bibles, which deserves more reading today and ought to be bound into current editions. Yet Smith “was never heard to speak of the work with any attribution to himself more than the rest,” and he wrote of his fellow translators, “There were many chosen that were greater in other men’s eyes than in their own and that sought the truth rather than their own praise.”

            Like John Rainolds, Smith was a Calvinist who conformed enough to meet the Church of England halfway. We could hardly call him a Puritan. He made strong objection to sycophancy, but wrote in favor of churchmen’s acceptance of their lawful fees. After his own ascent to a high place, he remained humble, and broke off a most serious discourse to see a poor minister who wished to speak with him, saying, “But he must not wait, lest we should seem to take state upon us.”

            Because he was the final critic who looked for flaws and smoothed out the whole translation, there is perhaps more of Dr. Miles Smith in the King James version than of any other man. Some critics said that his own style was heavy, involved, rough. Yet some of his writing showed a succinct grace, and clearly he had a good editor’s sense of united effort when he wrote, in comment on Ephesians 5:18, “As in the play of tossing the ball, it is not enough for one of the players to be cunning in throwing of it, but the other players also must take it . . . handsomely, firmly, or else the ball will go down.” Smith took “handsomely and firmly” what the others wrote; for that at least his literary skill sufficed. As one said of him, “He ... set forth the new and exact translation. . . . He delivered the Scriptures ... to Englishmen in English.”

            At the head of the Greek group in Oxford was Thomas Ravis, Dean of Christ Church. His colleagues were Richard Edes, Dean of Worcester; Sir Henry Savile; John Perin; Ralph Ravens; John Harmer; Giles Thomson; and George Abbot, Dean of Winchester. Their portion was the Four Gospels, the Acts, and the Apocalypse.

            Of all the learned men only George Abbot reached the summit of an English churchman’s desires on earth. He was also the only one of the translators who ever killed a man.

            Thomas Ravis was haughty and harsh; at the Hampton Court meeting he spoke at some length against the Puritans. Born in Old Maiden, Surrey, about 1560, he went to the Westminster school. In 1575, sponsored by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, he applied to Christ Church, Oxford, a college founded by Cardinal Wolsey and famous for its Gothic hall. There the dean and chapter declined to admit young Ravis for lack of room, and only a strong letter from Burghley got him in. Twenty years later he became a doctor of divinity, and in 1596 dean of the college. He was the first from the Westminster school to become a dean, and “always continued both by his counsel and countenance a most especial encourager of the studies of all deserving scholars belonging to that foundation.”

            Meanwhile Ravis had preached in or near Oxford “with great liking.” Rector at Merstham, in Surrey, and of All Hallows Barking, he was in 1593 a prebend of Westminster. Thus he was of the inner circles among churchmen, among the fastest to rise in the Church, and a sharp foil to the Puritan Rainolds of the Hebrew group. As chaplain to Archbishop Whitgift, he had dealt sharply with the Puritan leader Cartwright.

            While Dean of Christ Church, Ravis had administrative troubles when he compelled the members of the college to forego their “allowance of commons,” that is, the customary meals at the college tables, in exchange for two shillings a week. Some who opposed the change he expelled, others he sent before the council, and others he put in prison. “A grave and good man,” he was able at getting work done and considered a model for lesser folk to revere, but clearly not a man without choler. In retrospect we may think him an odd choice for chairman of the group to work on the writing that contains the heart of Christian teaching.

            The most handsome of the translators was tall Sir Henry Savile, who had a fair, clear, rosy complexion as fine as any lady’s. His portrait shows more round flesh than accords with our notion of a handsome man. He was born in 1549 at Over Bradley near Halifax, Yorkshire, a younger son without a square foot of land. After his studies at Brasenose College, Oxford, he traveled in 1578 through Europe, where he gained a general acquaintance with the learned men and through them obtained a number of rare Greek manuscripts. For a time he was tutor to Queen Elizabeth in Greek and mathematics. She liked him very much.

            Then he was Dean of Carlisle and Provost of Eton. The most learned Englishman in profane literature of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, Savile was thought by some to be “too much inflated with his learning and riches.” As Warden of Merton College he was a severe governor, oppressed his young scholars grievously, and was duly hated by them. In a different sphere, he was skillful with gardens and cherished an orchard and a nursery of young plants.

            Oddly, in view of his literary appreciation, Savile could not abide wits. When a young scholar was recommended to him as a good wit, he exclaimed, “Out upon him; I’ll have nothing to do with him; give me a plodding student. If I would look for wits, I would go to Newgate; there be the wits.” If he preferred plodding to wit, he was wise in his own eyes and wholly correct in church doctrines. Like Saravia a friend of the serious Hooker, he translated the history of Cornelius Tacitus, gave learned lectures on Euclid, and edited the works of St. Chrysostom. About the latter work there was to be a rather unseemly row between two other Bible translators.

On September 21, 1604, Savile was knighted by King James at an Eton College banquet. Under James knighthood was no great honor; he awarded honors in large numbers, charging high fees in a sort of royal racket. A rarer gift came from Savile himself; he presented an early edition of the Gospels in Russian to the new Oxford library named for Sir Thomas Bodley. Also he founded two professorships, in mathematics and astronomy.

            About Giles Thomson, Dean of Windsor, little is known beyond the fact that he was a fellow student of Lancelot Andrewes at the Merchant Tailors’ school. Andrewes had a wide knowledge of the scholars throughout England and good judgment in weighing their talents.

            Passing over for the present those of this Oxford New Testament group about whom we know little, we come to George Abbot, the translator who in after years killed a man. He was born October 29, 1562, at Guildford, Surrey, some twenty miles from London, a son of Maurice Abbot, a clothier, and his wife Alice March. Both were staunch Protestants, good people, perhaps humdrum, but with longings for something grander.

            When Alice March was pregnant in 1562, she had a portent of what was to come. She dreamed that if she could catch and eat a jack or pike, her child would prove to be a son, not a daughter, and would rise to the heights. Crafty as she drew water from the river hard by, she entrapped a young pike in her pitcher. By promptly cooking and eating the fish she fulfilled her dream; God must have given the pike to her. The birth of the boy was a holy event, a marvel to the good gossips of the town. Persons hearing of Alice’s success, that she had improved the omen, offered to sponsor the boy and aided in his schooling. At sixteen George entered Balliol College, Oxford.

            In 1597 he was a doctor of divinity and Master of University College. Many attended his sermons at St. Mary’s, Oxford. Soon he was vice-chancellor of the university and Dean of Winchester. A man of morose manners and a sour aspect, he was prosy, pious, devout, a hard worker, always ready to assert firmly what he believed, but narrow of mind and full of rancor, in marked contrast to Lancelot Andrewes, who was his friend. Seeking to win the Puritans by sometimes preaching Calvinistic or Augustinian doctrines, he yet maintained the fixed order of the Church and was dogged in upholding the rule of the bishops.

            Abbot published in 1599 A Brief Description of the Whole World. In this work he wrote: “In very many parts of these northern countries of America there is very fit and opportune fishing some pretty way within the sea. ... A huge space of earth hath not hitherto by any Christian to any purpose been discovered, but by those near the sea coast it may be gathered that they all which do there inhabit are men rude and uncivil, without the knowledge of God. Yet on the northwest part of America some of our English men going through the straits of Magellan and passing to the north by Hispana Nova have touched on a country where they have found good entertainment, and the King thereof yielded himself to the subjection of the Queen of England, whereupon they termed it Nova Albion. , . . They are marvellously addicted to witchcraft and adoration of devils, from which they could not be persuaded to abstain even in the very presence of our countrymen.”

            In 1599 there had been a flurry about witchcraft, more in Scotland than in England. King James had published his book, Demonology, in 1597, the year in which he stopped the worst of the Scottish witch hunts, which had been rampant since 1590. The clamor about witchcraft had already lessened in England. Until comparatively modern times witchcraft had been rife in all ages and in all places; the Old Testament, as we know, has many references to it. Abbot’s mention of witchcraft in America indicates that, like most people, he believed in its existence and was against it. What seems to have stirred him about it as practiced by savages in America was that they had dared to go ahead with it in the presence of enlightened Englishmen.

            There is nothing to be found in Abbot’s book more lively than the passage quoted. What he wrote was secondhand, and his style was dull, though it sufficed for what he had to say. One more sentence has contemporary interest: “The manner of government which of late years hath been used in Russia is very barbarous and little less than tyrannous.”

            At University College in 1600 he gave “An Exposition upon the Prophet Jonah,” one of “those lectures which with great solemnity are kept both winter and summer on the Thursday mornings early, where sometimes before daylight the praises of God are sounded out in the great congregation.” In this he said: “They rowed to bring the ship back unto the land. The word which is used here ... in the Hebrew doth signify they did dig, either because men do thrust into water with oars as in digging they do with other instruments on the land ... or because as men in digging do turn this way and that way and stir and move the ground, so they stirred up their wits and beat their brains and thoughts to free him (Jonah) from the danger. . . . God hath so coupled all creatures to mankind, with a chain of strong dependence, that the being of them is much suitable to the flourishing or fading of the other.”

            Did the Oxford groups, in faith and devotion, dig and stir to free the Bible from obscurity? It may be hard for us to discern in gruff Ravis, stern Savile, and dull Abbot talents enough to convey to us all that we know of the loving-kindness of Christ.

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