December 1, 2011

Biblical Marginalia

Title page of the 1731 New Testament, to which
Job Seamans added his own notation: "I began
to go to school the 12th day of July 1762." He
was by then 14 years old. Ordained as a 
Baptist minister in 1772, he accepted a call
to the New London church in 1788, and his
pastorate spanned the next 40 years.
In 1936, New London's public library hosted an exhibit to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bible's legal, English-language publication. The exhibit probably did not also commemorate the 1536 execution of William Tyndale, judged guilty of having published his own earlier, illegal translation. That pocket-sized edition was a hot commodity, and about a third of the 18,000 printed in Antwerp made their way to England. Before his sentenced strangulation, Tyndale's final words were: "Lord, open the king of England's eyes!" In fact, Henry VIII had already sanctioned the production of an English-language Bible, and in 1535 Miles Coverdale produced the work—relying heavily (estimates range from 60 to 80%) on Tyndale's translation.

The Librarian's Report of 1936 says that "besides many old Bibles there were shown copies of the Bible in twelve different languages." The translation of the texts from Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic into vernacular tongues not only spread the scripture without church intermediation, but it also helped standardize spelling, punctuation and grammar as no other work had done—and it introduced entirely new words and phrases now commonplace. Furthermore, the Bible was good business. Printers saw high demand for English-language versions of the Bible, and they vied for publication privileges, often purchasing shares from those granted exclusive rights, while also defending their markets from illegal smuggling and copyright infringement. Some editions became milestones in the history of book publishing, but others were tarnished by printing errors, which led to such infamous editions as the Wicked Bible (1631), the Vinegar Bible (1717), and the Murderers' Bible (1795); some resulted in hefty fines levied against the printers.

Hannah Seamans, mother of Job Seamans, was given
this "Bibble" by her mother. It was given to the town
in 1910 by Job Seamans's great granddaughter—perhaps
the first private donation to the town's archives.
Among the "old Bibles" exhibited in the Tracy Memorial Building in 1936 may have been one passed down through the Seamans family, which included the town's first minister, Rev. Job Seamans. Printed in 1731, this quarto-sized volume was sold by Robert Freebairn & Co. of Edinburgh and large enough for use in churches. (Editions of smaller dimensions were intended for family use and private study.) With pages missing and covers detached, the condition of the Seamans Bible is poor, but it was treasured by generations who added their penmanship to the few available white spaces. The Town Archives holds a collection of Bibles that includes a half-dozen editions of various dates and sizes, but none is more interesting than the Seamans Bible for its marginalia.

All of New London's children were acquainted with the Bible. In 1867, the School Committee reported that "the text books authorized for use in the school are the Bible, Town's Readers and Spellers, Colton and Fitch's Geography, Robinson's Arithmetics, Kerl's Grammar, and Quackenbos' History of the United States." Precisely how the Bible was used in the curriculum isn't specified, but its familiar stories must have provided a convenient text for early readers and perhaps moral instruction for the older ones—as it had always done since its first translation into vernacular. In 1923, the School Committee reported that "our equipment of text-books has been increased by ... adding several supplementary readers for the primary grades, new desk copies of the Bible and several reference books."

No town library exhibit has marked this year's 400th anniversary of the King James Version, though its impact on the English language, literature, and learning has been no less significant than that of the earlier translations from which it was derived. For a brief account, you might read a National Geographic article (December 2011 issue); for more detail, the sources below are worthwhile.

  • Bragg, Melvyn. The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language. (Arcade: 2003, 2011)
  • Campbell, Gordon. Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611–2011. (Oxford: 2011)
  • Crystal, David. Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. (Oxford: 2010)
  • Mann, Alastair. The Scottish Book Trade, 1500–1720: Print Commerce and Print Control in Early Modern Scotland.  (Tuckwell Press, 2000.)
  • McGrath, Alister. In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. (Doubleday: 2001)