The Bible Shakespeare, John Bunyan,
and the Pilgrims Read
Queen Mary I came to the throne in 1553 and tried to make Britain a Roman Catholic nation through a reign of terror that burned at the stake nearly 300 religious dissenters. Eight hundred Protestants fled to Germany, Switzerland, and the independent city of Geneva. Those in Geneva decided there was a need for a new Bible translation. The New Testament was published in 1557; the entire Bible in 1560.
Everything about the Geneva Bible made it accessible to the average person. It was available in small sizes and modest prices. Its typeface was easy to read, and it was the first English Bible to use chapter and verse divisions. It was endorsed by such great reformers as John Knox, John Calvin (who wrote an introduction), and Theodore Beza. It contained five fold-out woodcut maps and extensive geographical, textual, and theological notes to explain “the hard places.” The Geneva Bible was the first study Bible.
Because Calvinistic notes were included in the Bible, they were widely circulated and tended to take on the authority of Scripture. For more than a generation of English-speaking Christians, the notes in the Geneva Bible formed the understanding lay people had of godly living and Christian faith.
For more than fifty years the Geneva Bible was the Bible used by the common people of Britain and was printed in more than 160 editions. It became part of England’s Protestant national identity. It was the Bible Shakespeare and John Bunyan read, the Bible Pilgrims carried with them on the Mayflower, and was widely used until 1616.
King James I did not like the Geneva Bible because it challenged the divine right of kings, a doctrine that says kings are appointed by God and should be respected and obeyed without question. Once the new translation King James had ordered was available, printing of the Geneva Bible was forbidden in England. It is, however, available today—in paperback, hardcover, and bound in leather.