Born in Stormy Times
  When Mary Tudor, a staunch Roman Catholic, ascended to the British throne in 1553, it marked the beginning of a major persecution of Protestants. Earlier champions of the English Bible, like John Rogers and Thomas Cranmer, were arrested and executed. Miles Coverdale, who had made his own English translation of the Bible, had to seek refuge in Europe. In an attempt to bring England back under Roman Catholicism, Queen Mary had all English Bibles publicly burned. (The Catholic Church was never in favor of translations of the Bible in the common language. To them the only Bible was the Latin Vulgate.) There was no safe place in England for those without a Roman Catholic persuasion. It has been said that during Mary's 5-year reign, England lost "5 bishops, 5 deans, and 50 eminent clergymen" — plus several hundred lesser-known reformers.

Those Protestants that fled England's persecution were attracted to various centers of religious tolerance. One of these places was Geneva, Switzerland, which had always been closely connected with Bible translations. It had become the home of several great Protestant thinkers, among them John Calvin and John Knox. This made it an excellent place to write and publish the next major translation of the English Bible -- The Geneva Translation.

A Scholarly Endeavor
  William Whittingham, a noted scholar of the day, and several others, undertook the Geneva Translation as a revision of the entire Bible. Some parts of the Bible needed revised more than others. The main changes occurred in Old Testament books that had not previously been translated by Tyndale, and also in books that had not been translated from their original languages. Many long hours were also spent writing and compiling the marginal notes, which could be found on virtually every page of the Bible.

The Apocrypha — books not generally accepted by Protestants as Scripture — were gathered into a separate section and appended to the end of the Old Testament. These books came with a note that they could be used for the advancement of knowledge and instruction in Godly manners, but that they should not be treated as Scripture.

The first edition of the Geneva Translation was released in April 1560, and for almost 75 years thereafter, the Geneva Translation was what most English-speaking people called 'The Bible'.

A Bible Like No Other
  A number of new and innovative features were included in the Geneva Translation. These helped to make it the most popular English Bible of the Century.
  • The Bible had been divided into chapters for several centuries, but it wasn't until 1555 that Robert Stephanus created verse divisions. The Geneva Translation was the first English Bible to be divided into both chapters and verses. Prior to this, it was very difficult to refer to an exact place in Scripture; now individual phrases could be specifically identified through their verse number. This was an idea whose time had come, and verse numbering was welcomed by both the Clergy and the common folk.

  • By the time the Geneva Translation was published, books had been printed with movable type for more than a century. The technique had been so refined as to make it possible for those with just a moderate income to afford books. Common people could finally own a Bible.

    Up until this time, Bibles were read aloud — publicly within the Church. These 'Church' Bibles were very large and printed on big pages. The typeface was also large, a very important attribute long before eyeglasses were manufactured. However, the Geneva Translation was written for the common man; it was designed to be read quietly — in the home. To make it easier to hold and read, most editions of the Geneva Translation were printed on pages that were 8-inches by 10-inches or smaller. This made for a handy, compact volume that was very innovative at the time. At last: a Bible that you could read while sitting by the fire — a Bible you could keep in a small drawer — a Bible that you could carry anywhere — a personal Bible. The Geneva Translation proved that bigger is not necessarily better.

  • Before Gutenburg and movable type, Scribes and Copyists duplicated books by hand. These people were real craftsmen, and some of the books they created looked like works of art. When printing came along, it just made sense to have printed pages look similar to hand-copied pages. In an attempt to duplicate the distinctive lettering of the copyists, Old English Black Gothic typeface was used. Black Gothic was composed of large, heavy letters that were often printed very close together; this sometimes made them hard to distinguish. And Black Gothic type must be printed large; small Black Gothic type is practically undecipherable. The editors of the Geneva Translation chose to use Roman typeface for most of their editions. Roman type could be printed smaller, so more Scripture could get on a page -- yet it was easier to read than the larger Gothic type. This innovation did not go unnoticed; future English Bibles printed in small to moderate size, always used Roman typeface.

  • Marginal notes — brief explanations or Scripture references — had been in use ever since Tyndale's first English Bible.

    John Calvin
    These Protestant Reformers had a powerful influence on the Marginal Notes in the Geneva Translation
    John Knox
    However, the Geneva Translation took them to new heights. Bibles read in church could be explained and expounded by the clergy. Those who read the Bible in their home might need help in understanding the Scriptures. According to its Preface, marginal notes were to "indicate various translations, the more literal Hebrew, the passages most profitably memorized, the 'principal matters,' and annotations on all the hard places and obscure words." The Geneva Translation's marginal notes did all that — and more. It would seem that at least as much time was spent writing the notes as was spent in translating the Scriptures. Since they were written by the Protestant Reformers who had to flee England during Mary's reign, it is not surprising that many of these marginal notes show anti-Roman Catholic sentiment. See our Closeup Page for an example of how extensive these notes actually were.

  • The Geneva Translation was the first English Bible to use italics to indicate words that were not found in the original text. Sometimes a direct translation from the original language did not result in a complete sentence. These italicized words were added when necessary to create normal English sentence structure. In short, they were simply needed to make things read right. This use of italicized words was continued for centuries, and have only recently fallen from favor.
Mixed Reception, but then Acceptance
  Even with all these innovations and features, it wasn't easy bringing out a new version of the Bible, even in the 16th Century. And at first the Geneva Translation was opposed by both Protestants and Catholics, by both the Government and the Church, by just about everybody. "We don't need a new Bible. If the Great Bible was good enough for Grandpa; it's good enough for me."

Nonetheless, over time opinions changed. No one could deny the Geneva Translation's accurate scholarship and fidelity to the original Scripture text. Its small size and Roman typeface made it easy to read. Its attempt to avoid long, theological words was appreciated by new readers. And so, within a decade of its first printing, the Geneva Translation had become the Bible of English-speaking common folk.

It enjoyed great popularity in Scotland, becoming the Bible officially read by churches in that country. So it shouldn't be surprising that the first Bible ever to be published in Scotland was the Geneva Translation. In fact, the Scottish Parliament required every householder of moderate means to have "a Bible and a Psalm Book in the common language — under penalty of £10."

The Geneva Translation even has the distinction of being the first Bible to be distributed to the Armed Forces. In 1643, the Soldier's Pocket Bible was compiled to meet the needs of Oliver Cromwell's army. Of its 125 verses — 124 were from the Geneva Translation.

The Geneva Translation finally gave way to the King James Version as the most popular English Bible. But that didn't happen for many years. In 1630 the last Geneva Translation was printed. By then, over 200 editions had been released. The Geneva Translation had indeed become a best-seller in the English-speaking world.

Use the Menu on the left to view actual pages from the Geneva Translation.