Superintendent-at-large of the Reformation
George M. Ella | Added: Mar 30, 2016 | Category: History
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Readers may be puzzled by the title of this essay and wonder why such claims are made concerning a man who is scarcely known amongst today’s Reformed Christians. How can one compare a nobody with men of God such as Luther and Calvin?...
Superintendent at-large of the Reformation
Discovering the doctrines of grace
Miles Coverdale was born in the North Riding village of Coverham in 1487. Little is known of his early biography apart from the fact that he studied philosophy and theology at Cambridge University, gained his doctorate at Tübingen, Germany and was ordained priest at Norwich in 1514. Thereafter, Coverdale became an Augustinian monk, spending some ten years in the service of the Roman Catholic Church. Coverdale got on very well with his superior Robert Barnes, called by John Strype ‘the great restorer of good learning’, who was later to experience a martyr’s death under Henry for his reforming theology. Coverdale and Barnes found access to the doctrines of grace through Augustine’s works which pointed them to the Bible. Both men then gathered together students and ministers who wished to know more about true Biblical theology and Christian service. These devotees of what was called ‘the New Religion’ met in a building at Bumstead, Essex, called the White Horse but nicknamed ‘Germany’ because of the Reformation doctrines discussed there. One by one the monks and students who visited ‘Germany’, were won over to the new teaching which they found was the teaching of the New Testament church before its perversion by the papal system. Two notable visitors to these meetings were Hugh Latimer and Thomas Bilney who, though silenced by their bishops, were able to preach the gospel in Barne’s Augustine Priory.
The Scriptures in the vernacular essential to a thorough-going Reformation
Coverdale, like his friend Tyndale, realised that the Scriptures must be put into the common language before any great work of revival could begin, so in the late twenties, he left England for the Continent where he furthered his Greek, Latin, Hebrew and German studies with the men of the Continental Reformation. One of the reasons for Coverdale’s going abroad was that English linguistic studies were so cluttered up with popish definitions that it was quite impossible to work out the true meaning of Scriptural words. Another reason was that it had become obvious that his work and life were in danger. Besides meeting the men of the early Reformation, in Germany, Denmark, Holland, France and Switzerland, Coverdale worked with Tyndale on the Pentateuch after Tyndale’s initial work had been lost at sea. When Tyndale was so treacherously burnt at the stake through the intrigues of murderous Thomas More, Coverdale carried on Tyndale’s work and in 1535 had the whole Bible printed at Zurich. In his preface to his translation, humble Coverdale expresses his gratitude to all who helped him so that critics such as Mombert argue that the work was second-hand at best and that Coverdale had no knowledge of Biblical languages. The vassals of the pope went even further. Ignoring Coverdale’s splendid education and obvious literary merits, they asked how an old, rough, frenzied, foul-mouthed Yorkshireman, whose extravagantly violent language can but raise a smile or a feeling of pity amongst those of the Old Religion, could possibly be used of God.2 However, anyone reading Coverdale’s Bible translations will be struck by their crystal-clear, simple language and musical, poetic diction which make his work perfectly readable even today. Luther’s original translation into German, completed only a year before Coverdale’s, is almost impossible for a modern German of average abilities to understand, but his English counterpart can have no difficulty with Coverdale’s work. One of the sweet thrills of this writer’s Christian experience was to read Coverdale’s sermons preached between 1540-47. They are full of the essence of the gospel and composed in a language which naturally lifts the heart of a believer to God.
Coverdale’s work receives Royal approval
Henry VIII had been persuaded by such wicked advisors as Wolsey and More to ban Tyndale’s New Testament and Pentateuch from England. However, once those two false mentors had been removed, the king began to think for himself, assisted by Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell, in turn, was advised by Cranmer who wrote to him, recommending him to give Coverdale’s work a Royal license, saying:
‘that the same may be sold and read of every person, without danger of any act proclamation, or ordinance heretofore granted to the contrary, until such time that we bishops shall set forth a better translation, which I think will not be till a day after doomsday.’
Henry then gave a group of scholars and theologians, including Cranmer, Coverdale’s translation and asked for their advice. The learned men said that they found a few mistakes in it but no sign of heresy. Henry retorted with the words ‘If there be no heresies, let it go abroad among the people.’ Thus, the Reformation in England was on a stable footing and could not be hindered.
The situation was now favourable for Coverdale to return to England but he decided to stay on the Continent for some time as printing facilities were better there than in England. He moved to France to superintend the work of printing further editions of his Bible and introducing the French to the gospel. He also worked on several different polyglot versions; the forerunners of our interlinear Bibles. This caused Coverdale to be put on the Roman authorities’ black list and they persuaded the Lieutenant Criminel to confiscate his publications, including an entire edition of 2,500 Bibles. Now Coverdale realised that he would be freer to work in England than in France so he persuaded the printer to move his business, including the types and printing staff to England where soon, in conjunction with Cranmer, and with the support of Cromwell, they completed and published what became known as the Great Bible. Obviously sensitive to Romanist claims that Coverdale was not scholar enough to produce such a learned work, Rychard Grafton and Edward Whitechurch who published the 1539 version, stress that it had been translated after diligent study of the Hebrew and Greek originals. Coverdale’s Bible became the Authorised Bible for almost thirty years. When the Reformed Church of England was established after Henry’s decease, Coverdale’s translation was used for the Psalter and for the Book of Common Prayer.
A ‘convenient and conductive’ advancement
After Henry’s death, Coverdale became personal almoner to the dowager Queen Catherine Parr, assisting her in her endeavours to popularise Erasmus’ works. He was then made chaplain to young Edward VI and became Bishop’s Adjunct to the diocese of Exeter. Writing on June 1, 1550 from Oxford, Peter Martyr wrote to tell Henry Bullinger the good news that their ‘well-acquainted’ friend was to be made a bishop and that ‘nothing could be more convenient and conductive to the reformation of religion, than the advancement of such men to the government of the church.’ A year later, Coverdale became Bishop of Exeter. The official reason given for Coverdale’s promotion was ‘on account of his extraordinary knowledge in divinity and his unblemished character.’ As the former Romanist bishop, Veysey, alias John Harman, had plundered Exeter’s revenues, Coverdale found himself in debt but on Cranmer’s intervention, some of these were remitted such as the payment of first fruits. One biographer writes of the bishop at this time:
‘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 much given to hospitality. He was sober and temperate in all things, holy, blameless, friendly to good men, liberal to the poor, courteous to all, void of pride, clothed with humility, abhorring 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 labours.’3
Coverdale’s second exile
By Mary’s reign, Coverdale had paid off all debts, which did not stop the Queen imprisoning him on the pretence that he owed the crown tax money due to her from the revenues of his bishopric. No less a person than the King of Denmark intervened on Coverdale’s behalf, explaining to his fellow-monarch that she had been misinformed. Whilst imprisoned, Coverdale wrote An Exhortation to the Cross in which he stressed his determination to be executed with his fellow sufferers rather than give up the faith which had saved and justified him. Mary must have been worried because of Coverdale’s popularity at the Danish Court so she promised to free him if he would leave the country. Naturally, Coverdale was quick to respond in the affirmative and soon found himself safe at the Danish Court but longing to be back with his former flock. To them he wrote:
‘To all them that hunger and thirst the glory of God and wealth of their neighbours be grace, mercy, and peace, from the same everlasting God our most dear Father in heaven, through our Lord and only Saviour Jesus Christ.
It were to me a singular comfort, my right dear and entirely beloved brethren and sisters in Jesus Christ, if I might be with you myself continually, and communicate unto you some part of little taste which I have received of the Lord my God for your sakes. And all the lawful ways that could devise, have I sought this great while to obtain licence of the higher powers for the same purpose.
But it will not be. Wherefore, though I be hindered and kept from you by all the means that Satan and his members can imagine, yet shall ye have my poor heart; yet will I not cease to wish you good; yet will I do the best for you that I can, although it be but with my pen.’
Spreading reforming truths on the Continent
Now Coverdale became a wandering preacher and teacher, supporting the work of the Reformation throughout Europe. As the popish authorities were always on his trail, he took on various names such as Michael Anglus to put Rome’s bloodhounds off the scent. He translated works of Calvin, Bullinger, Wermullerus, Erasmus, Luther, Osiander, Bucer, Melancthon, Campensis and several lesser known writers and had them spread abroad. He also entered into detailed correspondence with Continental Reformers such as Beza, Bullinger, Calvin, Fagius, Farell and Viret, besides British Christians in exile such as Jewel, Foxe, Grindal, Humphrey and Sampson. It is a blessing to read letters between British and European Reformers and see how highly they appreciated the work and witness of Coverdale. After a year or so of evangelistic ministry, Coverdale, who spoke and wrote German well, became teacher at a Grammar School in Bergzabern, near Strasbourg and pastored a church there for around four years. During this time, Coverdale revised his translation and joined hands with other exiles such as Whittingham and Sampson to produce the Geneva Bible.
The man who was in Christ before them all
After Mary’s death in 1558, Coverdale, now feeling very much his age, returned to England and assisted the exiles to re-establish the Reformed Church of England. He was immediately welcomed as one of the leading pioneers of the Reformation and the man who, as Grindal fondly said, was in Christ before them all. The Queen asked Coverdale to take part in consecrating the preacher-scholar Matthew Parker as Archbishop of Canterbury and assist in spreading the Reformed faith throughout the churches with such men as Jewel and Grindal. Though Coverdale kept his bishop’s title to the end of his days, he refused the seats now offered him and, with Grindal’s help, became Rector of St. Magnus, London Bridge. Coverdale wished to spend his old age preaching the Word and tending to the needs of his sheep and was often heard expounding the Scriptures in the open air at St. Paul’s Cross.
Both the Queen and Archbishop Parker were most impressed with the Geneva Bible and had it accepted as the Authorised Bible of the Church of England. The volume for public worship was bound with the book of Common Prayer and Coverdale’s Psalter. The Bible went through at least thirty editions during Elizabeth’s reign all bearing the Royal sanction and issued from Her Majesty’s printers. The Bishops’ Bible which succeeded it never became as popular and even when the King James’ Bible was published in 1611, many still believed the work of Tyndale and Coverdale to be superior to it, though that version still rested heavily on the work of the two Reformers.
Finding life in death
Coverdale had to face the threat of being martyred at the stake at least twice in his life and he came to realise that the blood of the saints is held to be cheap by the Evil One but it is precious to the growth of the Church. He thus patiently awaited being called home to his heavenly Father, though without failing in his earthly calling. On contemplating death during Henry’s martyr-making reign, Coverdale preached from his exile in Germany on the resurrection of Christ saying:
For in God’s quarrel and for Christ’s sake to die is the highest honour, whereof no man ought to be ashamed. This ought all soul-shepherds to ponder and consider, that they, faithfully and constantly following Christ the Lord, go not from that they have taken in hand. but proceed and bring their course to an honourable end, keeping fidelity and trust with their Lord, and being fully appointed in themselves to die for the sheep of Christ. Therefore should they consider aforehand, what things they must suffer for the truth; lest they destroy that, which they have of long time builded and taught.
O gracious Father, strengthen thou us in thy work and in thy truth; that in the thing which thou hast begun in us, we may stedfastly continue to the end. Expel out of us the fear of death, and stablish us through thy holy Spirit, that we manfully may despise and jeopard this life for the life eternal. Grant, O God, to the shepherds of thy sheep a fervent love to the truth and thy glory. Strengthen them with thy Spirit, that they valiantly standing by the flock, may even with their death confirm thy people in the truth.’4
Bishop Miles Coverdale was spared the torture of martyrdom and lived to a ripe old age. By God’s grace, he experienced no fear and little pain in dying and passed away happily and contentedly in 1569 at the age of eighty-one. He had been patiently awaiting his home-call for most of his Christian life.
He was buried in St Bartholomew’s Church near the Exchange. A great number of those blessed by his ministry filed past his grave to pay their last respects to their beloved shepherd of the Reformation and demonstrate a share in his trust in the eternal resurrection.
GEORGE M ELLA
1 The Reformation in England, vol. 1, p. 350.
2 See, for instance, Frederick George Lee, The Church Under Queen Elizabeth, 2 vols of pathetic papist propaganda, London, 1880. See vol. I, pp. 160-161.
3 Life of Miles Coverdale, Lives of the British Reformers, Religious Tract Society, undated.
4 Quotes from and main knowledge of Coverdale’s works are taken from Works and Translations of Bishop Coverdale; Original Letters of the English Reformation 1537-1558, 2 vols; and Zürich Letters 1558-1602, all Parker Society books. A more complete list of Coverdale’s works together with a brief biography is found in Middleton’s Biographia Evangelica, vol. II, pp. 101-103.
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