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The Impact of the Geneva Bible on America

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The following article, The Impact of the Geneva Bible on America, was first published on The American Vision.

When Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) became queen of England in 1553, she was determined to roll back the Reformation and reinstate Roman Catholicism. Mary had strong ties to Catholic Spain. She married Philip II of Spain and induced the English Parliament to recognize the authority of papal Rome. Mary met with a great deal of resistance from Protestant reformers in her own country. Mary showed no signs of compromise. The persecution of Protestants followed.

The era known as the Marian Exile drove hundreds of English scholars to the Continent with little hope of ever seeing their home and friends again. God used this exodus experience to advance the Reformation. Some English Protestant divines settled in Calvin’s Geneva: Miles Coverdale, John Foxe, Thomas Sampson, and William Whittingham. With the protection of the Genevan civil authorities and the support of John Calvin and the Scottish Reformer John Knox, the Church of Geneva determined to produce an English Bible without the need for the imprimatur of either England or Rome—the Geneva Bible.

Translation Work Begins In 1557

The Geneva translators produced a revised New Testament in English in 1557 that was essentially a revision of Tyndale’s revised and corrected 1534 edition. Much of the work was done by William Whittingham, the brother-in-law of John Calvin. The Geneva New Testament was barely off the press when work began on a revision of the entire Bible, a process that took more than two years. The new translation was checked with Theodore Beza’s earlier work and the Greek text.

In 1560 a complete revised Bible was published, translated according to Hebrew and Greek, and conferred with the best translations in divers languages, and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I. After the death of Mary, Elizabeth was crowned queen in 1558, once again moving England toward Protestantism. The Geneva Bible was finally printed in England in 1575 only after the death of Archbishop Matthew Parker, editor of the Bishop’s Bible.

England’s Most Popular Bible

While other English translations failed to capture the hearts of the reading public, the Geneva Bible was instantly popular. Between 1560 and 1644 at least 144 editions appeared. For forty years after the publication of the King James Bible, the Geneva Bible continued to be the Bible of the home. Oliver Cromwell used extracts from the Geneva Bible for his Soldier’s Pocket Bible which he issued to the army.

A Threat to King James

In 1620 the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth with their Bibles and a conviction derived from those Bibles of establishing a new nation. The Bible was not the King James Version. When James I became king of England in 1603, there were two translations of the Bible in use; the Geneva Bible was the most popular, and the Bishops’ Bible was used for reading in churches.

King James disapproved of the Geneva Bible because of its Calvinistic leanings. He also frowned on what he considered to be seditious marginal notes on key political texts. A marginal note for Exodus 1:9 indicated that the Hebrew midwives were correct in disobeying the Egyptian king’s orders, and a note for 2 Chronicles 15:16 said that King Asa should have had his mother executed and not merely deposed for the crime of worshipping an idol. The King James Version of the Bible grew out of the king’s distaste for these brief but potent doctrinal commentaries. He considered the marginal notes to be a political threat to his kingdom.

At a conference at Hampton Court in 1604 with bishops and theologians, the king listened to a suggestion by the Puritan scholar John Reynolds that a new translation of the Bible was needed. Because of his distaste for the Geneva Bible, James was eager for a new translation. “I profess,” he said, “I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst.”

A Threat to Rome

In addition to being a threat to the king of England, the Geneva Bible was outspokenly anti-Roman Catholic, as one might expect. Rome was still persecuting Protestants in the sixteenth century. Keep in mind that the English translators were exiles from a nation that was returning to the Catholic faith under a queen who was burning Protestants at the stake. The anti-Roman Catholic sentiment is most evident in the Book of Revelation: “The beast that cometh out of the bottomless pit (Rev. 11:7) is the Pope, which hath his power out of hell and cometh thence.” In the end, the Geneva Bible was replaced by the King James Version, but not before it helped to settle America.

Back in Geneva

Calvin knew that the job of reforming a city seemingly bent on destruction would not be easy. “There is no place in the world that I fear more,” he confessed. Immorality was at an all-time high, with gambling, street brawls, drunkenness, adultery, and public indecency common everywhere. But not all was dark. When he arrived on September 13, 1541, a change had come over the city. The people wanted him to return. The city officials bestowed honors on him and apologized for the way he had been treated.

The Council members assured Calvin that they would cooperate with him to restore the Gospel and moral order. The businessmen were equally relieved to learn that Calvin might return. Calvin was overwhelmed by the outward display of affection and decided to return to Geneva. On September 16th he wrote to Farel: “Your wish is granted. I am held fast here. May God give His blessing.”

Calvin’s Contributions

Calvin continued his work of reformation, not by heavy-handed use of the civil magistrate, but with the preaching of God’s Word and the building of the Church. Church government was lacking, not only in Geneva but all over Protestant Europe. Calvin understood that only the Church, not the State, could define orthodox theology and bring about true long-term reform. According to the Bible, the State and the Church were jurisdictionally separate. Each had its God-ordained area of jurisdiction and authority—one civil (the State) and one ecclesiastical (the Church). Even so, Calvin insisted, both Church and State were ordained by God and obligated to follow His laws as they applied to their specific appointed jurisdictions.

Calvin’s view that God reigns everywhere and over all things led him to develop the biblical idea that man can serve God in every area of life—church, civil government, education, art, music, business, law, journalism. There was no need to be a priest, a monk, or a nun to get closer to God. God is glorified in everyday work and family life. Calvin’s teaching led directly to what has become known as the “Protestant work ethic.” Individual initiative leads to economic productivity as Christians work out their faith in their callings before God.

Stricken with tuberculosis, Calvin preached his last sermon on February 6, 1564. Although bedridden until his death on May 27, 1564, Calvin continued to work, extending his legacy in the lives of those who sat under his teaching.

Thanks to the Institutes of the Christian Religion, his printed sermons, the Academy, his commentaries on nearly every book of the Bible (except the Song of Solomon and the Book of Revelation), and his pattern of Church and Civil government, Calvin shaped the thought and motivated the ideals of Protestantism in France, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungry, Scotland, and the English Puritans; many of whom settled in America. The great American historian George Bancroft stated, “He that will not honor the memory, and respect the influence of Calvin, knows but little of the origin of American liberty.” [1]

John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote: “Let not Geneva be forgotten or despised. Religious liberty owes it much respect, Servetus notwithstanding. From this city proceeded printed books and men distinguished for their wit and eloquence, who spreading themselves in the neighboring provinces, there sowed in secret seeds of their doctrine.” [2]

Jean Jacques Rousseau, certainly no friend of Calvin’s biblical worldview, had this to say about his French countryman: “Those who consider Calvin only as a theologian fail to recognize the breadth of his genius. The editing of our wise laws, in which he had a large share, does him as much credit as his Institutes…. [S]o long as the love of country and liberty is not extinct among us, the memory of this great man will be held in reverence.” [3]

In his dedicatory epistle to King Francis I of France, on behalf of the persecuted Protestants within his regime, Calvin “stated that, as a believer, he was compelled to ‘defend the church against [political] furies,’ to ‘embrace the common cause of all believers. Against ‘overbearing tyranny,’ Calvin later put it, a Christian must ‘venture boldly to groan for freedom.’” [4]

  1. George Bancroft, “A Word on Calvin the Reformer,” Literary and Historical Miscellanies (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1855), 406.
  2. John Adams, “Discourses on Davilia, XIX,” in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, with a Life of the Author, Notes, and Illustrations (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1850–1856), 6:313n.
  3. Du contrat social (1762), bk. 2, chap. 7n., reprinted in Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Lester G. Crocker, ed. (New York: Washington Square Press, 1967), 44n. Quoted in John Witte, Jr., “Moderate Religious Liberty in the Theology of John Calvin,” Calvin Theological Journal 31 (1996), 360.
  4. Witte, Moderate Religious Liberty in the Theology of John Calvin, 372.

Continue reading The Impact of the Geneva Bible on America

American Vision’s mission is to Restore America to its Biblical Foundation—from Genesis to Revelation. American Vision (AV) has been at the heart of worldview study since 1978, providing resources to exhort Christian families and individuals to live by a Biblically based worldview. Visit for more information, content and resources


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