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How the Bible built Britain

Nick Spencer

Literary and artistic tributes to the King James Bible have flowed in from surprising directions in this 400th anniversary year. But Nick Spencer believes its true influence extends to the very foundations of modern politics.


Everyone agrees. Unity has broken out. Secularists and evangelicals can feed together. Richard Dawkins shall lie down with Stephen Green of Christian Voice, as it were. The Bible, everyone admits, is a national treasure, indispensable for a fully-rounded life.

But it is always good to read the small print in such peace accords. By 'the Bible' we mean the Kings James Bible. By 'national treasure' we mean national literary treasure. And by a fully-rounded life we mean a fully-rounded cultural life. Thus the aforementioned Professor Dawkins speaking to the King James Bible Trust last year: 'You can't appreciate English literature unless you are steeped to some extent in the King James Bible … Not to know the King James Bible is to be in some small way barbarian.'1

This is what we agree about. The significance of the Bible lies in the King James' impact on our language and our literature. Not to know it is not to know the origins and in some instances meaning of many everyday phrases. It is to shroud in obscurity large tracts of English literature. It is to deafen us to the music of Tallis, Byrd, Bach, Fauré, and Pärt. It is to veil the art of Giotto, Michelangelo, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Stanley Spencer. All in all, not to know the Bible is to close down innumerable avenues of cultural enrichment.
Yet, the story goes oddly quiet when we move from language, music and art to politics. The Bible may have leavened the lump of English literature but it appears to have had little impact on our political life. Or, rather, insofar as it has any connection with our political life, it is as the out-dated justification for the kind of intolerant, violent, autocratic regimes from which the Enlightenment liberated us.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible has been central to our national politics from the earliest days. Mediated through missionaries and monks, pastors and philosophers, theologians and translators, kings and councillors, factory workers and farmhands, the Bible has been the single most influential text in British political history.

Now, it is important to get two big caveats in straight away. The first is that to claim for the Bible such influence is not to claim it has been the only influence on national politics. Whether it is the customs of Anglo-Saxon culture, or the rediscovery of Aristotle in the 12th century, or the classical tradition of civic humanism in the 15th, or anti-Christian radicalism in the 19th - or whether simply by the pressures of circumstance - British politics has always been a confluence of traditions, ideas, customs, and hopes. The Bible has always worked alongside other political actors, even when it dominated the stage as it did between the 1530s and 1650s.

The second caveat is that to make such a claim for the Bible is not to say that it has always been on the side of the political angels. The Christian scriptures have been used by many over the centuries to justify political disenfranchisement, subservience and inequality. Just because the Bible has inspired Milton, Messiaen and Michelangelo, that does not mean its cultural impact has been unreservedly positive. As with culture, so it is with politics.
Rather, to claim that Bible has been the most influential text in British political history is simply to attempt to rescue the King James' celebrations from the bosom of leisure-time Christianity, and to assert that just as it is impossible to appreciate our national literature fully without recourse to the Bible, so it is impossible to understand our politics.

One way of showing this would be to tell the story of how the Bible has shaped national politics, from Augustine of Canterbury in the sixth century to Blair of New Labour in the 21st, as I have attempted elsewhere.2 But it is a testimony to the sheer weight of historical material that to try to précis that in an article would be to offer up little more than a superficial, whistlestop tour of British history. Instead, we might examine, albeit briefly, seven axioms of our political life, ideas that are as self-evident (to us) as the ground beneath our feet, and see what biblical roots run through them.

What earthly reason is there for a political ruler to surrender himself to the same laws as his subjects? It seems so obviously right to us today in Britain but it is far from obvious to a whole host of North African dictators, and was not obvious to the innumerable kings and emperors in the past. 'Let the imperial rank be exempted from all our provisions, because God has subjected the laws themselves to the emperor, by sending him as a living law to men,' read the Corpus iuris civilis, a codification of laws that was begun at the command of the Christian Emperor Justinian in 527.3  

The intimate association of church and emperor in the eastern empire made such pronouncements possible. In Western (i.e. Latin) Christendom, however, circumstances drew out another tradition deeply embedded in the Christian scriptures. Deuteronomy 17.14-20 explains how, when assuming the throne, the King of Israel was to 'write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law … read it all the days of his life … follow carefully all the words … [and] not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites.'

A godly people could be thoroughly hierarchical but nonetheless all were under the same law. That law limited royal authority and subjected kings, just as much as their subjects, to the judgement of God. It was an idea that took root very early in English history. 'Whether you will [it] or not,' the Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin once warned King Ethelred in eighth century, 'you will have [God] as a judge'.4


Being under the law meant being duty bound to discharge its specific responsibilities. Supreme among these was protecting and advancing the Christian faith, a duty that early English kings embraced with enthusiasm, and one that would compromise the Church's mission in many ways over the centuries. This was not, however, the only duty that divine law placed on kings.
Kings were mandated to do justice, judging fairly, honestly and equally. 'Deceitful deeds and hateful abuses are to be strictly shunned, namely, false weights and wrong measures and lying witnesses and shameful frauds,' ordered Clause 24 of King Ethelred's code of 1008, gesturing in the direction of at least six Old Testament texts.5 They were mandated to keep the peace, a live issue at a time when the country still comprised numerous separate, militaristic kingdoms that lived in a state of more or less constant conflict. And they had a duty towards the poor, the weak, orphans and widows that came straight from the pages of scripture.

All in all, such duties oriented political power towards the 'common wealth' of the people. This was not, of course, the same thing as democracy. No one imagined that the people over which a king ruled were the source of his authority. Christian theology was clear that authority was God's alone. He granted it to kings. Kings ruled. The people obeyed. Yet, authority was granted by God to the king, and that grant was contingent upon the king's ability and willingness to discharge the responsibilities of justice, peace, protection, and faithfulness.

This arrangement pointed, however hopefully, in the direction of a contract between ruler and ruled. Thus in a homily for Palm Sunday, delivered in the last years of the tenth century, the monk Aelfric remarked that 'No man can make himself king, but the people has the choice to choose a king whom they please; but after he is consecrated as king, he then has dominion over the people, and they cannot shake his yoke from their necks.'6 This was an extraordinary idea for the time, not so very far from the ideas of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke over six centuries later.

Towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, King Ethelred's law code began, 'It is the decree of our Lord and his councillors that just practices be established and all illegal practices abolished, and that every man is to be permitted the benefit of law.'7 As with so many other political statements, this can be seen as a triumph of hope (or, more cynically, rhetoric) over reality. Yet, it is noteworthy that the first substantive steps towards proper due process in England can be traced to the Bible.

Stephen Langton was master at the University of Paris in the late 12th century where he became one of the most prolific and respected biblical scholars. Subsequently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, he had a rough relationship with King John who opposed his appointment. Langton became a rallying point for baronial opposition to the monarch when he was finally able to take up his see in 1213 and it was in this role he helped draft a number of the documents that turned into Magna Carta.

Langton's contribution drew on his biblical studies in Paris, in particular his discussion of what obedience to law entailed. He based his thought on a number of texts, particularly 1 Samuel 10.24-25 in which the prophet Samuel 'explained to the people the rights and duties of kingship…wrote them down on a scroll and deposited it before the Lord.' From such texts Langton derived ideas of due process. He became willing to defend political authority, even if unjust, just as long as it was legally adjudicated. In the words of one scholar, the imperative of judgment by a legitimate court became his 'personal signature'.

It is noteworthy that this concern found its way into three major articles in Magna Carta (Article 39: 'No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed] or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined…except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land'), Article 40 ('To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay right or justice'), and Article 52 ('If any one has been disseised or deprived by us without lawful judgment…we will restore them to him at once').8 It is also noteworthy that two of these are among the only three articles from the Great Charter that remain on the statute book.

It would be misleading to ascribe the development of democracy in Britain to the Bible, still less to the great Reformation scholar and linguist, William Tyndale. However, much as many Christians had real problems with the idea of democracy (what happens if the people choose ungodly rulers?), democracy could not have taken root without the Bible and, in particular, without Tyndale's determination to place a small, readable vernacular translation in the hands of everyone in the country.

Tyndale himself was about as far from a democrat as it is possible to be. His most substantial work of political theology embraced, almost without reservation, the extreme political authoritarianism that marked out the early years of the Reformation. Yet, such authoritarianism was badly undermined by the overwhelming drive to make the scriptures accessible to everyone. Not only did this put before all manner of classes the very founding documents of society and encourage them to read and discuss them, but it simultaneously removed the safe, guiding hand of the learned and ordained. So important was it to clear a path for the unmediated relationship between God and the individual believer, that it was worth risking political disorder in order to enable that religious freedom.

In essence, the spiritual democracy inherent in reformation Protestantism prepared the ground from which ideas of political democracy would one day grow. It was only because Tyndale had done what he had done that Colonel Thomas Rainsborough could remark in the Putney debates a little more than a century later, 'The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and … every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.'9

Just as Christians had had problems with democracy, many had even bigger problems with toleration. When eternal salvation or damnation was at stake, who could risk tolerating heresy? Yet, the counter-intuitive fact is that ideas of toleration were first articulated and developed by some of the most biblically-rooted Christians of the 17th century.

These began from the periphery. It was Baptists, like Leonard Busher, who first called for religious tolerance. 'The king and parliament may please to permit all sorts of Christians; yea, Jews, Turks, and pagans, so long as they are peaceable, and no malefactors,' he wrote in 1614.10 Such arguments were frequently based on scripture (mostly the New Testament), but were blunted by the fact that they were articulated by the separatist puritans who had most to gain from toleration. The same could not be said of John Locke, an educated, establishment Anglican who provided the century's most cogent justification for toleration in the 1680s.


Locke had initially been opposed to religious tolerance but experiences abroad and a careful reading of the gospels persuaded him that 'Toleration [is] the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.'11  Like the puritans before him, he located the ground of toleration in the life and teaching of Christ himself. 'If, like the Captain of our salvation, they sincerely desired the good of souls, they would tread in the steps and follow the perfect example of that Prince of Peace, who sent out His soldiers to the subduing of nations, and gathering them into His Church, not armed with the sword, or other instruments of force, but prepared with the Gospel of peace and with the exemplary holiness of their conversation.'12

By unravelling some of the less helpful connections between church and state, by then already a millennium old, Locke argued that government neither 'can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls.'13 Such disentangling presented problems of its own, nudging the church towards a politically quiescent role, but it did lay the ground for genuine toleration, some years before Voltaire was preaching the same message.

Perhaps the clearest and most unambiguous contribution of biblical Christianity to national politics was the idea of human dignity and equality. Founded partly on the 'image of God' of Genesis 1 and partly on the universality of the gospel, the conviction that all humans are of equal worth has had a more significant impact on national politics than perhaps any other idea.

It has a long history. The radical 14th-century priest John Ball based his aggressive egalitarianism on it, remembered today for his famous rhyming couplet, 'When Adam delved and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?' Locke himself wrote a highly sophisticated defence of it in his first Treatise of Government. But it was the evangelical abolitionists of the late 18th century who made most effective use of the concept in their fight against slavery.
Christian arguments against the slave trade were profoundly biblical partly because there were many biblical arguments for slavery and partly because the issue got right to the heart of what it was to be human. The abolitionists deployed the full range of texts - Genesis and the image of God; Exodus and the liberation from slavery; Christ and the golden rule; St Paul and the idea that 'there is neither … slave nor free … in Christ Jesus'. Evangelicals thus had much biblical material on which to draw, but they also had much biblical material they needed to counter (such as the apparent acceptance of slavery in both testaments), and it was this that made their campaign and the ensuing political debate as much exegetical as it was economic. Its conclusion is well-known and stands as a triumph of Christian political action that helped move a mountain of self-interest.

There is one final, seminal contribution that the Bible made to national political life that brings us back to the present.

When Pope Gregory sent his missionaries to the English people in 597, the English people did not exist. Conceiving of them as a single unit and sending his clerics to them all was a momentous move on Gregory's part, causing one recent historian to observe that 'the English owe their existence as a people, or at least the recognition of it, to the papacy.'14 Much the same thing happened 1,100 years later when Protestantism helped forge a common identity following the Act of Union in 1707. In the words of the historian Linda Colley, 'Protestantism was the found-ation that made the invention of Great Britain possible.'15

Today we are less clear about national identity. Humanists tell us that we are no longer Christian. Statisticians tell us that we are ethnically and religiously plural. Judges tell us that we are 'multi-cultural community of many faiths.'16 And politicians waver, ready to condemn multiculturalism and preach the need for shared 'values' without telling us what they might be (beyond airy references to tolerance and freedom), where they come from, how they can be justified, and how they might be enforced. In short, we are confused.

It is, of course, a fallacy to claim that just because our national life has been moulded by Christianity, it should always be so. But the alternative view - that history is largely irrelevant because, sophisticated modern Westerners that we are, we can shape our own identity around us - is no less fallacious.

It may well be that we will maintain our commitment to legal equality, political responsibility, due process, democracy, toleration, equality and meaningful national identity if we jettison the Christian convictions that have, however imperfectly, underpinned them for the last 1,500 years. But it would be a brave or perhaps a complacent person to suggest that it will necessarily be so.

1  Dawkins then added, improbably, 'it is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource'. See
2  Nick Spencer, Freedom and Order: History, politics and the English Bible (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011).
3  Quoted in Joseph Canning, A History of Medieval Political Thought (Routledge, 1996), p8.
English Historical Documents, Vol. 1, No. 193, pp842-44.
English Historical Documents, Vol. 1, No. 44, p442-47.
English Historical Documents, Vol. 1, No. 239, p925.
English Historical Documents, Vol. 1, No. 44, pp442-47.
8  See J.C. Holt, Magna Carta (Cambridge University Press, 1992), Appendix 6.
9  'The Putney Debates', in David Wootton (ed.), Divine Right and Democracy: An anthology of political writing in Stuart England (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), pp285-317.
10  Leonard Busher, Religion's Peace: Or, a plea for liberty of conscience (1614), quoted in John Coffey 'Puritanism and Liberty Revisited: The Case for Toleration in the English Revolution', Historical Journal, vol. 41, no. 4, Dec. 1998, pp964-65.
11  John Locke, Two Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration (ed.) Iam Shapiro (Yale University Press, 2003), p215.
12  Locke, Toleration, p217.
13  Locke, Toleration, p218.
14  John Burrow, A History of Histories: Epics, chronicles, and inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the twentieth century (Allen Lane, 2007), p215.
15  Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the nation, 1707-1837 (Yale University Press, 1992), p54.
16  Lord Justice Munby and Mr Justice Beatson,  Eunice and Owen Johns vs. Derby City Council and Equality and Human Rights Commission, EWHC 375 (Admin) (28 February 2011), para. 39.