Today is the anniversary of a somewhat obscure day in the history of the Anglican Church in England. For it was on this date, May 6, 1536, that Henry VIII, the King of England, proclaimed that English language Bibles be placed in all the churches in the country. Now this may seem a little anticlimactic but it was really an important time in the history of the church.
To start with, Henry VIII was raised a staunch Catholic and had planned on remaining a member of the faith for the remainder of his life. However, even though he had been referred to as a “defender of the faith” by Pope Leo X, Henry got into trouble with Rome over the issue of a marital annulment that he was seeking from his wife, Catherine. It seems that Rome was not in favor of the annulment and it caused a rift between the pope and the King of England. Henry demanded a legal annulment, but the pope, not to be bullied into the decision by England’s King Henry, removed the title “defender of the faith” from Henry’s official title. While Parliament allowed the title to stay with the King, and in fact, affirmed its legitimacy, there was a permanent divide between the Crown and Rome.
Henry eventually married 6 wives, several of whom were executed and at least one other, Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth. It would take many thousands of words to convey the totality of the intrigue that surrounded Henry his entire life, but that is beyond the scope of my post tonight. Suffice it to say that Henry broke away from Rome and declared himself the head of the Church of England. And Henry held supreme power in the Church, declaring that he served by the Grace of God. To be sure, this phrase, “by the grace of God” actually became part of his official title. While many things were turned upside down as a result of Henry’s autocratic rule, his antics caused deep divisiveness throughout the land.
In fact, Henry cited Leviticus 20:21 (“ ‘If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.) as a reason to divorce one of his wives. So, whatever suited his agenda, he used to his benefit. However, one of the things that can be credited to Henry VIII is the beginning of the Reformation in England. Until this time, only the church leaders were able to read the Bible. Not only were they the most educated, but it was a widely held belief that people couldn’t read or interpret the Bible for themselves. In other words, it was up to the priests and pastors, or ministers, to read the Bible and teach from it’s pages. So goes the origin of the modern day sermons.
But there was a notable difference. The churches actually had two pulpits. The one in front held the Bible and after the reading of the word, the official in charge would move to a second pulpit to offer the sermon. That way, everyone knew what was read from the Bible as opposed to the comments that were offered on the interpretation of Scripture. Normally, but not always, the second pulpit was located along one of the long walls of the church so separate it from the one that held the Holy Bible.
Finally, in 1536, Henry ordered that Bibles be placed in all the churches. The Bibles were large format and were always open. Normally, they were positioned on a pulpit that took the shape of an eagle’s outstretched wings. The book rested across the back of the eagle and was open to all. In fact, years later, when the practice was still being used, Ben Franklin and others who were in positions of authority travelled extensively in England and came up with the idea that the new United States should also be “open to all” and the placement of the Bible on the back of the eagle was a fundamentally important fact that was heavily considered when the US adopted the eagle as its symbol of freedom. Isn’t that something? The start of the Reformation, making the Bible open to all, was actually an important piece of history that can trace its path all the way to the beginning of our nation.
So almost 500 years ago, King Henry VIII did something on this date that still affects us today. He moved the Bible from the elite class to the working class, all in one proclamation. And that’s the way it should be. The Bible, written by humans under divine inspiration, is now available to all of us, regardless of how much formal training we have had. For years, the Bible has been the best selling book in the history of the world.
The verse for this evening is from 1 John. When you learn Greek, 1 John is the first book that you translate. The reason is that it is a very simple book in the Greek – and understandable by all. from 1 John 1:5, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” This is the message that Henry was trying to get across to the common people. The message of God was to be open to everyone – and the Reformation was like the Age of Enlightenment – allowing everyone to be exposed to the Light of Christ.
My encouragement this evening is that God wants you to see the light. My prayer is that you will take advantage of the religious freedom that we, as citizens of the US, enjoy. See the light, and have a great day in the Lord, grace and peace…