The Greatest English Classic A Study of the King James Version of the Bible and its Influence on Life and Literature
Cleland Boyd McAfee

Part 5 out of 5

darkness" was a beautiful symbolism, but that
Garfield had a great knack in the building-up of
fine phrases! He lacked utterly the background
of the great Psalm which was in Garfield's mind,
and which gives that phrase double meaning.
If we go back to Tennyson again, some one has
proposed the inquiry why he should have called
one of his poems "Rizpah," since there was no
one of that name mentioned in the whole poem!
When, some years ago, a book was published,
The Children of Gideon, one of the reviewers
could not understand why that title was used,
since no one of that name appeared in the entire
volume. And when Mrs. Wharton's book, The
House of Mirth, came out some one spoke of the
irony of the title; but it is the irony of the Scriptures
and the book calls for a Scriptural knowledge
for its entire understanding.

Take even an encyclopedia article. Who can
understand these two sentences without instant
knowledge of Scripture? "Marlowe and Shakespeare,
the young Davids of the day, tried the
armor of Saul before they went out to battle,
then wisely laid it off." "Arnold, like Aaron
of old, stands between the dead and the living;
but, unlike Aaron, he holds no smoking censor of
propitiation to stay the plague which he feels
to be devouring his generation."[1] That is in an
encyclopedia to which young people are often
referred. What will they make out of it without
the Bible? In a widely distributed school
paper, in the question-and-answer department,
occurs the inquiry: "Who composed the inscription
on the Liberty Bell?" The inscription
is, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land to
all the inhabitants thereof."[2] It is to be hoped
it was a very young person who needed to ask
who "composed" that expression!

[1] New International Encyclopedia, art. on English Literature.

[2] Current Events, January 12, 1912.

This applies to all the great classics. There
has come about a "decay of literary allusions,"
as one of our papers editorially says. In much
of our writing, either the transient or the permanent,
men can no longer risk easy reference
to classical literature. "Readers of American
biography must often be struck with the important
part which literary recollection played
in the life of a cultured person a generation or
two ago. These men had read Homer, Xenophon
and Virgil, Shakespeare, Byron and Wordsworth,
Lamb, De Quincey and Coleridge. They
were not afraid of being called pedants because
they occasionally used a Latin phrase or referred
to some great name of Greece or Rome."
That is not so commonly true to-day. Especially
is there danger of losing easy acquaintance
with the great Bible references.

There are familiar reasons for it. For one
thing, there has been a great increase of literature.
Once there was little to read, and that
little became familiar. One would have been
ashamed to pretend to culture and not to know
such literature well. Now there is so much that
one cannot know it all, and most men follow the
line of least resistance. That line is not where
great literature lies. Once the problem was how
to get books enough for a family library. Now the
problem is how to get library enough for the books.
Magazines, papers, volumes of all grades overflow.
"The Bible has been buried beneath a
landslide of books." The result is that the
greatest literary landmark of the English tongue
threatens to become unknown, or else to be
looked upon as of antiquarian rather than present
worth. There our Puritan fathers had the advantage.
As President Faunce puts it: "For
them the Bible was the norm and goal of all
study. They had achieved the concentration
of studies, and the Bible was the center. They
learned to read that they might read the literature
of Israel; their writing was heavy with
noble Old Testament phrases; the names of Old
Testament heroes they gave to their children;
its words of immortal hope they inscribed on
their tombstones; its Mosaic commonwealth they
sought to realize in England and America; its
decalogue was the foundation of their laws, and
its prophecies were a light shining in a dark
place. Such a unification of knowledge produced
a unified character, simple, stalwart, invincible."
It is very different in our own day.
As so-called literature increases it robs great
literature of its conspicuous outstanding character,
and many men who pride themselves on
the amount they read would do far better to
read a thousandth part as much and let that
smaller part be good.

Another reason for this decay of the influence of
literary knowledge of the Bible is the shallowness
of much of our thinking. If the Bible were
needed for nothing else in present literary life,
it would be needed for the deepening of literary
currents. The vast flood of flotsam and jetsam
which pours from the presses seldom floats on a
deep current. It is surface matter for the most
part. It does not take itself seriously, and it
is quite impossible to take it seriously. It does
not deal with great themes, or when it touches
upon them it deals with them in a trifling way.
To men interested chiefly in literature of this
kind the Bible cannot be of interest.

That is a passing condition, and out of it is certain
to come here and there a masterpiece of
literature. When it does appear, it will be
found to reveal the same influences that have
made great literature in the past, issuing more
largely from the Bible than from any other book.
That is the main point of a bit of counsel which
Professor Bowen used to give his Harvard
students. To form a good English style, he
told them, a student ought to keep near at hand
a Bible, a volume of Shakespeare, and Bacon's
essays. That group of books would enlarge the
vocabulary, would supply a store of words,
phrases, and, allusions, and save the necessity
of ransacking a meager and hide-bound diction
in order to make one's meaning plain. Coleridge
in his Table-Talk adds that "intense study of the
Bible will keep any writer from being VULGAR in
point of style." So it may be urged that these
times have and still need the literary influence
of the Bible.

Add that the times have and still need its
moral steadying. Every age seems to its own
thoughtful people to lack moral steadiness, and
they tend to compare it with other ages which
look steadier. That is a virtually invariable
opinion of such men. The comparison with
other ages is generally fallacious, yet the fact is
real for each age. Many things tend in this age
to unsettle moral solidity. Some of them are
peculiar to this time, others are not. But one
of the great influences which the Bible is perpetually
tending to counteract is stated in best
terms in an experience of Henry M. Stanley.
It was on that journey to Africa when be found
David Livingstone, under commission from one
of the great newspapers. Naturally he had made
up his load as light as possible. Of books he
had none save the Bible; but wrapped about his
bottles of medicine and other articles were many
copies of newspapers. Stanley says that "strangest
of all his experiences were the changes wrought
in him by the reading of the Bible and those
newspapers in melancholy Africa." He was frequently
sick with African fever, and took up the
Bible to while away his hours of recovery.
During the hours of health he read the newspapers.
"And thus, somehow or other, my views
toward newspapers were entirely recast," while
he held loyal to his profession as a newspaper
man. This is the critical sentence in Stanley's
telling of the story: "As seen in my loneliness,
there was this difference between the Bible and
the newspapers. The one reminded me that
apart from God my life was but a bubble of air,
and it made me remember my Creator; the
other fostered arrogance and worldliness."[1]
There is no denying such an experience as that.
That is precisely the moral effect of the Bible
as compared with the moral effect of the newspaper
accounts of current life. Democracy
should always be happy; but it must always
be serious, morally steady. Anything that tends
to give men light views of wrong, to make evil
things humorous, to set out the ridiculous side
of gross sins is perilous to democracy. It not
only is injurious to personal morals; it is bound
sooner or later to injure public morals. There
is nothing that so persistently counteracts that
tendency of current literature as does the

[1] Autobiography, p. 252.

From an ethical point of view, "the ethical
content of Paul is quite as important for us as
the system of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. The
organization of the New England town meeting is
no more weighty for the American boy than the
organization of the early Christian Church. John
Adams and John Hancock and Abraham Lincoln
are only the natural successors of the great
Hebrew champions of liberty and righteousness
who faced Pharoah and Ahab and put to flight
armies of aliens." But aside from the definite
ethical teaching of the Bible there is need for
that strong impression of ethical values which it
gives in the characters around which it has
gathered. The conception of the Bible which
makes it appear as a steady progression should
add to its authority, not take from it. The
development is not from error to truth, but from
light to more light. It is sometimes said that
the standards of morality of some parts of
Scripture are not to be commended. But they
are not the standards of morality of Scripture,
but of their times. They are not taught in
Scripture; they are only stated; and they are so
stated that instantly a thoughtful man discovers
that they are stated to be condemned. When
did it become true that all that is told of a good
man is to be approved? It is not pretended
that Abraham did right always. David was
confessedly wrong. They move much of the time
in half-light, yet the sum total of the impression
of their writings is inevitably and invariably for
a more substantial morality. These times need
the moral steadying of the Bible to make men,
not creatures of the day arid not creatures of
their whims, but creatures of all time and of
fundamental laws.

Add the third fact, that our times have and
still need the religious influence of the Bible.
No democracy can dispense with religious culture.
No book makes for religion as does the
Bible. That is its chief purpose. No book can
take its place; no influence can supplant it.
Max Muller made lifelong study of the Buddhist
and other Indian books. He gave them to the
English-speaking world. Yet he wrote to a
friend of his impression of the immense superiority
of the Bible in such terms that his
friend replied: "Yes, you are right; how tremendously
ahead of other sacred books is the
Bible! The difference strikes one as almost unfairly
great."[1] Writing in an India paper,
The Kayestha Samachar, in August, 1902, a
Hindu writer said: "I am not a Christian; but
half an hour's study of the Bible will do more
to remodel a man than a whole day spent in
repeating the slokas of the Purinas or the
mantras of the Rig-Veda." In the earlier
chapters of the Koran Christians are frequently
spoken of as "people of the Book." It is a
suggestive phrase. If Christianity has any value
for American life, then the Bible has just that
value. Christianity is made by the Bible; it
has never been vital nor nationally influential
for good without the Bible.

[1] Speer, Light of the World, iv.

Sometimes, because of his strong words regarding
the conflict between science and theology,
the venerable American diplomat and educator,
Dr. Andrew D. White, is thought of as a
foe to religion. No one who reads his biography
can have that impression half an hour. Near
the close of it is a paragraph of singular insight
and authority which fits just this connection:
"It will, in my opinion, be a sad day for this or
for any people when there shall have come in
them an atrophy of the religious nature; when
they shall have suppressed the need of communication,
no matter how vague, with a supreme
power in the universe; when the ties which bind
men of similar modes of thought in the various
religious organizations shall be dissolved; when
men, instead of meeting their fellow-men in
assemblages for public worship which give them a
sense of brotherhood, shall lounge at home or in
clubs; when men and women, instead of bringing
themselves at stated periods into an atmosphere
of prayer, praise, and aspiration, to hear
the discussion of higher spiritual themes, to be
stirred by appeals to their nobler nature in behalf
of faith, hope, and charity, and to be moved
by a closer realization of the fatherhood of God
and the brotherhood of man, shall stay at home
and give their thoughts to the Sunday papers,
or to the conduct of their business, or to the
languid search for some refuge from boredom."[1]
Those are wise, strong words, and they sustain
to the full what has been urged, that these
times still need the religious influence of the

[1] Autobiography, vol. ii, p. 570.

The influence of the Bible on the literary,
moral, and religious life of the times is already
apparent. But that influence needs to be constantly
strengthened. There remains, therefore,
to suggest some methods of giving the Bible
increasing power. It should be recognized first
and last that only thoughtful people will do it.
No help will come from careless people. Moreover,
only people who believe in the common
folk will do it. Those who are aristocrats in
the sense that they do not believe that common
people can be trusted will not concern themselves
to increase the power of the Bible. But
for those who are thoughtful and essentially
democratic the duty is a very plain one. There
are four great agencies which may well magnify
the Bible and whose influence will bring the
Bible into increasing power in national life.

First among these, of course, must be the
Church. The accent which it will place on the
Bible will naturally be on its religious value,
though its moral value will take a close second
place. It is essential for the Church to hold
itself true to its religious foundations. Only
men who have some position of leadership can
realize the immense pressure that is on to-day
to draw the Church into forms of activity and
methods of service which are much to be
commended, but which have to be constantly
guarded lest they deprive it of power and concern
in the things which are peculiar to its own
life and which it and it alone can contribute to
the public good. The Church needs to develop
for itself far better methods of instruction in
the Bible, so that it may as far as possible drill
those who come under its influence in the knowledge
of the Bible for its distinctive religious
value. This is neither the time nor the place
for a full statement of that responsibility. It is
enough to see how the very logic of the life of
the Church requires that it return with renewed
energy to its magnifying and teaching of the

The second agency which may be called upon
is the press. The accent of the press will be
on the moral value of the Bible, the service which
its teaching renders to the national and personal
life. There seems to be a hopeful returning
tendency to allusions to the Scripture in newspaper
and magazine publications. It is rare to
find among the higher-level newspapers an
editorial page, where the most thoughtful writing
appears, in which on any day there do not
appear Scripture allusions or references. When
that is seriously done, when Scripture is used
for some other purpose than to point a jest, it
helps to restore the Bible to its place in public
thought. In recent years there has been a
noticeable return of the greater magazines to
consideration of the moral phases of the Scripture.
That has been inevitably connected with
the development of a social sense which condemns
men for their evil courses because of
their damage to society. The Old Testament
prophets are living their lives again in these
days, and the more thoughtful men are being
driven back to them for the great principles on
which they may live safely.

The third agency which needs to magnify the
Bible is the school. The accent which it will
choose will naturally be the literary value of the
Bible, though it will not overlook its moral
value as well. Incidental references heretofore
have suggested the importance of religion in a
democracy. But there are none of the great
branches of the teaching of the schools, public
or private, which do not involve the Bible. It
is impossible to teach history fairly and fully
without a frank recognition of the influence of
the Bible. Study the Reformation, the Puritan
movement, the Pilgrim journeys, the whole of
early American history! We can leave the Bible
out only by trifling with the facts. Certainly
literature cannot be taught without it. And if it
is the purpose of the schools to develop character
and moral life, then there is high authority for
saying that the Bible ought to have place.

Forty years ago Mr. Huxley, in his essay on
"The School Boards: What They Can Do, and
What They May Do," laid a broad foundation
for thinking at this point, and his words bear
quoting at some length: "I have always been
strongly in favor of secular education, in the
sense of education without theology; but I must
confess I have been no less seriously perplexed to
know by what practical measures the religious
feeling, which is the essential basis of conduct,
was to be kept up, in the present utterly chaotic
state of opinion on these matters, without the
use of the Bible. The pagan moralists lack life
and color, and even the noble stoic, Marcus
Aurelius Antoninus, is too high and refined for
an ordinary child. Take the Bible as a whole;
make the severest deductions which fair criticism
can dictate for shortcomings and positive
errors; eliminate, as a sensible lay teacher would
do if left to himself, all that is not desirable
for children to occupy themselves with; and there
still remains in this old literature a vast residuum
of moral beauty and grandeur. And then consider
the great historical fact that, for three centuries,
this Book has been woven into the life of
all that is best and noblest in English history;
that it has become the national epic of Britain,
and is as familiar to noble and simple, from
John-o'-Groat's House to Land's End, as Dante
and Tasso once were to the Italians; that it is
written in the noblest and purest English, and
abounds in exquisite beauties of mere literary
form; and, finally, that it forbids the veriest
hind who never left his village to be ignorant
of the existence of other countries and other
civilizations, and of a great past, stretching back
to the furthest limits of the oldest nations of the
world. By the study of what other book could
children be so much humanized and made to
feel that each figure in that vast historical procession fills,
like themselves, but a momentary
space in the interval between two eternities;
and earns the blessings or the curses of all time,
according to its effort to do good and hate evil,
even as they also are earning their payment for
their work? On the whole, then, I am in favor
of reading the Bible, with such grammatical,
geographical, and historical explanations by a lay
teacher as may be needful, with rigid exclusion
of any further theological teaching than that contained
in the Bible itself." Mr. Huxley is an Englishman,
though, as Professor Moulton says, "We
divide him between England and America." But
Professor Moulton himself is very urgent in this
same matter. If the classics of Greece and Rome
are in the nature of ancestral literature, an equal
position belongs to the literature of the Bible.
"If our intellect and imagination have been
formed by Greece, have we not in similar fashion
drawn our moral and emotional training
from Hebrew thought?" It is one of the curiosities
of our civilization that we are content
to go for our liberal education to literatures
which morally are at opposite poles from ourselves;
literatures in which the most exalted
tone is often an apotheosis of the sensuous,
which degrade divinity, not only to the human
level, but to the lowest level of humanity. "It
is surely good that our youth during the formative
period should have displayed to them, in a literary
dress as brilliant as that of Greek literature,
a people dominated by an utter passion for
righteousness, a people whose ideas of purity,
of infinite good, of universal order, of faith in
the irresistible downfall of moral evil, moved
to a poetic passion as fervid and speech as
musical as when Sappho sang of love or Eschylus
thundered his deep notes of destiny."[1]

[1] Literary Study of the Bible, passim.

But there is a leading American voice which
will speak in that behalf, in President Nicholas
Murray Butler, of Columbia University. In his
address as President of the National Educational
Association, President Butler makes strong plea
for the reading of the Bible even in public schools.
"His reason had no connection with religion. It
was based on altogether different ground. He
regarded an acquaintance with the Bible as absolutely
indispensable to the proper understanding
of English literature." It is unfortunate in the
extreme, he thought, that so many young men
are growing up without that knowledge of the
Bible which every one must have if he means
to be capable of the greatest literary pleasure
and appreciation of the literature of his own
people. Not only the allusions, but the whole
tone and bias of many English authors will become
to one who is ignorant of the Bible most
difficult and even impossible of comprehension.

The difficulties of calling public schools to
this task appear at once. It would be monstrous
if they should be sectarian or proselytizing.
But the Bible is not a sectarian Book.
It is the Book of greatest literature. It is the
Book of mightiest morals. It is governing history.
It is affecting literature as nothing else
has done. A thousand pities that any petty
squabbling or differences of opinion should prevent
the young people in the schools from realizing
the grandeur and beauty of it!

But the final and most important agency.
which will magnify the influence of the Bible
must necessarily be the home. It will gather
up all its traits, religious, moral, and literary.
Here is the fundamental opportunity and the
fundamental obligation. Robert Burns was right
in finding the secret of Scotia's power in such
scenes as those of "The Cottar's Saturday Night."
One can almost see Carlyle going back to his
old home at Ecclefechan and standing outside
to hear his old mother making a prayer in his
behalf. A newspaper editorial of recent date
says this decay of literary allusion is traceable
in part to the gradual abandonment of family
prayers. Answering President Butler, it is
urged that it is not so important that the Bible
be in the public schools as that it get back again
into the homes. "Thorough acquaintance with
the Bible is desirable; it should be fostered.
The person who will have to foster it, though,"
says this writer, "is not the teacher, but the
parent. The parent is the person whom Dr.
Butler should try to convert." Well, while
there may be differences about the school, there
can be none about the place of the Bible in the
home. It needs to be bound up with the earliest
impressions and intertwined with those impressions
as they deepen and extend.

So, by the Church, which will accent its religious
value; by the press, which will accent its
moral power; by the school, which will spread
its literary influence; and by the home, which
will realize all three and make it seem a vital
concern from the beginning of life, the Bible
will be put and held in the place of power to-day
which it has had in the years that are gone, and
will steadily gain greater power.


Back to Full Books