First Person

A Bible Story: A Geneva in the Family

My family Bible was printed in 1599. That date makes it almost certainly the oldest man-made object in the district of Melbourne where I live, apart, I suppose, from the chance Aboriginal spearhead or nulla nulla lurking beneath our streets, and older even than some of those. Queen Elizabeth I had but four years of her forty-five-year reign ahead of her when my Bible emerged from the printer, and it would be another five years after its printing before her successor King James I convened the Hampton Court Conference, which in 1611 completed the revised translation of the Bible into English known as the King James or Authorised Version. An anonymous annotation on a flyleaf—the annotations are the sole claim of this volume to uniqueness—observes that my Bible was 204 years old in 1803, the year the United Kingdom declared war on Napoleonic France. That was also the year of the first public railway, in Surrey, the invention of the reaping machine that made harvesting mechanical rather than manual, and the Louisiana Purchase.

Mine is a Geneva Bible, a translation of the scriptures informally known in English as a “Breeches Bible” on account of the singular rendering of Genesis 3:7, where it is stated that Adam and Eve “sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches”. The Authorised Version has them making themselves aprons and the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible has “loin-cloths”, the term used in many other translations. 

This memoir appears in December’s Quadrant.
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The Geneva Bible, first published in 1560—so that mine is very much not a first edition—was the first mass-produced Bible in English and the first to be printed on a mechanical press. It is the product of an age when church and state were inextricably entwined, and imprisonment and gruesome execution were the fate of those who found themselves out of step with the state’s religious policies. Like William Tyndale (1494–1536), the Protestant scholar who more than three decades earlier had produced the first—though illegal in then Catholic England—translation of the Bible into English, the translators of the Geneva Bible were unable to work in their home country; they had fled to the Protestant stronghold of Geneva, then a Calvinist republic, to avoid persecution under Queen Mary I, who at her accession in 1553 had restored Roman Catholicism after the Protestantising experiments of her father, Henry VIII, and adolescent half-brother Edward VI.

After the breach with Rome, Henry had persisted in regarding himself as a Catholic in good standing, insisting that the English Church retain pretty well en bloc the teaching and practice of Roman Catholicism, excepting that part that regarded the authority of the Pope. But he was pragmatic enough, with the Reformation in the ascendant in northern Europe, to commission a new translation of the Bible into English, which drew substantially on Tyndale’s version. It was called the Great Bible and was the first legally authorised Bible in English. At Henry’s behest this large and heavy volume was placed in every parish church in the realm, chained (unnecessarily one would have thought) to prevent theft, so that parishioners might gather round and read it.

The Geneva Bible was meant to be read at home. It was translated in the light of the best Protestant scholarship and, like the Great Bible, owed a considerable amount to Tyndale’s version. This, in turn, had been much influenced by the opinions of Martin Luther, whose cardinal points of difference with Catholicism, maintained by all Protestants since, were that man is saved by faith alone, that his own good works are thus vain and that the intervention of priests (and especially the Pope) has no foundation in Christ’s teaching. 

Protestants place great store by the Bible—“The Bible and the Bible only is the religion of Protestants,” wrote the Protestant apologist William Chillingworth in 1637. Roman Catholics were not encouraged to be assiduous Bible-readers, and the Scriptures, though foundational, were and are regarded as one element only, along with Church teaching and tradition, in the composition of doctrinal authority. This was the view as well of the High Church or Catholic-minded strand in the Church of England. The publication of the Geneva Bible took place two years after the death of Queen Mary and the accession of her half-sister Elizabeth I had ensured that the future course of the Church of England would be what might be defined as Protestant with a mildly Catholic complexion. Catholic-minded or High Church Anglicans would tend to reject the Geneva Bible as too much the product of an uncompromising Protestantism that dismissed tradition. The strength of its readership would be among the large numbers of Puritans and Nonconformists alienated from the Church of England, and so it was with my forebears.

The Old Testament in the Geneva Bible, though translated directly from the Greek, relied to a great extent on Tyndale’s translation and that of Myles Coverdale (1488–1569) a Protestant reformer thrice exiled and at one time Bishop of Exeter. The New Testament was translated into English from the French Calvinist Theodore Beza’s translation from the Greek by Laurence Tomson, personal secretary to the secretary of state to Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham. This would imply the Queen’s endorsement of the Geneva text.  

The Geneva Bible was first printed in Amsterdam and then in London. That it was still being printed thirty-seven years after publication testifies to its popularity. This must have been in part on account of its convenient size—my edition is twenty-three centimetres high, eighteen and a half centimetres wide and five and a half centimetres thick—and in part because of its helpfully didactic quality. There are text notes throughout explaining doubtful or obscure meanings. Passages and words of Scripture are cross-referenced in the manner of a concordance. The wide circulation of the Geneva Bible and its consequent influence on lay religious belief must therefore be considered an important factor in the consolidation and continuation of Protestantism in England, particularly outside the Anglican Church. And its influence was wider than that. It was the Bible used by Shakespeare and Bunyan. It was the Bible the Pilgrim Fathers took to America.

Geneva Bibles are not particularly rare. When my mother years ago rang the State Library of Victoria to ask if they were interested in knowing of ours, she was somewhat loftily told that the library had “several” such Bibles in its collection.

My edition, in its dark brown leather cover, with stamped borders and cartouche, polished with the patina of age, was printed in London by “the Deputies of Christopher Barker, Printer to the Queenes most excellent Maiestie” in 1599. The title page reads, in part:

The holy Scriptures conteined
In the Olde and New Testament
To the Ebrew and Greeke, and conferred with the
best translations in divers languages.
With most profitable Annotations upon all the hard
Places, and other things of great importance.

The last lines refer to the two tables, or indexes, “of the interpretation. Of [sic] the proper names which are chiefly found in the Old Testament” and “of the principall things that are contained in this Bible, after the order of the Alphabet”. There are woodcut illustrations (the twelve Apostles form the border of the New Testament title page) and a map of the Holy Land, complete with galleons on the “Mediterran Zea” (the translingual spelling is part of the map and presumably was untranslateable without replacement of the woodcut).

The Bible came into the possession of my Akehurst forebears at the start of the nineteenth century. It appears from the surnames of births and deaths with which its blank pages are occasionally inscribed to have belonged before that to a number of families, whose varying surnames suggest a descent at times through the female line. The particular charm of this Bible and its importance as a record of family history, though a very patchy one, lies in these annotations, which have been made in different hands in different inks and almost exclusively record births and deaths. One pictures the scene of a typical composition: the cottage room with swept stone floor, the pale eyesight-ruining candlelight, the supper of bread and cheese and ale in a pewter tankard cleared from the oak table, and the Bible laid open, very likely after a nightly reading, while the inscription is carefully written. Perhaps in the firelit flickering shadows the infant whose birth is being recorded lies crying in a cradle. Beyond the rough wooden door dogs bark and an owl hoots rhythmically and the world is full of blackness and fear. “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by the great mercy preserve us from all perils and dangers of this night,” the family may well have prayed around this hour.

The earliest of these inscriptions is of 1618 and records the birth of John Root, of whom we know nothing. Another hand, probably in the eighteenth century, has written some undated lines opposite the first page of Genesis:

Susannah Hawkings her Book
God give her Grace therein to Look
nott to Look But understand
that Loving is Better than house or Land

Underneath another name and surname are inscribed in another hand:

Frances Molesworth
July 23

Below are records of two deaths, again with different names:

Susannah Read departed this life
December 12 1782: aged 54

Was Susannah originally the Hawkings of the lines above? And under that:

Rich. Read departed this life
August 23 1789. Aged

But no age is given. Rich. Read did not live to see momentous times ahead. The Bastille had been stormed six weeks earlier.

An autobiographical entry written some years later compresses what must have been a great deal of loneliness:

John Vialls came to Windmill Street tottingham Court road Feb 10th 1762 & lived as a housekeeper in two houses in that street, namely no. 22 & 26 & left it June 24th 1799. I thank god whose mercy and goodness preserved me so long. human friends I know not that I have one, but the almighty has indeed often wonderfully appeared for me in times very Trying. blessed be his holy name. 

The houses of which Vialls was “housekeeper”—probably caretaker—have long gone. Windmill Street is a central London commercial street, still with busy Tottenham Court Road at its north-east end.

Perhaps the trying times referred to related to the loss of his son, for we read in the same handwriting in a separate entry on the second flyleaf:

The greatest calamity of my life was the death of my son Henry Vane Vialls who died May 4th 1807 aged 21 years 7 months & 10 days. I loved him much therefore my sorrow was extreme.

The sob of unsharable grief is not emolliated by the centuries.

There is no mention of John Vialls’s wife but he also had a daughter called Frances who in 1802 married a William Akehurst, son of Stephen Akehurst of Brasted in Kent. The Akehursts were and are numerous in Kent. They had originally been a Nonconformist family called Akers or Acers from the Midlands and had supported the Duke of Monmouth in his rebellion against his Catholic uncle, James II, in 1685. The rebellion was put down and, to avoid the attentions of Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes, in the words of my grandfather A.W.H. Akehurst in a typescript he left, “the Akers hastily changed their names and addresses and became the Akehursts of Kent”. It was with William Akehurst that the Bible came into our family.

His son, born on April 4, 1807, was christened William Vialls Akehurst. He and his wife Ann Purssell Stone emigrated to Melbourne on the John Mitchell in June 1849, presumably with the Bible in their luggage. William Vialls Akehurst had been trained as an architect, but when gold was discovered near Ballarat in 1851 he, his wife and children joined the rush. In the absence of transport they walked the 115 kilometres. There is no indication that they had any luck on the diggings.

The birth of William and Anne’s eldest son, Arthur Purssell Akehurst, on September 13, 1836, while they were still in England, is the subject of an unusually detailed entry, which includes the name of the “surgeon-accoucheur”. The baptismal entry below it is likewise detailed, noting that the child was baptised at the “Meeting-house of the Protestant Dissenters of the Denomination of Independents called Trevor Chapel near Trevor Square in the Parish of Saint Margaret’s”—here “Chelsea” has been mistakenly written and cross-hatched out and “Westminster” inserted. The family were still Nonconformist. The Trevor Chapel closed in 1902 and part of Harrods, the department store, is on the site. 

Arthur Purssell Akehurst enters Australian history at the Eureka Stockade. Having migrated to Geelong as an eighteen-year-old and begun work as a law clerk, he was enlisted as a special constable in the suppression of the miners’ rebellion. In the course of the fighting a digger named Henry Powell, who took no part of the rising, died of bayonet and bullet wounds and Akehurst was accused of murder. He was acquitted—unjustly, according to the contemporary writer Raffaello Carboni, who recounts the case in detail in his 1855 book The Eureka Stockade—because Powell’s dying deposition was ruled inadmissible.

Arthur Purssell Akehurst went on to become a magistrate and senior and respected public servant. The father-in-law of one of his daughters was a Colonel Cheke, described by my grandmother as “the wickedest man in India”, though there were plenty of candidates for that distinction. We still have his sword (though not Arthur Purssell’s).

Despite, or because of, his prominent career, Arthur was never much loved. He was remembered by my grandfather, his nephew, as “a martinet (like his father before him)” and on the bench “a terror to evildoers”. (Perhaps his inspiration was Judge Jeffreys.) His life is recorded in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

The last family annotation records the birth of Arthur Purssell’s brother Alfred Cephas Akehurst, my great-grandfather, through whose daughter, a founder of Korowa, the Anglican girls’ school in Glen Iris, Victoria, the Bible came to my father in his infancy in 1914.

The Akehurst family had veered from Non­conformity to Anglicanism but by then the Bible was less an adjunct to piety than a family heirloom. In my own childhood it was lodged in a strongbox at the bank and only rarely taken out for family inspection or to show a curious friend. And so, wrapped in brown paper, it came down to me.

In 2012 I had the Bible conserved by Melbourne bookbinder John Stinson OAM, who is renowned for his sensitive treatment of old and delicate books. He fashioned a suitable case for it, in which he has inserted a description of the repairs to binding and paper and related works he undertook. Genealogist Liz Rushton, a distant cousin who lives in Perth, has brought the family tree up to date and a printed copy of this is also contained with the Bible in its case. This family treasure is now in a condition that will secure its existence for another 422 years, if anyone is still interested in Bibles by then.

Possession of an historic object is a reminder of one salutary truth. We never really own anything, or as the Bible puts it (1 Timothy 6:7, Geneva rendering) “For wee brought nothing into the world and it is certaine, that we can carie nothing out.” The family Bible is no more—or no less—mine than it was Susannah Hawkings’s. We are but stewards of all we claim as our own.

Christopher Akehurst, a regular contributor, lives in Melbourne. He wrote “Chipping Away at Names for the Nation” in the September issue

5 thoughts on “A Bible Story: A Geneva in the Family

  • Andrew Campbell says:

    I grew up with the Family Bible (Authorised Version) read by all of us every morning. ‘No Bible, no breakfast’ my father said. And then we prayed – everyone – or had to say, ‘Lord, I don’t want to pray today.’ But as a result we all became excellent readers (after all, if you have to read ‘Methuselah’ age 7 then ‘the boy sat on the log’ is child’s play. Another unintended consequence is that the family bible fell apart from daily use in a generation (and acquired a few marmalade stains). But it doesn’t matter, we all ‘got’ the Christian faith, with God’s Word taught and lived, daily.

  • sfw says:

    Very interesting. I grew up Catholic, everyone I knew was Catholic yet I didn’t and still don’t know anyone who had a family bible. I guess I knew people and relatives that had a bible but they were usually cheap versions stuck in a bookcase somewhere. Different worlds for different people.

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    Sfw, same here. We got our bible readings from our missals. But I owned a bible, and knew it well enough to recognise the intellectual atrocity of the later plain English version.

  • Daffy says:

    The loss of Henry Vialls. So much heartache and grief in so few words.

  • subrosa says:

    what a beautiful heirloom!

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