The history of Bible translation is full of adventurous lives: William Tyndale, Martin Luther and John Eliot, to name but a few. But perhaps there is no more strange and moving story of God’s providence in Bible translation work than William Bedell’s.
William Bedell was an ordinary English rector of the seventeenth century, whose life led him, by way of Venice, to the work of translating the Bible into Irish Gaelic.
William was born of puritan parents in Black Notley, Essex. He was a diligent and bookish child and went through the usual rigours of education of that time — leaving him deaf in one ear after a blow on the head from his teacher!
He had a solid reputation for scholarship by the time he left Cambridge. We have no record of his conversion experience, but his later writings and sermons, as well as the testimony of those who knew him and heard him preach, leave us in no doubt that he loved and followed the Lord Jesus Christ.
Bedell settled down as the rector of St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds. Here, in a district already known for the puritan inclinations of its inhabitants, he quickly became well known for his preaching and catechism classes, which were attended with enthusiasm by children and adults alike.
Here he fully intended to spend the rest of his days in his Master’s service. His only thoughts of a change were directed towards obtaining a parish where the congregation was smaller, since his voice was rather weak.
To his great surprise, however, he received a summons to accompany the colourful Sir Henry Wotton, ambassador to the Most Serene Republic of Venice, as his chaplain while in that city.
Sir Henry Wotton, poet, architectural expert and ambassador, is most well known for his pun that ‘ambassadors are honest men sent to lie abroad for their country’ (‘lie’, at that time, also meant ‘stay’).
As part of Sir Henry’s entourage, Bedell was thrown into a religious and political world encompassing some of the leading figures of the day.
Venice was embroiled in her great power struggle with the pope. The Republic had been placed under his interdict, but her clergy defiantly carried on their duties, with the exception of the Jesuits, who, when they refused to conform to the Doge’s wishes, were banished from the city.
The foremost theologian in Venice, advisor to the Doge and power behind his ecclesiastical policy, was the Servite monk Paolo Sarpi, an enigmatic intellectual giant, friend of Galileo and Bacon.
Sarpi’s influence on European Protestantism in the seventeenth century was immense, owing to his trenchant and brilliantly argued book, The history of the Council of Trent.
This book, smuggled out of Venice in little pieces and published anonymously in London, was based on personal interviews with the council’s participants and documents no longer extant. It characterised the council as a bogus affair and not a true church council at all, that had concentrated on consolidating the power of the papacy.
Sarpi took Bedell to his heart as soon as he met him and, under cover of learning English, began discussing with him plans for a Venetian Reformation. At least that is how Bedell saw it.
Pleased with his reception by Sarpi and his circle, Bedell made moves, with Sir Henry Wotton’s backing, to hold Protestant services in the chapel at the ambassador’s residence, not only in English (allowed by the Venetian senate to the deep anger of the pope) but also in Italian (not allowed).
Sir Henry arranged for Giovanni Diodati, an Italian Protestant living in exile in Geneva, to visit Venice to discuss the formation of a Protestant congregation. Diodati had translated the Bible into Italian (it was a translation Bedell greatly admired and continued to use regularly for the rest of his life). But Sarpi had never envisaged going so far, so fast. ‘God has not given me the spirit of Luther’, he declared.
Diodati, realising the situation, advised caution and declared his unwillingness to become the minister of the proposed Venice congregation. Bedell’s offer to do the job himself only caused more embarrassment. Although he and Sarpi remained friends, Venice never had a reformation.
Bedell returned from his stint as chaplain in Venice to his old congregation at Bury St Edmunds, moving soon from there to nearby Horningsheath (now called Horringer), where the smaller congregation was more suited to his voice. But he brought some precious things back with him from Venice, in addition to his experiences and friendship with Sarpi.
While in Venice, he had made an interesting purchase through the help of Rabbi Leon of Modena, with whom he had studied Hebrew — a three volume manuscript of the Hebrew Old Testament. This was of great age, beauty and accuracy, and later to be of service to Bedell in his great work of translation.
He also brought home a selection of Italian garden tools (he was a keen gardener) and, most valuable of all (for what is more valuable than a human soul?), an Italian doctor and convert from Romanism, Jaspar Despotine, who wished to live and worship in a Protestant country.
Once more, Bedell settled down to his parish duties. Once more, his catechism classes were famous. Once more, his preaching, solidly expository, was deeply appreciated by his people, who found he made even hard Bible passages easier to understand.
He married a godly widow with four children. He looked after his garden. As far as he was concerned, Venice had been an interlude or interruption and now he could settle down for the rest of his life, serving his Saviour by preaching, writing, catechising and carrying out parish work. But this was not to be.
In Venice Bedell had acquired a reputation with both Sir Henry Wotton and Giovanni Diodati. The latter, when visiting England, was surprised to find his old friend labouring away in a country parish despite his great erudition, and he had a word with some powerful friends.
The outcome, to poor Bedell’s amazement and his wife’s trepidation, was that he was commanded by King Charles I to take up the vacant situation of Provost of Trinity College in Dublin.
Diodati seems to have set the ball rolling and Wotton wrote to the king explaining that this seemingly ordinary country rector was the great friend of none other than the highly esteemed Paulo Sarpi.
Once in Dublin, Bedell found affairs in the college in a very bad state. He set to work at once, finding the college’s neglected statutes in a loose bundle of papers and reorganising them, tightening up college discipline, and endeavouring to stem the violence that erupted between English and Irish students.
Almost at once, he noticed a fundamental problem in both the college and Irish church life generally. There was a great lack of ministers who could speak Irish.
Since the vast majority of ordinary Irish people could speak only Irish, Bedell set about rectifying the problem. He employed an Irish speaker to teach the students and he learnt the language himself.
The whole Bible had not been translated into Irish either; there was a New Testament, not widely available, and that was all.
Bedell had just begun to get his teeth into the college’s problems and get a grip on the chaotic situation, when, once again, powerful friends (without asking) propelled him into a yet higher sphere of church life when he would far rather have stayed where he was. In 1629 he was made Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh.
As a bishop, Bedell grappled energetically with all the abuses that weighed down the Church of Ireland, abuses that made it hard to reach the people of Ireland with the gospel.
To be concluded
The author is married, with three grown up children, and lives in Snowdonia. She is secretary of the Christian Education for Deeside Exam Centre for Christian home educators and has compiled a curriculum for Christian home education called The mothers’ companion.