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Bible in Canadian history.

Professor Jones reminds everyone how phrases from the Bible have entrenched themselves in the English language because our forefathers and mothers regarded the Bible with such respect and love. He does not touch upon the current problem where new translations have reworded even the most familiar phrases of old into politically correct language, making memorization practically impossible.


From the Puritans' claim that they had been called by Providence to establish a New Jerusalem in America to the rhetoric of such worthies as Herman Melville who wrote in 1849 that the American people comprised a new providentially blessed Israel, and from Abraham Lincoln's frequent use of biblical texts in his public discourse to Ronald Reagan's declaration that the United States was a "city on a hill," the Bible and its language pervade American public life.

Long after Canadians and members of most other Western societies stopped reading their Bibles, or at least stopped talking publicly about what they read in them, debates over whether or not the Ten Commandments should or can be legally displayed in a public classroom still rage in the United States, most recently in Alabama. And in case our ears have become deaf to the invocations of the Deity and references to Jewish and Christian Scripture that punctuate the political speeches of activists as disparate in their aims as Jesse Jackson and Pat Buchanan, President Clinton's unabashed and much-photographed weekly excursions to church - Hillary in one arm, a thick, probably King James Version of the Bible in the other - remind us that the United States remains, or at least appears to remain, a Bible-soaked nation.

Of course, most Americans don't read the Bible. A recent survey revealed that only forty percent of Americans know which biblical figure delivered the Sermon on the Mount and only thirty percent of American teenagers can give an account of the traditional Easter story. So even were it true that, as the movie title has it, the Bible tells the "greatest story ever told," decidedly few Americans are reading it. Yet the notion that the United States, and particularly the old Southern Confederacy, remains the haunt of uncountable bible-thumpers persists.

A perplexing thing is that while Americans continue to recognize, however dimly, the monumental influence of the Bible in their history, Canadians seem to have forgotten that its roots go deep in their own nation's soil as well. Of course, if we gave the idea some thought most of us would quickly recognize that this must be true. Certainly the generations of Canadians who have gone before us were more familiar with the Bible than are their successors - and this in spite of the higher illiteracy rates that prevailed among them. In the same way that those who were illiterate in the Middle Ages learned to "read" the Bible presented to them in sermons, stained glass windows, plays, paintings and sculptures, so did Canadians who could not read the Bible for themselves nevertheless pick up biblical stories and language. Until recent decades the Bible filled Canada's air.

Even a slight perusal of nineteenth - and early twentieth - century newspapers reveals that the way Canadians spoke, wrote, and described their world and aspirations was deeply shaped by the Bible. James Hogg Hunter of the lowly Peterborough Farm and Dairy, for instance, wrote in late 1918 of how he was not surprised that Germany and its allies had lost the Great War, for God himself had fought on England's side. "[T]hey that be with us are more than they that be with them," Hunter confidently wrote, echoing the words of the Old Testament prophet Elisha.

Hunter was by no means unique in his application of biblical language and imagery to world events. Like the British, the French and most others involved in the war, the Germans no doubt quoted the Scriptures in defence of their own projects. Similarly, though in a much less serious vein, Canadians have waged political battles armed with biblical texts. One of the more humorous debates between Sir John A. Macdonald and his Liberal opponent Edward Blake was given to determining which of them better fitted the description of the Book of Esther's conniving and murderous Mede-Persian bureaucrat, Human, and which more closely resembled the eminently wise, patient and loyal Hebrew public servant, Mordecai. Unfortunately, like so much in politics, that important question was never resolved.

Again, liberal French-Canadian intellectuals in late nineteenth century Quebec like Gonzalve Doutre of the Institute Canadien claimed that civilized man was on the verge of crossing a new metaphorical Red Sea on the way to a promised land called human perfection. And stern nationalists such as Monseigneur L.F.R. Lafleche drew parallels between the biblical story of Abraham's journey into Canaan and Jacques Cartier's voyage to what would become New France. "What Christian," Lafleche queried, "believing in the dogma of an all-wise Providence controlling every event on earth, could fail to be struck by the resemblance between Abraham's behaviour when he took possession of the land God promised his descendants, and that of Jacques Cartier as he took possession of this Canadian territory to which, through his king's mandate, the same Providence had guided his footsteps?" In Lafleche's view, the French Canadians had indeed been given a divine mission - and this belief sustained a good number of French Canadians through many a trial through many a year.

Translations into native languages

Whatever the merits of Lafleche's theological surmising, there is no doubt that at the European settling of what would eventually become Canada, the Scriptures were there. When sick villagers at the future site of Montreal came to Cartier in search of physical cures, he read to them the opening verses of the Gospel of John and prayed that his God would breach the language barrier that separated him from the natives.

Cartier's prayer was answered in ways that he might not have expected, for over the following centuries numerous Canadian missionaries and their native converts devoted themselves to translating the Bible or portions of it into languages spoken by Canada's natives. In 1804 the Gospel of John was published in Mohawk; in 1810 into Labradorian Eskimo. The Western Plains Cree had the entire New Testament made available to them in 1859; in 1938 one C.E. Whitaker published his translation of the Gospel of Luke into Western Arctic Eskimo. Of course, the translator's first object was to convert natives to Christianity, but the publication of the Scriptures in more than twenty native tongues also served to preserve in writing native languages that might eventually have vanished altogether. As late as 1951, the British and Foreign Bible Society in Canada distributed 326 Bibles translated into Cree (Moose and Plains) and 27 in Ojibwa.

It was not only Canada's natives who benefited from the labours of those Canadians who sought to place the Bible in the hands of every one of their compatriots. When Scottish Highlanders were cleared off their land in the early nineteenth century and the future of Scots Gaelic was consequently jeopardized, British North American believers made the Scriptures in Gaelic translation available to Gaelic speakers who settled in Nova Scotia and elsewhere in British North America. And so too did the Welsh, Serbs, Poles, Chinese, Arabs, Japanese, Finns and others of some twenty-eight linguistic groups receive copies of the Bible, with the text translated into their own language set beside English. So just as the Bible was often the text of poor Canadian children who wanted to learn to read, so too was it the book through which numerous adult immigrants were first introduced to the English language.

Why the Bible?

But why the Bible? When in 1867 the Fathers of Confederation wanted to find an appropriate name for the new nation they had formed, why did they turn to Psalm 72:8 ("and he shall have dominion from sea to sea") and not to some other literary source? When abolitionists, prohibitionists, and suffragettes made their political cases, why did they so often rely on Scripture? Why not give precedence to some other great body of literature like, for instance, Shakespeare's? No one would deny that Shakespeare's influence on the English language, like the Bible's, has been great. Sure, we encourage one another to "turn the other cheek" (Jesus), but so do we "give the devil his due" (Shakespeare). Yes, we "fight the good fight" (St. Paul), tell underperforming employees that their "days are numbered" (Daniel), and call our friends the "salt of the earth" (Jesus), but so do we bid noisy neighbours "good riddance" and "send them packing" (Shakespeare).

Yet for all his brilliance and cultural influence, Shakespeare would be the first to acknowledge his own indebtedness to the Bible. The impress of the Bible on Shakespeare's mind makes itself apparent in every play he wrote, noted the late Northrop Frye, and in his Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (1992), David Lyle Jeffrey of the University of Ottawa lists some thirty-seven different scholarly works given to the exploration of Shakespeare's use of the Bible - and this is only a sample of the sources available on this topic.

So one obvious answer as to why Canadians would persist in reading the Bible and in teaching it to their children and to immigrants well into the twentieth century, is that it has been, far and away, the most influential book ever written, at least as far as Western civilization is concerned. Folks might have thought that one should read or at least be familiar with the Bible for the simple reason that being familiar with it was something most people had seemingly always done. Even French Quebec's Catholics, who did not often read the Bible for themselves, still had the Bible read to them week after week at Mass. And both Catholics and Bible-reading Protestants incorporated the Bible's language into their own lives and daily language, and many of the stock phrases we use today - e.g., "fight the good fight," "render unto Caesar," "pride goeth before a fall" - are evidence of that.

Yet the question "Why the Bible?" is still not really answered. For if at this point in history Canadians have decided that it isn't important to know from whence Milton got his notion of a "Paradise Lost" or a "Paradise Regained," or that it isn't important to be able to place Sir Wilfrid Laurier's, Mackenzie King's, Pierre Trudeau's, or even our own unwitting biblical allusions in their original contexts, then the ignorance of the Bible that seems to prevail at present should be of no concern to us.

Bible is Life

An important thing to know is what the Bible has to say about itself. While those who want to preserve biblical literacy primarily for cultural reasons have their good points, it is at least noteworthy that the Bible, which has a good deal to say about itself, never claims to be great literature. What the Bible claims to be, and what it claims to purvey is Life. "The words of the Lord are pure words" says the Hebrew psalmist, "as silver tried in the furnace of earth, purified seven times." And these words, the scriptures say of themselves again and again, are everlasting and satisfying.

But they also claim to be hard words. The writer of the Book of Hebrews says that "the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." Which is to say that the Bible claims to be an antidote to humbug; and in an age as devoted to humbuggery, self-promotion, and conceit as this one is, powerful words that aim to cut us to the existential quick make us nervous.

Yet the word of God heals. "The purpose of the Word itself," David Jeffrey writes, "has always been transparent: to minister peace by revealing as much of the necessary truth as we are able to bear." Perhaps it is safe to say, then, that our forebears read, taught, memorized and relied on the Bible not so much because it is great literature, though it is that. But rather they clung to the Bible, in spite of the abuse it has suffered at the hands of innumerable traditionless interpreters, because it ministers peace. "Those who love Thy law," the psalmist writes, "have great peace."

Professor Preston Jones recently moved from Quebec to California where he teaches Canadian and American history at Sonoma State University.
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Author:Jones, Preston
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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