Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the moveable type printing press in the mid-Fifteenth Century made possible the explosion of new Bible translations in the Sixteenth Century. Among others William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale and Thomas Matthew sought to cast the scriptures in the common peoples' language so that, as Tyndale put it, "the boy that driveth the plough should know more of Ythem"" than the educated man.
But translating the Word of God into the vernacular was a risky occupation: ecclesiastically-charged word choices made for the English text and the nature of the commentary that often accompanied it had the potential of challenging the authority of royalty and clerics alike.
An adherent to Catholicism, Henry's daughter Queen Mary actively persecuted the Protestant Church when she took the throne. Many Protestant leaders fled to continental Europe to avoid imprisonment or execution as a result of this turmoil and Geneva, Switzerland became a center for biblical textual scholarship by the 1550's. It was there that a number of the leading lights in Protestantism gathered to undertake a fresh translation of the scriptures into English, beginning in 1556.
The Genevans referred to a wide range of resources during the course of their translation work. They availed themselves of modern Bibles in English (particularly Coverdale's 1539 revision of Matthew, popularly known as the "Great Bible") and French (Pierre Robert Olivetans and Robert Estienne's translations). The scholars also consulted recent editions of the scriptures in Hebrew, Greek and Latin that were themselves the products of Protestant refugees living in Geneva.
The first fruit of the Geneva translators was an edition of the Book of Psalms (published in February, 1559) celebrating Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne of England the previous November. Elizabeth's rule ended persecution of the Protestants. Catholic bishops were deprived of their sees, the Church of England was restored and Edward VI's decree that a Bible should be placed in every church was reinstated. Many Protestants returned from exile as a consequence of these welcome measures.
The Book of Psalms had important features that would be emblematic of the Geneva Bible as well. Among these were text printed in readable roman type, italic type for words not in the original Hebrew and marks placed over the accented syllables to aid in pronouncing Hebrew proper names.
The Geneva Bible itself, appearing in April or May 1560, boasted further innovations that expanded its utility. These included division of the text into numbered verses, the placement of textual and explanatory commentary in the margins, maps, woodcuts illustrating biblical scenes and words or phrases at the heads of pages to promote scripture memorization.
Now there was an English Bible that met the needs of both clergy and laity. It can be argued that the Geneva Bible's greatest contribution was its ancillary commentary, which undergirded the emerging practice of sermonizing and helped foster scripture literacy.
From 1575 until 1618 at least one new edition of the Geneva Bible appeared each year. Unlike earlier Bibles that were only available in unwieldy folio volumes, the Geneva Bible was printed in a range of smaller sizes that made the Bible more portable and affordable to a greater audience. And while the Authorized Version of 1611 (King James Version) would eventually supplant the Geneva Bible in popularity, it is estimated that material from the latter accounted for nineteen per cent of the finished text of the AV.
English settlers that voyaged to the New World favored the Geneva Bible. It is probable that the Geneva Bible came to America in 1607 and was used in the Jamestown colony. Thirteen years later the Pilgrims brought it with them on the Mayflower's perilous voyage to religious freedom.