Nearly 500 years ago, an obscure English priest named William Tyndale had a radical idea: He wanted to publish a version of the Bible translated from Latin into English so that ordinary people could read it for themselves. But Tyndale had more than just an idea -- he also had access to some cutting-edge technology: Johann Gutenberg's printing press. Together, Gutenberg's hardware and Tyndale's content changed the history of Western civilization.
This Independence Day, between picnics, summer sales, and fireworks, you might want to ponder what Tyndale's story says about the ability of the state or other powerful interests to regulate ideas and technology in the 21st century. Just look at China's attempts to restrict access to the Internet, or demands in the U.S. for government action to restrict pornography and hate speech. Think about local book banning by the politically correct left and the intolerant right, or the clumsy attempts of music publishers to kill Napster-like music downloading. The lesson is the same for them all: Those in power can block access to ideas and technology, but not for very long.
A RADICAL, WORRISOME TOME. I've been thinking about this because of a new book on my summer reading list, Wide as the Waters, by Benson Bobrick. It's an amazing tale. Tyndale's king, Henry VIII, banned the English Bible, destroyed every copy he could get his hands on, and demolished scores of monasteries throughout the country. Then, for good measure, he had Tyndale burned at the stake.
No matter. Not a year after Henry had Tyndale executed, there were so many Bibles flooding England that the king had no choice but to authorize a version of his own. Bobrick estimates that there were 50,000 English-language Bibles in Britain by 1532. People learned to read, they learned to question. And, soon after, the first seeds of democracy took root in the burned-over ground of religious intolerance.
Tyndale wasn't the first to translate the Bible into English. John Wycliffe did that in 1382. But except for a handful of clerics, intellectuals, and politicians, no one ever read Wycliffe's because copies weren't widely available.
By the time Tyndale completed his English version of the New Testament in 1525 and the Old Testament five years later, technology had changed everything. Gutenberg had printed a Bible -- in the traditional Latin -- in 1455. And by the 1500s, there were printing presses all over Germany, Holland, and Italy. Suddenly, the Bible was available to anyone who could read. Nothing could be more dangerous to the political and religious establishment of the time.
BURN RATE. Tyndale's Bibles, along with a later translation by Miles Coverdale, were printed on the Continent and smuggled into England. Henry's agents combed the ports, confiscating every one they could find. The authorities even took to buying them and burning what they purchased. The censorship failed dismally. (Beijing, take note.)
The priests and scholars were quite uncomfortable with the mass political movements that eventually grew out of the Bible's publication in English. But, Bobrick argues, their work set in motion the democratic urges that became the foundation for the American Revolution, which we'll all celebrate on July 4th. As one English king learned in 1525 and another in 1776, ideas and the technology to distribute them are exceedingly dangerous to the political and social establishment. And that's what makes them so important. Happy 4th. Gleckman is a a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online