Asif M Basit
The Promised Messiah, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, peace be upon him, states in his book Chashma-e-Masihi:
“It should also be remembered that the clergy’s collection of scriptures is completely worthless and even embarrassing. They whimsically declare some books to be divine and others to be forged. They judge these four Gospels to be authentic and the rest – about 56 of them – forged. But this belief is based on mere conjecture and speculation, rather than on any concrete evidence. They have had to make these decisions by themselves, for there is a marked discrepancy between these and the other Gospels. Researchers, however, believe that it is not possible to determine which of them is actually forged and which is not. This is why, on the occasion of King Edward’s Coronation, the Church fathers of London presented him with the books that they presume to be forged along with the four Gospels, all bound in one volume. I possess a copy of this Bible.
“Now, if these books had really been forged and were unholy, would it not be sinful to bind the holy and the unholy in a single volume? The fact is that these people are unable to say with any degree of conviction whether any of these books are authentic or forged, and everyone goes by their own opinion. Out of mere prejudice, they declare those Gospels to be fabricated which are in accord with the Holy Quran. Hence they have declared the Gospel of Barnabas to have been forged because it contains a clear prophecy about the Prophet of the Latter Days [the Holy Prophetsa].” 1
The Promised Messiahas is here referring to the books that have been left out from inclusion in the Bible due to being branded as non-canonical, commonly known as the Apocrypha.
The books that contain prophecies about the advent of the Holy Prophetsa of Islam have also been classed in the Apocrypha. Why these books have remained doubtful and kept away from being included in the Bible is an interesting story.
The “story of the making of the Bible would be very incomplete”, says J Paterson Smith, “without some account of the Apocrypha, i.e. the books which stood nearest in esteem to the recognised Scriptures, but were denied a place in the Canon”. 2
Acknowledging that lines were drawn to distinguish between canonical and non-canonical books of the Bible at some stage in history, Smith suggests that “wherever the line had been drawn there must always be some borderland books just outside the boundary. Practically these are what is meant by Apocryphal Books”.
The word Apocrypha means “hidden” or “kept from public use”. Why? The answers given by historians of the Bible range between the content of these books being too high for the crowd, to being mysterious in their meanings, to being defiant in leading the general public in a direction desired by the clergy.
For Roman Catholics, the Apocryphal books are placed with the inspired works of Hebrew Scriptures, where the Greek Church holds them between the Roman position and that of their own orthodoxy, giving them a sub-canonical value; the Church of England takes them as non-canonical, but useful as an appendix that is helpful in understanding the canonical texts. Most Protestant churches reject them altogether.
With next-to-no understanding of Biblical scriptures and their authenticity, I do not intend to go into details of how the Bible has taken shape over centuries. Brilliant work on this particular area has been carried out by Ahmadi scholars like Mir Mahmud Ahmad Nasir Sahib, most of it published in Mawazna-e-Mazahib.
We take the above as a specimen to prove the statement of the Promised Messiahas about the church being unsure and uncertain and grossly split on deciding which books comprise the Bible and which ones do not.
The above extract, where the Promised Messiahas mentions the Coronation Bible of King Edward VII, was presented by a Jamia UK student to Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa during a mulaqat. The student, Ibtesam Mirza Sahib, had asked Huzooraa how and where the Bible could possibly be found. Huzooraa graciously directed him to convey his instruction to me that I should try and find it.
So started a journey of many months, which, with Huzoor’saa prayers and Allah’s grace, saw fruition in November 2019. The search was a difficult one and seemed not to be getting anywhere. However, I was convinced that since the Promised Messiahas has specially mentioned this point, there must be more attached to the story. That the Promised Messiah’sas caliph had instructed a research to be conducted fuelled more conviction and motivation to the pursuit.
What a pleasure it was, when I eventually found it, to see that there actually was much more attached to the story. I was left with my faith strengthened in the fact that no word uttered or written by the Promised Messiahas should be deemed unimportant.
The Bible presented to King Edward VII on his Coronation was found in the Lambeth Palace Library – the headquarters of the Church of England – that archives the records of the Archbishops of Canterbury. Since the Bible in question was presented to the King in the Coronation ceremony by Frederick Temple – the then Archbishop of Canterbury – it was, after an extensive search, found in the archival collection titled F Temple.
What was found with it was a plethora of correspondence that took place between the Archbishop of Canterbury and other notable officials around the issue of the Coronation Bible. This correspondence brings to surface the problem faced by the Church of England, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Palace and the press in reaching the conclusion as to what books to be included in the book that can be called the “correct” Bible.
A selection from this correspondence that shows how the story unfolded is presented below in chronological order.
Preparations of the Coronation
The Coronation was scheduled to take place on 26 June 1902, but had to be postponed at the last minute as the King fell ill and had to undergo surgery; it took place instead on 9 August in the Westminster Abbey.
The preparations, however, had been underway from the start of the year. The first letter in this regard is written by the editor of Debrett’s Dictionary – a who-is-who style dictionary of the UK – to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The letter, dated 27 February 1902, reads:
“The Editor of ‘Debrett’ presents his compliments, and would feel greatly obliged if His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury could favour him with any particulars regarding the Bible which will be used in the coming Coronation ceremony, as he would like to add it to a small ‘Debrett’ volume now in course of preparation.”
The Archbishop wrote a reply-note on the corner of this letter saying, “Say I have no information on the subject.”
The Debrett’s Dictionary of the Coronation, when published, carried an entry that read:
“The Coronation Bible: There is no official Bible on which the Coronation Oath is taken, a new one being provided at each coronation. The one used by Queen Victoria was given after the coronation to the Bishop of Winchester, and was afterwards in the possession of his son, the Rev. J. H. Sumner, of Buriton, Hants.
“Strange to say, though there is not an official Bible on which the Coronation Oath is sworn, there is yet, preserved in the MSS. Of the Cottonian Library at the British Museum a Latin translation of the Four Gospels, in MS. Of course, on which tradition says that the early English Kings took their Coronation Oaths. It is a quarto volume of 217 leaves, and was written seemingly about the end of the ninth century.” 3
The next letter on this issue was written from the Farnham Castle by the Bishop of Winchester to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Farnham has held a very prestigious status in the Church of England, owing to it being the seat of the Bishop of Winchester. This letter from Farnham – where the headquarters of the Promised Messiah’sas Jamaat was to be established 117 years later – stirred up the controversy that the Promised Messiahas has referred to in Chashma-e-Masihi.
The Bishop of Winchester was, and is to this day, ordained directly by the Crown. In 1902, this post was held by Rev Randall Davidson who was a very close confidant of the Crown.
Davidson wrote to Frederick Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the following letter:
1st March, 1902
My dear Lord Archbishop,
I understand that it has been arranged that the Bible Society is to prepare and present the Bible to be used at the Coronation. I presume this means the Bible actually given to the Sovereign by the Archbishop with the accustomed words. It is further stated that this must mean the Bible in its entirety as officially used in the Church of England at Lecterns and elsewhere i.e. that it must include the Apocrypha. I cannot think the Bible Society can have been in any doubt about this, but, to avoid possibility of mistake, I ought to tell you that the King spoke to me about it yesterday, and desired me to communicate with you, and to say that it is essential that the Bible in question should be as heretofore the full volume, including the Apocrypha.
“If the question has come before you in any way, perhaps you will be able to secure that the Bible Society understand this. They will know how to arrange matters best.
respectfully and dutifully yours
(Winton being the Latin name of Winchester; Actual name, Randall Davidson.)
So, we see here that the Bishop of Winchester insists on having the Apocrypha added to the copy of the Coronation Bible to be presented to Edward VII. The demand to having the Apocrypha included seems obviously very pressing.
In another letter, strangely dated the same as the above letter, the Bishop of Winchester attributes this demand to the King himself. The letter reads:
1st March, 1902
My dear Lord Archbishop,
I told the King yesterday about the Bible Society difficulty, and he directed that we should say distinctly that the Bible to be used must be the ordinary Bible required officially in the Church of England for use on Lecterns or elsewhere – i.e. that it must include the Apocrypha. If the Bible Society cannot comply with this, it is for them surely to say so. I have never had any communication with them or anybody else about this difficulty, so I do not know to whom to write. Perhaps the enclosed letter to yourself might be sent on by you to somebody who has approached you about it, or to the Bible Society themselves. But you will know how best to arrange this. Or I will, if you prefer it, write to the Bible Society, if you will tell me how the difficulty has found expression.
Yours affectionately and dutifully
A reply note by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the top of this letter reads:
“Letter to Marquis of Northampton”.
William Compton, 5th Marquess of Northampton, was president of the British and Foreign Bible Society (referred to as BFBS henceforth) in 1902.
This command of the Bishop of Winchester was communicated to the BFBS. How they responded, we shall come to that later. What is more appropriate here is a brief introduction to the Apocryphal controversy of the 19th century, and also of the BFBS.
The Apocryphal controversy of the 19th century
During the decades of 1830 and 1840 – the time of the birth of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas of Qadian – the millennial debate had gained momentum and two distinct groups had been formed.
One group was commonly seen as “historicist”, while its advocates liked to call it the “Protestant view”. This group had established that the likely date of the second advent of Christ would be around 1866-1868. By 1855, it was thought that most Evangelical clergy favoured this estimate. 4
While this group was busy in identifying signs of the second advent that had become manifest, the other group, known as the “Catholic Apostolic Church” relied on a moderate type of futurism: waiting for the preambular prophecies to come true before the second advent of Christ; “futurists” they were hence known as. 5
John Nelson Darby, a stalwart advocate of this viewpoint, elaborated that the predictions of the second advent would be fulfilled only after the believers, both alive and the resurrected dead, had been caught up to meet Christ in the air; the so-called rapture. 6
Darby’s view was termed as “dispensationalism” – for its sharp distinction between periods of divine dealings with mankind. This view gained more popularity in the 20th century. 7
These debates on understanding the revelation regarding Jesus Christ’s second coming paved way for questioning the authenticity of the books that comprise the Bible.
Although this era witnessed a sharp rise, the debate on authenticity had existed almost throughout the history of Christianity. The famous evangelist, Henry Martyn (1781-1812; not to be confused with Dr Henry Martyn Clarke who famously had a debate with the Promised Messiahas) was in Carach (Persia) in May 1812 – the last year of his life. He was questioned by two Muslims – “gentlemanly gentle” as Henry Martyn recalled them in his memoirs – about the authenticity of the Bible and about it being divinely revealed. “The sense from God,” replied Henry, “but the expression from the different writers of it.” 8
Henry Martyn must have inherited this approach of not believing in verbal inspiration from his mentor, Charles Simeon – an English evangelical clergyman who inspired Henry to forsake his career as an academic and become a clergyman. Following in the footsteps of Simeon, Henry too would confess the Bible’s “inexactness in reference to philosophical and scientific matters”.9
Around the same time, there were evangelical clergy, like Daniel Wilson, who held that the Bible was preserved from error in matters only “relating to religion”. 10 TH Horne in his four-volume work of 1818, quite freely admits there being discrepancies in the text of the scripture. 11
Philip Doddridge (d. 1751) had laid foundations for such a school of thought where distinctions were made “between different modes of inspiration, so that some passages were held to afford greater insight than others into the divine mind”. This view predominated the debate around “divine inspiration” of the scriptures in the 1800s, especially in the circles of the London Evangelical leaders. 12
In 1816 appeared a view that conflicted the Doddridgean view of different degrees of inspiration. This view was zealously advocated by the Scottish evangelical Robert Haldane, who suggested that parts of the Bible could not be accepted or rejected according to the judgment of human reason and that the whole of the Bible ought to be accepted in totality despite therein being “things evidently mysterious”. 13 He claimed, in his work “The Evidence and Authority of Divine Revelation” (published 1816), that the scriptures make “a claim of infallibility and of perfection” for their own inspiration.14
Haldane’s views played a great role in brewing the Apocrypha controversy that broke out in the British and Foreign Bible Society in the 1820s. 15
The BFBS was founded in 1804 and had taken upon itself the task to publish affordable Bibles for the general public across Europe. All their versions of the Bible included the Apocrypha, as was customary among the Catholics and the Protestants alike.
Haldane saw this policy as adulteration of the pure word of God, where uninspired material, i.e. the Apocrypha, was mingled with the inspired scripture. He bitterly criticised the BFBS’s conduct, which he saw as a Simeonian view, of distributing the Apocrypha with the canonical works as a means to promoting theological heterodoxies.16 Simeon and the secretaries of the BFBS saw the inclusion of the Apocrypha as a means of increasing acceptability of Bible and were, thus, reluctant to abandon the practice. However, the pressure mounted so much that the BFBS succumbed to not only abstain from inclusion of the Apocrypha in their future editions of the Bible, but also agreed to withdraw existing Bibles containing the Apocrypha from stock.
Haldane’s view was victorious and it became part of the BFBS byelaws that any Bible published under their auspices would be one without the Apocrypha. Haldane ensured that not only the BFBS but any Bible Society should ever include the Apocrypha in their Bibles. Despite his victory, his fury did not seem to calm down as he accuses the BFBS of having accepted his proposal not by way of admitting that their previous practice was “unlawful”, but “in deference to public opinion”. 17
However, the BFBS made it their policy never to include the Apocrypha in the Bibles that they published thenceforth.
The BFBS refuses to print the Coronation Bible
Upon receiving the instruction of the Bishop of Winchester, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to William Compton, the Marquess of Northampton and then president of the BFBS. The Archbishop’s letter read as follows:
“Lambeth Palace S.E.
4 March 1902
My dear Lord Marquis
It is my duty to prepare the office to be used at the Coronation on June 26th in Westminster Abbey and in discharge of that duty, I have to see that what is required for that office is in accordance with rule. I am informed that the B & F Bible Society have obtained permission to prepare and supply the Bible which is to be presented in the course of the Ceremony. And I write to you as their President knowing the rules of that Society (to which I am myself a subscriber). I think it just possible that in making their request the officers of the Society may not have realised that according to precedent the Bible must be an entire Bible such as is officially used in the Church of England, and must therefore include the Apocrypha.
“The matter has been submitted to the King and I have received His Majesty’s command to inform the Society that it is essential that the Bible in question should be as heretofore the full volume including the Apocrypha.
“May I ask you to communicate His Majesty’s decision to the Society accordingly.
I am, my dear Lord Marquis,
[signed] F Cantuar”
(Frederick Temple signed his letters as F Cantuar, Cantuar being Canterbury in Latin)
William Compton, president of the BFBS, wrote back to the Archbishop of Canterbury stating:
“March 7 1902
My dear Lord,
I have to thank you for your letter in which you inform me of His Majesty’s command regarding the Bible to be used at the Coronation Service. I will at once communicate its contents to the British & Foreign Bible Society & will write again when the offices & Committee of that Society have had time to meet & consider the matter. In the meantime, I can assure you that no one knew of the precedent to which your letter refers.
Humbly, faithfully and Sincerely
(Being the Marquess of Northampton, William Compton signed his letters as “Northampton”)
A note on Northampton’s letter by the Archbishop of Canterbury reads, “To await another letter”; most probably one to do with the outcome.
In the meantime, other publishers were getting in touch with the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding other material to do with the Coronation. Oxford and Cambridge University Presses had a long history of publishing the Bible and other material to do with Christianity. Henry Frowde, the then manager of the Oxford University Press wrote:
“Oxford University Press Warehouse
Amen Corner, London E.C.
May 21st 1902
My Lord Archbishop,
I have the pleasure to send for your Grace’s acceptance a copy of the Coronation Prayer Book which is dedicated by permission to the King.
Your Grace’s obedient servant
[signed] Henry Frowde”
The Archbishop of Canterbury must have been glad to have other printers as an alternative to the BFBS.
The awaited letter from Northampton to the Archbishop of Canterbury arrived at the end of March. It was a clear refusal, albeit wrapped in polite wording, to publish a Bible that included the Apocrypha.
March 21st 1902
My dear Lord Archbishop
Your letter of the 4th has been laid before the Committee of the British and Foreign Bible Society, and I am charged to express our deep regret that the Bible which is alone circulated and sold by our Society and which does not contain the Apocrypha, cannot be used at His Majesty’s Coronation Service. Our Society, as your Grace rightly assumes, was unaware of the precedent mentioned in your letter. The spirit of the rules of the Society is too definite to enable them to act in accordance with that precedent, and they are therefore, compelled to relinquish very unwillingly the provision of the Coronation Bible.
“The Society begs me thank your Grace for your Kind and courteous intimation of His Majesty’s commands.
Yours very faithfully and sincerely
A note on the corner of this letter by Archbishop reads, “Can the Bishop of Winchester tell me how the Bible is usually provided? F Cantuar”. Another note says “Written”.
This is where the confusion comes to surface, where no one seems to know, even in the top ranks of the Church of England, as to which books make the Bible and which ones do not. There comes a mention of a “precedent” but what it is based on seems to be not known.
The editors of the Debrett’s Dictionary had enquired directly from the Archbishop of Canterbury about the kind of Bible that is presented at the Coronation. To this, as quoted above, the Archbishop of Canterbury had written back saying that he had “no information on the subject.” The Debrett’s Dictionary was, hence, quite right in stating that there was, by then, “no official Bible on which the Coronation Oath is taken”.
However, the Bishop of Winchester replied to the Archbishop’s query about the Coronation Bible saying:
“Farnham Castle, Surrey
24 March 1902
My Dear Archbishop
I do not at all know from when the Bible used at the former Coronation was procured but I fancy I heard that the University Press claimed the right to supply it. Would it not be best that we should now write to the Duke of Norfolk asking whether it is desired that you should obtain, or rather ‘order’, the necessary Bible? It is important now that no mistake should be made and that the Bible used should be complete – Apocrypha and all!
“I saw the Duke of Norfolk today and found to my chagrin that the meeting of your Privy Council Committee, to sanction the publication of the ‘Service’ cannot be held until the third week in April at the earliest and that until then, the ‘publication’ must be held over! I hoped it had!”
By now, the press had sniffed the muddle and stories about the top brass of the Church being unable to decide on defining a standard Bible had started to surface. The Times, on 28 April 1902, reported on the Coronation preparations and touched upon the topic in the following words:
“Some time ago the King signified his willingness that the Bible to be presented to him at the Coronation service in Westminster Abbey should be a gift from the British and Foreign Bible Society. The Archbishop of Canterbury has written to the society, stating that, according to precedent, it is essential that ‘this must be an entire Bible, such as is officially used in the Church of England, an must, therefore, include the Apocrypha.’ After consultation with the committee of the society, Lord Northampton has written to the Archbishop expressing deep regret that the Bible which is alone circulated by the society, and which does not contain the Apocrypha, cannot be used at the Coronation service”. 18
There are three letters from the Marquess of Northampton (dated 13, 26 and 29 April, 1902) asking the Archbishop’s permission to publish his letter that demanded the inclusion of the Apocrypha and Northampton’s reply, as the press was now picking up the issue and the general public was left to form a negative opinion.
One such letter that reflects the general public’s opinion came directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury from Robert Baird, a newspaper proprietor from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Quoting others, Baird very plainly communicated the abusive outburst of certain circles of the public. The letter read:
May 15th 1902
My Dear Archbishop
As a very humble laboring man, I beg to inform your Grace what the workingmen who are members of the Church of Ireland have said and are saying of your Grace’s recent action assuming it to be true as reported in a recent issue of Modern Society, ‘His Grace the Archbishop of Cant. has sternly snubbed the Society for British and Foreign Circulation of the Gospel by refusing at the eleventh hour the Bible prepared by the Earl of Northampton and his society for the Coronation on the grounds that it is only part of the Bible as the one officially in use contains the Apocrypha, also that his Grace’s action in not Apocryphal’. They say that there is not anything in history more ‘highly immoral’ than is your Grace’s action in telling the world after centuries that there is one Bible ‘canonical for the Bishops and clergy’ and another for the ‘laity’ being the Bible without the ‘apocrypha’, which is now for the first time, pronounced to be ‘essential’.
“Your Grace may make the workingmen ‘infidels’ but not papists. ‘The aging thief went by the Grace of Christ to be with Him’ ‘But there is no reliable account where the learned priests and scribes went who rejected Him’ ‘They knew the grammar’. ‘The democracy maple and unmaple governments it is by their Grace that your Grace sits in the chair of Canterbury. Christ called His house a house of prayer, but you have made it a “den of smokers”.’
Ever your Grace’s humble servant
The Archbishop left a note on the letter, quite understandably, saying “nil”.
As The Times covered the controversy in their issue of 28 April, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave consent for the said letters to be published through a note given on Northampton’s last letter; one that pointed out The Times’ report. The fire was there but adding fuel by remaining silent could, they must have thought, be avoided.
The Archbishop of Canterbury had, in the meantime, decided that offers of the Cambridge and Oxford University Presses be availed and had the Coronation Bible printed as a joint publication of both the esteemed organisations. Henry Frowde from Oxford University Press wrote to Rev William Conybeare, the Domestic Chaplain of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the following letter:
“Oxford University Press Warehouse
Amen Corner, London, E.C.
June 19, 1902
Dear Mr Conybeare,
Mr Clay [manager of Cambridge University Press] and I will bring the Coronation Bible to Lambeth Palace at one o’clock tomorrow.
“We are greatly obliged to His Grace for so kindly asking us to remain to luncheon.
Yours very truly
So, the Holy Bible, or the “whole” Bible shall we say, was presented to King Edward VII on his Coronation on 9 August 1902. This Bible, that included the Apocrypha, was printed as a joint venture of the Oxford University Press and the Cambridge University Press.
It was this controversy that the Promised Messiahas presented as a proof, that even the topmost clergymen of the Church are unsure about the authenticity of the Bible.
The defining lines between the canonical and non-canonical have been drawn at the will and desire and understanding of humans.
This situation puts the divine origins of the Bible, as we know it today, into question; a question that we invite our Christian readers to answers, if they may.
1. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, The Fountain of Christianity (English rendering of Chashma-e-Masihi [Urdu]), Islam International Publications, UK, 2007
2. J Paterson Smyth, The Bible in the Making: In the Light of Modern Research, Harper & Brothers Publishers, London, 1914
3. Debrett’s Dictionary of the Coronation, Dean & Son Ltd, London, 1902
4. DW Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Unwin Hyman, London, 1988
6. WG Turner, John Nelson Darby: A Biography, CA Hammond, London, 1926
7. Bebbington, 1988
8. J Sargent, A Memoir of the Rev Henry Martyn BD, p. 443, ed 10, Seeley & Burnside, London, 1830
9. AW Brown, Recollections of the Conversation Parties of the Rev Charles Simeon, p. 435, London, 1818
10. D Wilson, Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity, Vol. 1, p. 455, London 1828
11. TH Horn, Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, Vol. 1, London, 1818
12. Rosman, Evangelicals and Culture, p. 40; TR Preston, Biblical Criticism, Literature and the Eighteenth-century Reader, in Books and their Readers in Eighteenth-century England, ed I Rivers, Leicester, 1982
13. R Haldane, The Evidence and Authority of Divine Revelation, Edinburgh, 1816
15. R Haldane, Review of the Conduct of the Directors of the British and Foreign Bible Society relative to the Apocrypha and to their Administration on the Continent, William Whyte & Co, Edinburgh, 1828
16. John C Bennett, Charles Simeon and the Evangelical Anglican Missionary Movement: A Study of Voluntaryism and Church-Mission Tensions, PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1992
17. Bebbington, 1988
18. The Times, London, 28 April 1902