King James Bible Translators
Personal and Family Life
George Abbot was born in his family's home located by the side of the River Wey near the town bridge in St. Nicholas' Church Parish, Guildford, Surrey, on 29 October 1562. He was the son of Maurice and Alice (March) Abbot. His parents were of the laboring class, his father being employed as a cloth worker. They were firm in their Protestant faith and suffered persecution during the reign of Mary Tudor. George had at least five siblings including, brothers Maurice, the youngest and Robert, the eldest. He never married but remained close to his immediate family throughout his life. George Abbott died in Croydon, Surrey on 4 August 1633. He was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Guildford, across the street from the hospital/almshouse he founded, and which continues to operate today. In the church an elaborate monument marks his grave. Though he was described as having a gruff and even gloomy exterior, John Aubrey, one of his biographers, reported, "Everyone who knew him loved him".
As a young man, George Abbot attended Guildford Grammar School, afterward enrolling in Balliol College, Oxford. He graduated B.A. on 31 May 1582 at age nineteen. Three years later in 1585 he proceeded M.A., B.D. in 1594 and D.D. in 1597.
George Abbot commenced his academic career at Oxford as a fellow and later dean of Balliol College. While at Oxford, George Abbot became a popular lecturer, writer and poet. Beginning in 1592, and continuing for the next five years, he delivered a series of lectures at the University Church of St. Mary's, on the Prophet Jonah. In 1599 he published a work bearing the title, A Brief History of the Whole World. Dealing with a range of topics. It became a best seller and was regularly reprinted.
Early in his career at Oxford he found a mentor and patron in Thomas Sackville, chancellor of the university. In 1597 he appointed Abbot master of University College. By 1600, with Sackville's help, he had also been appointed dean of Winchester and vice-chancellor of the university. In 1601, as vice chancellor, he was brought into sharp conflict with Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London and a man who would later have a profound influence on Abbot's life. The dispute was over whether or not the ancient Cheapside Cross in London should be repaired or demolished. The bishop strongly supported the repair while Abbot firmly favored its demolition. Bancroft's view prevailed and the cross for a time remained.
In January 1604 Abbot was invited to attend the Hampton Court Conference where King James I enthusiastically endorsed the suggestion of Abbot's Oxford colleague, John Rainolds, that a new translation of the Bible be undertaken. By the end of June of that same year George Abbot, with the support of Bancroft, now Archbishop of Canterbury, and overseer of the new translation, was designated one of the Translators.
George Abbot continued to grow in his influence with the king and archbishop. In quick succession he was made bishop of Coventry and Lichfield (1609) and upon the death of his friend and fellow Translator, Thomas Ravis, he became Bishop of London (1610). Later, on November 2, 1610 Archbishop Bancroft died at his palace in Lambeth. While men such as Lancelot Andrewes had greater experience and renown, it was to George Abbot that King James turned to fill the high position left vacant by Bancroft's death. In preferring Abbot over others, he was recognizing Bancroft's expressed desire to the king that Abbot succeed him as archbishop. On 9 April 1611, as the Bible to which he had given so much of his time, was being readied for publication, George Abbot was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, England's highest prelate.
During his service as archbishop, Abbot remained a strong defender of Protestantism, at home and abroad. In this he held a moderate view towards Puritan and non-conformist ranks within the Church of England. One of his significant accomplishments as archbishop was establishing a magnificent library at Lambeth. His relationship with King James was not without its difficulties as the king did not always endorse Abbot's views and actions. With all his administrative responsibility Abbot managed to find time for pastoral and charitable endeavors. He personally ministered to members of the royal family in times of sickness, bereavement, and celebration. As early as 1614, George Abbot decided to establish a hospital/almshouse for the poor of his native Guildford which, as already mentioned, is still in operation. The death of King James in 1625 and ascension of Charles to the throne brought a significant lessening of Abbot's power and influence. Despite deteriorating health, and suffering severely from the gout, he assisted in Charles' coronation. The new king embraced the hard line religious orthodoxy of William Laud, bishop of London. As time went on, the archbishop was increasingly isolated by Laud and his faction including, at one point, a near banishment to his estate in Kent. Nonetheless, he continued to assert himself and exercise the powers of his office, limited as they were, until the end when he died of natural causes in 1633.
George Abbot and the Translation
George Abbot was appointed to the Second Oxford Company which had responsibility for the Four Gospels, [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John], The Acts of the Apostles, and the book of Revelation. For Christians, the accounts of Jesus' life and teachings contained in the New Testament are at the very core of their religious and spiritual life. For members of this company of Translators who were all ministers, (except for Henry Savile), and believers themselves, the responsibility to get it right was enormous. Those shouldering this burden along with Abbot during the course of the translation were Thomas Ravis, Richard Edes, Giles Thompson, Henry Savile, John Perrine, Ralph Ravens, Leonard Hutten, John Harmar, John Aglionby, and James Montagu. Some, like Edes, died almost before the project began. Others, like Leonard Hutten joined a work in progress when a Translator died.
The group met at Merton College in the apartments of Henry Savile. It is not clear if the members of the company proceeded through their assigned materials as a group, or if they divided the work among themselves, each individual working on a part of the whole. What is known is that each member of the company reviewed and took responsibility for the entire work. Further, their translation was reviewed by the members of each of the other five companies. Thus it can be said that the final product, the King James Bible, was truly a collaborative effort.
Judging from what is known of George Abbot's personality and scholarship, he undoubtedly was a powerful contributor to the translation. His elevation to Archbishop of Canterbury is a testament to the esteem with which he was held by the king and colleagues who were well aware of the effort he put forth in the translation project. The fact that Richard Bancroft, who had primary oversight responsibility for the translation, recommended Abbot as his successor is a confirmation of this.
While pregnant with son George, Alice Abbot had a dream that if she could catch and eat a certain kind of fish (a pike or jack) her child would grow to be a man of great prominence. On waking, Alice walked to the River Wey and trapped a pike with her pail. She returned home and ate the fish. Her story soon spread throughout Guildford, and it is reported that at young George's baptism many of "the best inhabitants" attended, several pledging themselves to the child's welfare. Years later these same people helped pay for George's education. Despite their parent's humble circumstances, three of Maurice and Alice Abbot's sons rose to great eminence. Robert Abbot preceded George to Oxford and eventually became Bishop of Salisbury. Maurice, his father's namesake, became a successful London merchant, governor of the East India Company and Lord Mayor of London. Eventually Maurice was knighted. George's success has been outlined here.
On Tuesday, 24 July 1621, while hunting with his cross-bow at Lord Zouche's estate, Bramhill House, Hampshire, George Abbot shot an arrow which accidentally struck and killed a game keeper, Peter Hawkins. Devastated, George never fully recovered from his grief. Thereafter, he undertook the support of Hawkins' widow and fasted one Tuesday every month for the rest of his life as penance. Sadly, some of the archbishop's detractors sought his removal from office and prosecution. A commission of inquiry, made up of prominent members of the clergy and lawyers, was convened to examine the evidence. The clergy including William Laud were generally hostile to Abbot's case, and he would have been convicted had it not been for the support of one of commission members, Lancelot Andrewes, his fellow Translator.
George Abbot is the only Translator to have a statue erected in his honor. Of heroic proportions, it stands near the city center in his home town of Guildford.