King James Bible Translators
Personal and Family Life
Richard Thomson was born in Holland, likely between 1560 and 1570. There is evidence his father was an English Protestant who fled England during the reign of Queen Mary I. One biographer concluded his mother was likely a native of Brabout in the Netherlands.
He had at least one sibling, a brother, Emmanuel. There is no indication Richard ever married. As a result of his birthplace, he was nicknamed ‘Dutch' Thomson. He traveled to England by 1583 to commence his studies at Clare Hall (later Clare College), Cambridge. While he spent much of the balance of his life in Cambridge, he traveled frequently to continental Europe where he met some of the finest scholars of his day, and became friends of some of the most notable.
Richard Thomson was sympathetic to the religious views of his Dutch contemporary Jacobus Arminius, whom he had met and knew very well. Arminianism differed from Calvinism in its view of man's role in his own salvation, holding that a man could fall from grace. In a time when differences on points of doctrine were taken very seriously, Thomson's enthusiastic embrace of Arminianism brought criticism and ridicule. His critics seized upon Thomson's use of alcohol as an indication of his moral unfitness. Nonetheless, he was known as a man of enormous scholarly ability, and possessed of a helpful and friendly personality. He died in Snailwell, Cambridgeshire in early January 1613 where he was serving as vicar, and was buried near his university colleague and fellow Translator, Edward Lively, in the ancient church of St. Edward King and Martyr, Cambridge.
Little is known of Richard Thomson's preparatory education, and whether it took place in Holland or England. If his father fled England over religious concerns he undoubtedly would have seen to his son's early religious as well as secular training. He was admitted to Clare Hall, Cambridge as a student, Easter 1583. He graduated B.A. in 1589, and proceeded M.A. in 1591.
After receiving his master's degree from the university, Richard Thomson was made a fellow of his college, Clare. As a fellow, in addition to teaching duties, he had a role in the college administration. Also, each fellow had a mentoring role with five or six pupils. In 1612 he became a senior proctor of his college. Early in his career he came under the patronage of fellow Translator, Henry Savile.
Thomson commenced his church service when he was appointed rector of nearby Snailwell.
Through his education at Cambridge, and perhaps in Holland, Thomson became a renowned philologist. (A philologist was an expert in languages and literature.) It was reported that he was "a ripe scholar, philologist and critic", and that among his friends were the famed European scholars Casaubon, Grotius, and Scaliger. In fact, he was better known for his scholarship in Italy, France and Germany than in England. When Isaac Casaubon first came to England and to Cambridge, it was Richard Thomson who hosted him.
Over two hundred years after his death it was noted that Richard Thomson was among those who were remembered "for their profound knowledge of divinity", and still quoted at Cambridge.
Richard Thomson and the Translation
Richard Thomson was a member of the First Westminster Company assigned the translation of the Old Testament books of Genesis through 2 Kings. The director of the company was Lancelot Andrewes, considered by many as the preeminent biblical scholar and churchman in England. It is a tribute to Richard Thomson that Andrewes wanted him to be a part of his company, for Andrewes either chose him or had part in the selection decision.
Thomson was not alone among the Translators in his Arminian leanings. John Overall and John Richardson were also sympathizers of Jacobus Arminius.
Richard Thomson brought to his company a broad knowledge of available books and manuscript material as well as a proficiency in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.
The association the men of this company shared must have been a respectful one. Several years after their work on the Bible, Lancelot Andrewes secured for Thomson the position of rector at Snailwell, which was considered a very desirable one.
Richard Thomson was able to work intensively over many years on the Bible translation with those who did not share his religious perspective. Yet despite their differences, they were able to work as a team and produce a translation that has influenced the western world like no other.
Richard Thomson is buried in the storied church of St. Edward King and Martyr. St. Edward's is an ancient structure inconspicuously situated near King's College and the Cambridge market square. It is apropos that Richard Thomson and Edward Lively would have their final resting place in the church where the English Reformation arguably began. It was Christmas Eve 1525 that Robert Barnes, an Augustinian friar, stood in the pulpit of St. Edward's and attacked the corruption of the clergy and Cardinal Woolsey in particular. Over the next fifteen years Barnes courageously pursued reformation until on 20 July 1540, when he was burned at the stake in Smithfield. The pulpit from which Barnes spoke stands today not far from the memorial to Richard Thomson and Edward Lively.
As already mentioned, Richard Thomson received mean spirited criticism prompted no doubt by his unorthodox religious views. One of his most ardent critics was the well known lawyer and pamphleteer, William Prynne (1600-1669). Prynne could have had no firsthand knowledge of Thomson, since he was only a child when the Translator died in 1613. This proved no impediment to the vitriolic Prynne, who opposed Thomson's religious views. Prynne described Thomson as a "dissolute, ebrious, prophane, luxurious", and "deboist drunken English–Dutchman, who seldom went one night to bed sober". Prynne himself proved to be much more controversial than the object of his purple prose, Richard Thomson. As a relatively young man, Prynne was tried before the Star Chamber and convicted of seditious writings against the crown. He was punished by having his cheeks branded SL (seditious libeler), ears cropped, and nose slit. Undeterred as a writer, William Prynne continued to publish strongly worded invective. He came to further prominence later in life when he served as a member of Parliament from Bath and historian/archivist at the Tower of London. John Aubrey, a contemporary of Prynne, provides this picture of the man. He described him as wearing a long quilt cap which protruded over his eyes to shield them from the light. He had his servant bring him a roll and a pot of ale every three hours to revive his spirits, and would study and drink into the early morning. It is an ironic description, given Prynne's criticism of Richard Thomson's issues with alcohol.