George Abbot was born in 1562 in Guildford, Surrey, the fourth son of a poor cloth worker, and Alice March.
They were certainly a brilliant and ambitious family. One of [his] brothers became Master of Balliol and then Bishop of Salisbury, another Lord Mayor of London and Governor of the East India Company. . . . George himself became Archbishop of Canterbury.(1)
His parents embraced the truth of the Gospel in King Edward's days and were persecuted for it in Queen Mary's reign' (Thomas Fuller). Abbot's mother, when pregnant with him, dreamed that her unborn son was destined for greatness, which ‘made several people of quality offer themselves to be sponsors at the baptismal fount’ (Aubrey, Natural History, 3.281) and later to sponsor him, aged sixteen, to enter Balliol College, Oxford.
George Abbot graduated BA in 1582, and MA three years later . He meanwhile had become a fellow of Balliol and was probably ordained at that time. Further studies led in 1597 to his DTh. His thesis specialised in attacking the basis of papal claims - the Petrine commission. In the same year he became master of University College, Oxford, and in 1600 he was appointed dean of Winchester. Little is known of Abbot's years as master of the College but he did attract the devotion of some pupils who later themselves became well-known.
Nicolson piles up adjectives to suggest Abbot was not a good man . . .
George Abbot was perhaps the ugliest of them all, a morose, intemperate man, whose portraits exude a sullen rage. Even in death, he was portrayed on his tomb in Holy Trinity Guildford, as a man of immense weight, with heavy, wrinkled brow and coldly staring eyes. He looks like a bruiser, a man of such conviction and seriousness that anyone would think twice about crossing him. [He was] . . . egregious . . . the cleverest and the gloomiest. . . . He was stern, intransigent and charmless. He had no modern virtues. . . . He could be brutal as well as verbose . . . . [Was he] a wicked, mean, greedy, self-indulgent, vituperative, pompous bishop? It is certainly possible to . . . to see him as . . . an obdurate brute, coarsened by rage and the worst of the Protestant inheritance. There is more to him [however].(1)
Truly, ugliness (like beauty) is in the eye of the beholder. How can a writer be so sure of a man's nature and personality at a space of 400 years that he should make such a negative evaluation?
Payne has his own list of criticisms of Abbot:
[O]ne of his lacks was that he had never held a post in which he had to concern himself with the care of souls. Out of touch with the common people, he was often tactless and stupid. With little zeal for, and skill in preaching, he was born just to have views, to manage and command. He was a great one to reprove, and though tender to the scruples of the Puritans, he maintained that all should comply with the forms of worship enjoined by the law of the land. With all his scowls he was deeply pious and never flinched in his duty, which he knew to be a light to guide and a rod to check the erring. . . . [He was] "a dull plodder," and "stodgy."(2)
His earlier writings
In 1594 Abbot began to lecture each Thursday morning on the book of Jonah to an audience of students and others. After two hundred and sixty sermons were delivered over the next five years An Exposition upon the Prophet Jonah was printed in 1600. He also wrote A Briefe Description of the Whole Worlde (1599), where he mixed fact and comment on geography, politics, and trade, and it became the most popular of his works, being regularly reprinted. The way the book was composed and enlarged shows the broad intellectual tastes of its author. Abbot's library as archbishop contained works on political theory, science, mathematics, and witchcraft, with a specialty in French culture. In A Quatron of Reasons (1600) Abbot set out to refute Roman arguments against English protestantism. (3)
Abbot was an evangelical Calvinist, embracing even the doctrine of double predestination. He was implacably opposed to the teachings and practices of the Roman church.
Abbot later exposed the immoral doctrine of mental reservation and equivocation, as taught by the Jesuits Robert Southwell, and Henry Garnet. [Henry Garnet withheld his knowledge of the impending Gunpowder Plot (1605) from the secular authorities, claiming the secrecy of the Confessional to protect him from the charge of obstruction] Equivocation is a method whereby the speaker deceives the hearer into believing what he wants him to hear by a process which is not strictly true, called mental reservation. The entire thought engaged is "expressed partly in speech and partly in the mind," on the basis that God hears what is in one's mind while human beings hear only what one speaks. From this perspective the Christian's sole moral duty was to tell the truth to God, whilst withholding, if need be, some relevant aspect of the truth from the hearer. The deceiver aims to serve a greater good. By employing double meanings in words, equivocation also allowed a speaker to tell the literal truth while concealing a deeper meaning, which meaning was in his own mind justified, although deceptive to the hearer. Abbot sought to show not only that all lies are deception, but deceptions are also lies.
Abbot contrasted the freedom of the gospel in England with the pre-Reformation church, when 'the decrees of popes, and the canons of councels, and customes and traditions, were in place of the written word’ (Abbot, Exposition, 340). Ministers must fulfil their evangelical duty to protestants and Catholics alike and ‘be diligent in preaching the gospell to such as wil heare, and in writing, for such as will reade, that they may know and beleeve and be saved’ (Abbot, Reasons, sig. Ff2r). (3)
Whilst distancing himself from puritan calls for major reforms of the English church, he taught that the office of bishop was apostolic, and he insisted on a ‘seemely conformity’ in ceremony. This differed from the more radical approach of John Rainolds, who opposed all ornamentation in worship as unnecessary.
His part in the translation process
George Abbot was a member of the second Oxford Group of translators. Their task was to translate the four Gospels, the Acts and the book of Revelation. The publication occurred one year before Abbot became Archbishop of Canterbury. By this time he had also become Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, as well as Bishop of London. This suggests in Abbot we have the consummate politician. He knew how to flatter King James, and to use other valuable connections to obtain coveted ecclesiastical preferments.
A summary of his work shows that Abbot was more interested in the exercise of ecclesiastical power than in deepening his engagement with, or perfecting his knowledge of the ancient languages:
At court he was an outspoken champion of the cause of international protestantism, and a tireless administrator . . . . Abbot was also an effective parliamentarian, co-operating with clients and allies in the House of Commons, and working sedulously for regular and harmonious meetings. In short, Abbot's reputation for doctrinal rectitude and his evangelical churchmanship made him an important figure in James I's inclusive ecclesiastical establishment . . ."(3)
All this suggests that, as a translator, Abbot would have deferred to the expertise of other colleagues on the team, when deciding the finer points of phrasing and the meanings of words. Sir Henry Savile, for example, had particular skill in Greek, and sustained a devotion to the works of Chrysostom, and was a highly accomplished scholar. . .
But the strong man on the panel was really Sir Henry Savile . . . one of the foremost classical scholars of his age. In his early prime he had served as Latin secretary to Queen Elizabeth and had tutored her in mathematics and Greek.(4)
Abbot probably offered more when discussing stylistic issues than he did on translation itself. Nicolson quotes two or three eloquent passages, which compare his style favourably with that of John Donne. The passage on sin, for example, is striking, where Abbot shows "the way of the transgressor is hard.
[Sin] is like a smoke, like fire, it mounteth upward, and comes even before God to accuse us; it is like a serpent in our bosom, still ready to sting us; it is the devil's daughter. A woman hath her pains in travail and delivery but rejoiceth when she seeth a child is born; but the birth of sin is of a contrary fashion; for all the pleasure is in the bringing forth, it tormenteth us continually; they haunt us like tragicall furies. "(2)
George Abbot Hospital
Nicolson analyses three quoted passages, saying,
It isn't difficult to see how the King James Bible emerges from this pattern of thought and language. There is an immense and sonorous dignity to Abbot's style, a torque towards grandeur, a natural majesty, but also an understanding of metaphor . . . The gift of this language moment, the great Jacobean habit of mind on which the King James Bible rides for chapter after chapter and book after book, is this swinging between majesty and tangibility, the setting of the actual and perceptible within an enormous enriching frame, the sense of intimacy between the great and small, the embodiment of the most universal ideas in the most humble of forms, the sense in other words that the universe . . . is one connected whole
A burning question
King James ordered the deaths of Edward Wightman and Bartholomew Legate. These were ‘blasphemous heretikes’, according to Abbot, who were teaching Arianism. Legate believed Jesus was merely human, that he was not virgin born, and that there was no Incarnation. For preaching this, he was condemned to burn at the stake. The archbishop strongly endorsed the decision, at the same time ensuring that only those who agreed with the seriousness of the issue should form the panel of judges to hear the cases (J. P. Collier, ed., The Egerton Papers, CS, 1st ser., 1840, 446–8). Bartholomew Legate (and Wightman later) was burnt at the stake in Smithfield Market, in March 1611. This was the last time such a sentence was carried out for heresy in England, and in the same year the Bible was published.
Do the standards of the age determine whether an act is morally obnoxious, or whether conscience is excused from a charge of inhumane cruelty? Do St. Paul's words have any relevance in answering the question?
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. (Rom 12:19-20)
Abbot died a single man at Croydon Palace in 1633, after having placed the crown on the head of King Charles 1. The chief mourner at his funeral was his doctrinal opponent William Laud, who was also nominated his successor. Abbot was buried in Holy Trinity, Guildford, where his brother erected a splendid canopied tomb for him, adorned with eleven allegorical figures. Abbot had enjoyed a famous career. The extraordinary ebb and flow in his fortunes reflected a character flawed by controversy.
(1) Nicolson, Adam. (2003) Power and glory: Jacobean England and the making of the King James Bible, Lon: Harper. pp. 154 - 156. 158-159
(2) Payne, Gustavus, 1959/1977)The men behind the King James version, MI: Bakerp. 55, 145
(3) Fincham, Kenneth. (2004) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
(4) Bobrick, Benson. (2001) The Making of the English Bible Lon: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p. 241