An Intrepid “Wanderer in the Gospel’s Cause”
IT IS reported that by the age of 18, George Borrow had a knowledge of 12 languages. Two years later he was able to translate “with facility and elegance” 20 different tongues.
In 1833 this unusually gifted man was invited to be interviewed by the British and Foreign Bible Society in London, England. Unable to finance his journey but determined to take advantage of this favorable opening, 30-year-old Borrow walked the 112 miles [180 km] from his home in Norwich, doing so in just 28 hours.
The Bible Society presented him with a challenge—within six months to learn the Manchu language, used in parts of China. He asked for a grammar book, but all they could give him was a copy of Matthew’s Gospel in Manchu and a Manchu-French dictionary. Yet, within 19 weeks he wrote to London, “I have mastered Manchu,” with, as he put it, “the assistance of God.” This achievement was even more remarkable because at the same time, he reportedly was correcting Luke’s Gospel in Nahuatl, one of the indigenous languages of Mexico.
The Bible in Manchu
In the 17th century, when Manchu first appeared in written form, using a script borrowed from the Mongolian Uighur alphabet, it became the language used in China’s official circles. Though in time its use declined, members of the British and Foreign Bible Society were eager to print and distribute Bibles in Manchu. By 1822 they had financed an edition of 550 copies of Matthew’s Gospel, translated by Stepan V. Lipoftsoff. He was a member of the Russian Foreign Office who had lived in China for 20 years. This was printed in St. Petersburg, but after only a handful of copies were distributed, the remainder were destroyed in a flood.
A translation of the entire Christian Greek Scriptures soon followed. In 1834 the discovery of an ancient manuscript version of most of the Hebrew Scriptures increased interest in the Bible. Who could coordinate the revision of the existing Manchu Bible and complete the rest of the translation? The British and Foreign Bible Society dispatched George Borrow to undertake this task on their behalf.
After arriving in St. Petersburg, Borrow applied himself to a deeper study of Manchu to enable him to proofread and edit the Bible text more accurately. Even so, the assignment was arduous, and he worked up to 13 hours a day helping to compose the type for The New Testament, which was eventually described as “a beautiful edition of an oriental work.” One thousand copies were printed in 1835. But Borrow’s cherished plan to take them to China and distribute them there was thwarted. The Russian government, fearing that this could be viewed as a missionary venture likely to jeopardize the friendly relationship they enjoyed with their neighbor, refused Borrow permission to travel to the Chinese border if he took “one single Manchu Bible” with him.
A few copies were distributed some ten years later, and translations of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, with parallel columns in Manchu and Chinese, appeared in 1859. By then, however, most people who could read Manchu preferred to read Chinese, and prospects for a complete Manchu Bible began to fade. Manchu was, in fact, a dying language, soon to be superseded by Chinese. The transition was complete by 1912 when China became a republic.
The Iberian Peninsula
Invigorated by his experiences, George Borrow returned to London. He was reassigned in 1835 to Portugal and Spain, “to ascertain how far the minds of the people were prepared to receive the truths of Christianity,” as he later put it. At that time both countries were largely untouched by the British and Foreign Bible Society because of widespread political and social unrest. Borrow delighted to get into conversations about the Bible with people in the rural communities of Portugal, but within a short time, the religious apathy and indifference he encountered there prompted him to cross over to Spain.
Spain presented a different challenge, especially the Gypsy people with whom Borrow soon developed a close affinity, since he could speak their language. Shortly after his arrival, he started to translate the “New Testament” into the Spanish Gypsy tongue, Gitano. For part of this undertaking, he invited two Gypsy women to help him. He would read to them the Spanish version and then ask them to translate it for him. In this way he was able to learn the correct use of Gypsy idioms. As a result of this effort, Luke’s Gospel was published in the spring of 1838, prompting one bishop to exclaim: “He will convert all Spain by means of the gypsy language.”
George Borrow had been authorized to find “a person competent to translate the Scriptures in Basque.” That task was given to a Dr. Oteiza, a physician “well versed in that dialect, of which I myself have some knowledge,” wrote Borrow. In 1838, Luke’s Gospel became the first Bible book to appear in Spanish Basque.
Fired by his desire to enlighten the common people, Borrow made long, often perilous journeys to distribute books of the Bible among the poor in rural communities. He thought to emancipate them from religious ignorance and superstition. Exposing the worthlessness of the indulgences they were purchasing, he would, for example, reason: “Is it possible that God, who is good, would sanction the sale of sin?” But the Bible Society, fearing that such an iconoclastic work might lead to the banning of their activities, directed him to concentrate solely on the distribution of the Scriptures.
Borrow gained oral permission to print El Nuevo Testamento, a Spanish New Testament, without its Roman Catholic doctrinal notes. That was despite the initial opposition of the prime minister, who had described the translation as a dangerous and “improper book.” Borrow then opened a depot in Madrid to sell this Spanish New Testament, a step that brought him into conflict with both the religious leaders and the secular authorities. He was imprisoned for 12 days. When he protested, Borrow was asked to leave quietly. Knowing full well that his imprisonment was illegal, he cited the example of the apostle Paul and chose to remain until he was rightly exonerated, with no stigma attached to his name.—Acts 16:37.
By the time their zealous emissary left Spain in 1840, the Bible Society could report: “Nearly 14,000 copies of the Scriptures have been brought into circulation in Spain within the last five years.” Having played a great part in this, Borrow summed up his Spanish experiences as “the most happy years of my existence.”
The Bible in Spain, first published in 1842—and still in print—is George Borrow’s own vivid personal account of his travels and adventures. In this book, which became an instant success, he dubbed himself “wanderer in the Gospel’s cause.” He wrote: “I intended to visit the secret and secluded spots amongst the rugged hills and mountains, and to talk to the people, after my manner, of Christ.”
In distributing and translating the Scriptures with such enthusiasm, George Borrow laid the groundwork for others—a precious privilege indeed.
[Map on page 29]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
George Borrow’s efforts to translate and distribute the Bible took him from (1) England to (2) Russia, (3) Portugal, and (4) Spain
Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Picture on page 28]
The opening words of John’s Gospel in Manchu, printed in 1835, reading top to bottom from left to right
From the book The Bible of Every Land, 1860
[Picture Credit Line on page 27]
From the book The Life of George Borrow by Clement K. Shorter, 1919