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Whose faith follow: Mr Thomas Newberry (1811-1901)

R W Cargill, St Monans

For well over a hundred years now the "Newberry Bible" has been used by many of the Lord’s people to help them to study the Scriptures, but not a lot is known about the man who made it available. That his legacy is better known than he is, is itself a great tribute to this servant of the Lord.

Details about his family life and upbringing are scarce, but it is clear that his godly mother and his older sister taught him the Holy Scriptures from his earliest years. He was saved in his youth, but it was as a mature man of about fifty that he came into assembly fellowship in the English coastal town of Weston-super-Mare. The path he took to arrive there is interesting.

He had always been a regular and careful reader of the Word of God, reading it for direction and instruction in the only English version then available in this country, the 1611 "Authorised Version". But in 1840, when he was twenty-nine, he decided to begin reading and studying the Scriptures in the original Hebrew and Greek languages, which he did from then on.

Like so many other godly Bible students of that era, he came to see that the ecclesiastical set-up around him did not match what he found in the Word of God. He noticed that many of their customs were based upon historical tradition or social expediency, and that their principles and practices were not those of the churches described in the New Testament. He realised that as long as he tried to work within that ecclesiastical framework he would not be able to practise all that he found in Scripture, nor would he be able to preach and teach it all. The Word of God was being ignored and even violated at too many points.

He therefore sought out a group of believers who were trying to follow New Testament teaching, and so he came to the assembly then meeting in a small hall on Meadow Street, Weston-super-Mare. This became his spiritual home and the centre of his lasting sphere of influence. Those were days of evangelistic zeal and extensive church growth, with many evangelists taking the gospel throughout the country, some of them quite flamboyant or even eccentric. But he remained a steady, reliable, and profitable expositor of the Scriptures, his ministry based on extensive periods of solitude and efficient study. Throughout his long and active life, he was recognised as a man who was "mighty in the Scriptures".

Some of his contemporaries went off on worthy missionary exploits abroad. Mr Newberry quietly continued his own work locally, his ministry strengthening the now flourishing Weston-super-Mare assembly and others nearby. He ministered the Word alongside Robert Chapman, Henry Dyer, and George M®uller, expounding the Scriptures around the British Isles. He contributed articles to The Witness and other magazines, and conducted an extensive correspondence with Bible students across the world. He was used by God to establish an assembly in Nice, France, among many Italian-speaking residents in 1895. He wrote books on the Tabernacle, the Temples of Solomon and Ezekiel, the Levitical Offerings, the Revelation, and the Lord’s Parables, as well as several smaller pamphlets. He constructed beautiful models of the Tabernacle and the Temple, and in his later years thousands profited from his lectures on these structures.

But his most significant work was "The Englishman’s Bible", the fruit of intensive and painstaking work which covered most of twenty five years. In 1863, friends in London gave him a copy of Tischendorf’s transcription of the New Testament in Greek according to the Codex Sinaiticus. Neatly and meticulously he wrote notes throughout it and his fascination with the nuances of the Greek text led him, two years later, to commence his monumental task. A recent scholar wrote, "Newberry had no axe to grind. He was a careful and completely unpretentious student of Hebrew and Greek texts, whose one aim was to make the fruit of his study available as far as possible to Bible students whose only language was English. His procedure tended to make the Biblical text self-explanatory as far as possible; he had no thought of imposing on it an interpretive scheme of his own".

Using special markings and signs to indicate features in the original languages which ordinary English did not make clear, he created a volume which would help English readers to understand better the precious treasures God has given in His Word. Once ordinary readers get to grips with Newberry’s signs, markings, and notations, it becomes one of the best helps for them to discover the beauties of the Scriptures in the original languages. The fact that successive reprints are still in great demand is testimony to this.

Along with the specially marked text, concise explanations of important Hebrew and Greek words and their grammar are given in supplementary pages, helpful in their own right for accurate interpretation. Textual criticism of New Testament manuscripts is also provided with an assessment of their relative values, and alternative readings are given as footnotes throughout the New Testament. Mr Newberry’s academic ability in learning, understanding, and then communicating all these aspects of language is truly remarkable, as is his inventiveness in creating appropriate tiny symbols to convey extra information, and to get these accurately into print. But no less remarkable is his evident devotion to the God of the Word.

"The Englishman’s Bible" was published in five or six editions between the late 1870s and 1902. On the title page on one of the earliest editions of the Old Testament it is described as - "The Englishman’s Hebrew Bible, Shewing the Urim and Thummim, the Lights and Perfections of the Inspired Original on the Page of the Authorized Version, a Fac-simile of the Hebrew Scriptures in English".

Two other quotes are worth reproducing, succinct and telling commentaries on Mr Newberry’s own reverence for and enjoyment of the sacred Book.

1. "As the result of a careful examination of the entire Scriptures in the originals, noticing and marking where necessary every variation of tense, preposition, and the signification of words, the impression left upon my mind is this, not the difficulty of believing the entire inspiration of the Bible, but the impossibility of doubting it."

2. From Hints for the Reading of the Sacred Word: "It should be borne in mind, however, that as food does not become vitalised until, after passing through various processes, it is brought, in the lungs, into communication with the atmosphere, the air of heaven, so the Sacred Scriptures only become vital and quickening in the soul’s experience, as they are realised in the presence of God, and held in communion with Him."

Thomas Newberry died of bronchitis at his home, Alexandra Villa, Weston-super-Mare, on 16th January, 1901. His niece, Elizabeth Cook, was with him when he passed away. For his occupation he is described as a "man of independent means". Of this he had used £1,600 to produce the "Englishman’s Bible" – equivalent to around £160,000 nowadays!

In his final years he became blind. During that time he wrote the following lines, which perhaps sum up better than anything the godliness of the man to whom so many owe so much.

Time was when to read was a pleasure,
To search out the truth a delight.
Time was when my pen was my treasure,
In practice both morning and night.

But though I can read no longer,
And though I can write no more,
Yet now I can think and ponder
As I never could think before.

What tho’ light may fade from the vision,
And sound fall more dull on the ear,
If truth to the soul’s intuition
Stands forth yet more certain and clear.

The letter of Scripture I’ve tested,
Its grammar, precision, and sense;
But now every line is invested
With spirit and life more intense.

The light of the Father there shining
Is seen in the face of the Son;
The Spirit’s effulgence combining
These radiant glories in one.

"I thank Thee, O Father", said Jesus,
"For so it seemed good in Thy sight";
And whatever He doeth shall please us,
For we know all His counsels are right.

Sources for this article include: H Pickering. Chief Men Among the Brethren (Pickering & Inglis, Glasgow, 1918);

J Bjorle. www.plymouthbrethren.org, 2004.

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