Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Douay-Rheims: a Story of Faith

by Sidney K. Ohlhausen


An article about the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible and its different revisions.

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Catholic Heritage



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., May/June 1999

A quirk in history means English-speaking Catholics must go to France to trace the origins of the Bible printed in their language.

Penal laws during Queen Elizabeth's reign in the 16th century deprived English Catholics of freedom to practice their religion. Masses had be to said in secret. Those who refused to attend services in the established Church of England were called "recusants" and were subject to prosecutions.

Many recusants fled the island to maintain their faith. A major refuge for these exiles was the town of Douai (Anglicized to "Doway" and, later, "Douay") where an English college had been established by Father (later Cardinal) William Allen to train priests.

Now part of France, Douay at the time was under the Spanish dominions of the Catholic King Philip II, former Prince Consort of Queen Mary Tudor and an ally of English Catholics. Since Catholic books were suppressed in England, Douay also became a major publishing center. Well-armed in the battle of words with their religious adversaries across the channel, English Catholic recusants produced a major body of literature emanating continuously from Douay and other cities on the continent, such as St. Omer and Antwerp.

According to one source, a total of 930 Catholic books in English were printed on the continent or secretly in England from 1558 to 1640.

It was during this period that Douay scholars produced the one work that would do the most to memorialize the name of their college throughout the English-speaking world: the Douay version of the Bible.

Actually, work on the Bible began in the city of Rheims, where the college had relocated temporarily in 1578. The principal translator was Father Gregory Martin, who had joined the exiles at Douay in 1570 so he could freely practice his religion. He began work on the translation in 1578, assisted by Father Allen and others. Father Martin used the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible) as his basis. An accomplished scholar in Hebrew and Greek, he consulted early texts in those languages, as well as earlier English sectarian translations before arriving at his own final text. The result was the translation that would become the basis for Catholic Bibles in the English language for nearly the next four centuries.

Due to limited resources, only the New Testament was published first, in 1582. It included an extensive body of apologetic annotations written in the controversial tone typical of the time and refuting common biblical interpretations that had been used against the Catholic Church. It was called the Rheims (Anglicized to Rhemes) New Testament for the city of publication. The Old Testament was later published in two volumes in 1609-1610, after the college had returned to Douay.

That's why the complete Bible is known as the Douay-Rheims, or simply the Douay, Bible.

Copies of the Rheims New Testament were smuggled into England despite official proscription, and it immediately caused concern among leaders of the established church. Their dedication to widespread circulation of the Bible did not extend to Catholic translations. Rheims became the subject of several critical works. One recurring criticism was for its use of obscure words, such as "exinanited" in Philippians 2:7. (A modern translation reads: "Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.")

As explained in the preface, some words of the sacred text do not have precise English equivalents. Rather than risk changing the original sense, it was decided to simply Anglicize some Vulgate words. To assist the reader, a glossary of such terms was appended to the text. Despite the wave of criticism, the overwhelming merit of Father Martin's scholarship prevailed. Translators of the King James Version of 1611 even borrowed renderings from Rheims. Many of the obscure words mentioned in the glossary—"neophyte" and "resuscitate," for example—are now in everyday use.

An urgent prayer at the end of the Rheims New Testament dramatically expresses the hopes and concerns of English Catholics at the time:

" . . . Come Lord Jesus quickly, and judge betwixt us and our Adversaries, and in the meantime give patience, comfort, and constancy to all that suffer for Thy name, and trust in Thee. Lord God our only helper and protector, tarry not long. Amen."

However, the speedy divine judgment so earnestly entreated was not to come.

Centuries of persecution would follow, testing the faith of English Catholic recusants.

The Challoner Revisions

The Douay Bible in its original text remained in use through the end of the 17th century, but by the turn of the 18th. changes in the English language had rendered archaic much of its wording. The need for a revision was recognized by Bishop Richard Challoner (1691-1781), vicar apostolic (titular bishop) of the London District. which included the 13 American colonies.

Bishop Challoner was chiefly responsible for a series of new editions, beginning in 1738 with a light revision of the New Testament and followed by a series of more extensive revisions of both testaments over the years 1749-1752.

Bishop Challoner considered himself primarily a pastor. Recognizing the pastoral value of the Bible, he believed it should be as understandable as possible. Because of this, his revisions adopt some rendering similar to those of the King James Version, which had become so familiar to the English people.

This stirred a lingering controversy. In the mid-19th century. Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick of Philadelphia (and Baltimore) completed another revision of the Douay version. However, this never gained wide acceptance. Bishop Challoner's 1749-52 revisions with some emendations would remain the standard for English Catholic Bibles for the next 200 years.

The Haydock Bible

The turn of the 19th century saw considerable religious ferment in England and Ireland. By this time there was diminishing public support of the centuries-old penal laws against Catholics. Even prominent Protestants were assisting with repeal efforts.

Amid this environment of public debate and controversy emerged the Haydock brothers, Thomas (1772-1859) and George (1774-1849). Descendants of an old-line Catholic family, both had been students at Douay College. When that college was taken over in 1793 during the French Revolution. they made a harrowing escape back to England.

George would later be ordained, while Thomas started a publishing business. Thomas decided the times called for an edition of the Douay-Challoner Bible with a new body of extended apologetic annotations. His brother George compiled annotations for the Old Testament, and former Douay colleague Father Benedict Payment and others compiled those for the New. These annotations were gathered from the Patristic writings and from later Catholic scholars, and included original commentary.

The result of this collaboration was the highly popular Haydock series of Bibles. These began with a large folio edition published in serialized form from 1811-1814. A long series of new editions followed, keeping the Haydock Bible in circulation for more than 100 years. Later editions were published in the quarto (family size) format and were sold extensively throughout England. Ireland and America.

The Haydocks' singular contribution toward presenting the Bible to English-speaking Catholics in the 19th century cannot be overestimated. In a significant historical postscript, the first Catholic president of the United States would take his oath of office on a Haydock Bible. This was in 1961, the 150th anniversary of its first appearance.

Other 19th-Century Editions

Although the Haydock Bible became the best-known English Catholic edition during the 19th century, many other Douay Bibles were published. Several Catholic firms in England and Ireland provided a continuing supply of editions. As the movement toward Catholic emancipation accelerated, even Protestant publishers began to shown an interest in the significant Catholic market.

Possibly encouraged by the popularity of the just-completed first Haydock Bible, around 1815 the enterprising firm of Nuttall, Fisher and Dixon of Liverpool published a Douay Bible of its own in the same format as the Ring James edition it was currently producing. Although the two versions required different texts, the same engraved illustrations could be used for both.

This started a trend that continued throughout the rest of the century, with several prominent Protestant publishers producing a number of beautifully bound editions of both the Douay and King James versions.

American Editions

The new American republic was not long without it own Douay Bible. The first edition was published in Philadelphia in 1790 by Irish immigrant Matthew Carey. It included as subscribers John Carroll, the first American bishop, and his brother Charles, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

While Catholic Bible publishing in America was pioneered by Carey, it was brought to maturity" by a fellow Philadelphian, Eugene Cummiskey. In 1824 he published the first American Catholic Bible printed under the recently invented stereotype process and, in 1825, the first American Haydock Bible in a handsome, large folio edition.

The 19th century saw large-scale Catholic immigration to the United States. This greatly expanded the potential market for Douay Bibles. A wide range of editions were available, from those advertised at "extraordinarily cheap" prices to ornate, magnificently bound family Bibles.

The Industrial Revolution made possible mass production at moderate prices of the latter type, which were frequently marketed door to door. These family Bibles. which included Haydock editions and others, were distributed in untold numbers throughout the country.

Although similar in appearance to contemporary editions of the Kings James version, Douay family Bibles usually contained distinctive Catholic symbols, such as the Sacred Heart or papal crest among the elaborate gilt-stamped designs.

The 20th Century

The first half of the 20th century saw considerable activity in new translations. The Spencer and Westminster New Testaments were followed by Msgr. Knox's complete Bible. However, interest remained in revising Douay. A light revision of the New Testament in 1935 by Father James Carey of Dunwoodie Seminar in New York was followed by a more thorough revision in 1941 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.

The Confraternity also began a new translation of the Old Testament from the Vulgate. But while this was in progress, Pope Pius XII's 1943 encyclical Divino afllante Spiritu appeared. This letter and related comments from the Pontifical Bible Commission encouraged that translations be made from early texts in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. This caused the Confraternity to abandon its Vulgate translation and begin anew from the early texts. This translation was ultimately published in parts over the years 1948-1969. Many Catholic Bibles published during these years contain a mixture of those parts of the Confraternity Old Testament that had been completed and the remaining part in the Douay text.

In 1970, a new translation of the New Testament was completed and added to the Confraternity Old Testament with some revisions to make the present New American Bible. The appearance of this version in America and that of the Knox and Jerusalem versions in England essentially brought down the curtain on the Douay version.

Although now out of general use, the Douay version is still quoted in the prayer the Hail Mary. This venerable version, so intimately connected with the travail that has been the history of English-speaking Catholics, also remains a significant part of our heritage.

It was part of the effort of English Catholic recusants to keep the Lamp of Faith lighted at a time in which it could well have been extinguished in England. It's fitting that this article close with their own words, from the preface of the original Douay Old Testament:

"With this then we will conclude most dear (we speak to you all, that understand our tongue, whether you be of contrary opinions in faith, or of mundane fear participate with another congregation; or profess with us the same Catholic religion) to you all we present this work: daily beseeching God Almighty, the Divine Wisdom, Eternal Goodness, to create, illuminate, and replenish your spirits, with his grace, that you may attain eternal Glory." — From the English College of 'Doway. the Octave of All Saints, 1609.

Sidney K. Ohlhausen writes from Houston.

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