The Table-talk of the Reformer was jotted down by a number of admirers in a Boswell-like fashion; and the first who translated this book into English was Captain Henry Bell, whose manuscript was examined by Laud, and afterwards discussed by the Westminster Assembly in 1646. The Captain’s story, by Hazlitt, is as follows:
“I, Captain Henry Bell, do hereby declare, both to the present age, and also to posterity, that being employed beyond the seas in state affairs divers years together, both by king James, and also by the late king Charles, in Germany, I did hear and understand, in all places, great bewailing and lamentation made, by reason of the destroying and burning of above four-score thousand of Martin Luther’s books, entitled, ‘His Last Divine Discourses.’
For after such time as God stirred up the spirit of Martin Luther to detect the corruptions and abuses of Popery, and to preach Christ, and clearly to set forth the simplicity of the Gospel, many kings, princes, and states, imperial cities, and Hans-towns, fell from the popish religion, and became Protestants, as their posterities sill are, and remain to this very day.
And for the further advancement of the great work of Reformation then begun, the aforesaid princes and the rest did then order, that the said Divine Discourses of Luther should forthwith be printed; and that every parish should have and receive one of the aforesaid printed books into every church throughout all their principalities and dominions, to be chained up, for the common people to read therein.
Upon which divine work, or Discourses, the Reformation, began before in Germany, was wonderfully promoted and increased, and spread both here in England and other countries besides.
But afterwards it so fell out, that the pope then living, viz., Gregory XIII., understanding what great hurt and prejudice he and his popish religion had already received by reason of the said Luther’s Divine Discourses, and also fearing that the same might bring further contempt and mischief upon himself, and upon the Popish Church, he therefore, to prevent the same, did fiercely stir up and instigate the emperor then in being, viz., Rudolphus II., to make an edict throughout the whole empire, that all the aforesaid printed books should be burnt; and also, that it should be death for any person to have or keep a copy thereof, but also to burn the same; which edict was speedily put in execution accordingly; insomuch that not one of all the said printed books, nor so much as any one copy of the same, could be found out nor heard of in any place.
Yet it pleased God, that, anno 1626, a German gentleman, named Casparus Van Sparr, with whom, in the time of my staying in Germany about king James’s business, I became very familiarly known and acquainted, having occasion to build upon the old foundation of a house, wherein his grandfather dwelt at that time when the said edict was published in Germany for the burning of the aforesaid books, and digging deep into the ground, under the said old foundation, one of the said original books was there happily found, lying in a deep obscure hole, being wrapped in a strong linen cloth, which was waxed all over with beeswax, within and without; whereby the book was preserved fair, without any blemish.
And at the same time Ferdinandus II., being emperor in Germany, who was a severe enemy and persecutor of the Protestant religion, the aforesaid gentleman, and grandchild to him that had hidden the said books in that obscure hole, fearing that if the said emperor should get knowledge that one of the said books was yet forthcoming, and in his custody, whereby not only himself might be brought into trouble, but also the book in danger to be destroyed, as all the rest were so long before, and also calling me to mind, and knowing that I had the high Dutch tongue very perfect, did send the said original book over hither into England unto me; and therewith did write unto me a letter, wherein he related the passages of the preserving and finding out the said book.
And also he earnestly moved me in his letter, that for the advancement of God’s glory, and of Christ’s Church, I would take the pains to translate the said book, to the end, that that most excellent divine work of Luther might be brought again to light.
Whereupon I took the said book before me, and many times began to translate the same, but always I was hindered therein, being called upon about other business; insomuch that by no possible means I could remain by that work.
Then, about six weeks after I had received the said book, it fell out, that I being in bed with my wife one night, between twelve and one of the clock, she being asleep, but myself yet awake, there appeared unto me an ancient man, standing at my bedside, arrayed all in white, having a long and broad white beard hanging down to his girdle steed, who taking me by my right ear, spake these words following unto me:
‘Sirrah! Will not you take time to translate that book which is sent unto you out of Germany? I will shortly provide for you both place and time to do it;’ and then he vanished away out of my sight.
Whereupon being much thereby affrighted, I fell into an extreme sweat; insomuch, that my wife awaking, and finding me all over wet, she asked me what I ailed? I told her what I had seen and heard; but I never did heed nor regard visions nor dreams. And so the same fell soon out of my mind.
Then about a fort night after I had seen that vision, on a Sunday, I went to Whitehall to hear the sermon; after which ended, I returned to my lodging, which was then at King-street, at Westminster, and sitting down to dinner with my wife, two messengers were sent from the whole council-board, with a warrant to carry me to the keeper of the Gatehouse, Westminster, there to be safely kept, until further order from the lords of the council; which was done without showing me any cause at all wherefore I was committed. Upon which said warrant I was kept ten whole years close prisoner, where I spent five years thereof about the translating of the said book; insomuch as I found the words very true which the old man, in the aforesaid vision, did say unto me, ‘I will shortly provide for you both place and time to translate it.’
Then after I had finished the said translation in the prison, the late archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Laud, understanding that I had translated such a book, called ‘Martin Luther’s Divine Discourses,’ sent unto me his chaplain. Dr. Bray, into the prison, with this message following:
‘Captain Bell, My lord grace of Canterbury hath sent me unto you, to tell you, that his grace hath understood that you have translated a book of Luther’s; touching which book his grace, many years before, did hear of the burning of so many thousands in Germany, by the then emperor. His grace therefore doth desire you, that you would send unto him the said original book in Dutch, and also your translation; which, after his grace hath perused, shall be returned safely unto you.’
Whereupon I told Dr. Bray that I had taken a great deal of pains in translating the said book, and was very loath to part with it out of my hands; and, therefore, I desired him to excuse me to his grace, that I could not part from it; with which answer he at that time returned again to his master.
But the next day after he sent him unto me again, and bid him tell me that, upon his honor, the book should be as safe in his custody, if not safer than in mine own; for he would lock it up in his own cabinet, to the end no man might come unto it, but only himself. Thereupon, I knowing it would be a thing bootless for me to refuse the sending of them, by reason he was then of such great power, that he would have them nolens volens, I sent them both unto him. Then after he had kept them in his custody two months, and had daily read therein, he sent the said doctor unto me, to tell me that I had performed a work worthy of eternal memory, and that he had never read a more excellent divine work; yet saying that some things therein were fitting to be left out, and desired me not to think long, that he did not return them unto me so soon again. The reason was, because that the more he did read therein, the more desire he had to go on therewith; and so presenting me with ten livres in gold, he returned back again.
After which, when he had them in his custody one whole year, and that I understood he had perused it all over, then I sent unto his grace, and humbly desired that his grace would be pleased to return me my books again. Whereupon he sent me word by the said Dr. Bray, that he had not as yet perused them so thoroughly over as he desired to do; then I stayed yet a year longer before I sent to him again.
In which time I heard for certain that it was concluded by the king and council that a parliament should forthwith be called; at which news I did much rejoice. And then I sent unto his grace an humble petition, and therein desired the returning of my book again; otherwise I told him I should be enforced to make it known, and to complain of him to the parliament, which was then coming on. Whereupon he sent unto me again safely both the said original book and my translation, and caused his chaplain, the said doctor, to tell me that he would make it known unto his majesty what an excellent piece of work I had translated, and that he would procure an order from his majesty to have the said translation printed, and to be dispersed throughout the whole kingdom, as it was in Germany, as he had heard thereof; and thereupon he presented me again with forty livres in gold.
And presently after I was set at liberty by warrant from the whole House of Lords, according to his majesty’s direction in that behalf; but shortly afterwards the archbishop fell into his troubles, and was by the parliament sent unto the Tower, and afterwards beheaded. Insomuch that I could never since hear anything touching the printing of my book.
The House of Commons having then notice that I had translated the aforesaid book, they sent for me, and did appoint a committee to see it, and the translation, and diligently to make inquiry whether the translation did agree with the original or no; whereupon they desired me to bring the same before them, sitting then in the Treasury Chamber. And Sir Edward Dearing being chairman, said unto me, that he was acquainted with a learned minister beneficed in Essex, who had lived long in England, but was born in High Germany, in the Palatinate, named Mr. Paul Amiraut, whom the committee sending for, desired him to take both the original and my translation into his custody, and diligently to compare them together, and to make report unto the said committee whether he found that I had rightly and truly translated it according to the original; which report he made accordingly, and they being satisfied therein, referred it to two of the assembly, Mr. Charles Herle and Mr. Edward Corbet, desiring them diligently to peruse the same, and to make report unto them if they thought it fitting to be printed and published.
Whereupon they made report, dated the 10th of November, 1646, that they found it to be an excellent divine work, worthy the light and publishing, especially in regard that Luther, in the said Discourses, did revoke his opinion, which he formerly held, touching Consubstantiation in the Sacrament. Whereupon the House of Commons, the 24th of February, 1646, did give order for the printing thereof.
Thus having been lately desired to set down in writing the relation of the passages above said concerning the said book, as well for the satisfaction of judicious and godly Christians as for the conservation of the perpetual memory of God’s extraordinary providence in the miraculous preservation of the aforesaid Divine Discourses, and now bringing them again to light, I have done the same according to the plain truth thereof, not doubting but they will prove a notable advantage of God’s glory, and the good and edification of the whole Church, and an unspeakable consolation of every particular member of the same.”
Taken from, “Anecdotes of Luther and the Reformation”