In his own words, Captain Henry Bell, who served in the court of King James of England, when he was soundly sleeping one night, saw a frightening vision of “an ancient man,” who grasped Captain Bell by his ear. That vision admonished him to translate a book that the captain had cryptically received from a German gentleman named Casparus Van Sparr, a friend of the captain whom he had met in Germany. Thousands of copies of that book, known as the Colloquia Mensalia (in German, Tischreden), had been burned throughout Germany to the delight of Ferdinand II but the chagrin of many German protestants, for it is, of course, the wittiest work of Martin Luther. One copy of that book, however, that captain recounts, had actually been mummified and preserved “deep into the ground, under … [a building’s] old foundation, … lying in a deep obscure hole, being wrapped in a strong linen cloth, which was waxed all over with bees-wax, within and without; whereby the book was preserved fair, without any blemish.”
The captain’s narrative, dated to 3 July 1650, reads as if it were a combination of a detective novel, a moment of poetic inspiration, and a remarkable account of supernatural intervention in a para-biblical narrative. Bell himself comes off at once as a character from ancient epic instructed by a divinity (e.g., Aeneas heeding Hector’s ghost in Aeneid 2 or Mercury’s charge in Aeneid 4); Joseph, jailed but remaining faithful in the midst of a long sentence only to be sprung from prison if not in return for, at least in light of, his faithful obedience; and Boethius, whose consolation was Philosophy (whereas for the captain it is Theology):
“… about six weeks after I had received the said book, it fell out, that I being in bed one night, between twelve and one of the clock, my wife being asleep, by 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 time and place to do it’; and then he vanished away out of my sight.”
The captain soon goes on to explain the Boethius-like circumstances under which he would render the Tischreden.
“… sitting down to dinner with my wife, two messengers were sent from the whole council-board, with a warrant…. Upon which said warrant I was kept ten whole years close prisoner, where I spent five years thereof about the translating 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.’”
Eventually Captain Bell would be released from prison by an order of the House of Lords, and his Table Talk—for that is the English titled when translated from either the Latin or the German, cited above—or, rather, Martin Luther’s Table Talk, would become well known in the English speaking world, having been duly approved by the House of Commons in February of 1646. And thus, in his recounting of the entire affair, which was obviously quite an ordeal for the captain, he concludes:
“…now bringing them [the Tischreden] 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.”
Now at this moment you just might be wondering why I tell this story in this week’s blog? Well, I will tell you, for there are a couple of good reasons. First, the Captain, however kooky he might seem to you, was obviously a man of some noble character, for he embodies perseverance and grace under fire. Jailed unfairly, like Joseph of the book of Genesis, Captain Bell does not kvetch about it but rather accepts it as a part of his story, a part of the rich beauty of his purpose in life which involved, I think it seems fair to say, the preservation of Martin Luther’s dinnertime remarks. These include moments of amazing insight combined with moments of raucous humor, scathing curses (mostly directed at Erasmus or the pope), and moments of tender reflection on the value of liberal education. And they’re funny, and give us a real glimpse of the personality of Martin Luther and some of his cronies. Second, the good Captain shows, too, the value of knowing another language well, in his case German. And third, the story shows—and this is the amazing bit—how history can sometimes hang by a thread. We can lose a valuable chunk of it all too easily, in the twinkling of an eye. In this case though, we wouldn’t have lost the Table Talk, we would most certainly have lost Captain Bell’s understanding of it. How perilously close we came to that, so close. Yet because the good Captain saw purpose in his life, even in captivity, and because he believed his work was worth something, he persevered in the face of opposition from an at first unfriendly government to find a way for his book, i.e. Luther’s book, to come into the English language.
And there you have it—a story you may not have known and a person of whom I don’t think we even have a single portrait but we do have this story about a brave and patient captain whose knowledge, obedience, and perseverance seem worth noting nearly four centuries now after the fact. We don’t know his face, but maybe now his name at least rings a bell.