Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Timothy Larsen

The Orderly Product of a Disordered Mind

A biography of the maker of Cruden's Concordance

In the mid-1720s, Alexander Cruden took on a self-imposed task of Herculean proportions, Himalayan tedium, and inhuman meticulousness: he decided to compile the most thorough concordance of the King James Version of the Bible to date. The first edition of Cruden's Concordance was published in 1737. How could he have possibly completed such a project? Every similar undertaking before or since has been the work of a vast team of people—in recent times made incomparably easier by computers. Cruden worked alone in his lodgings, writing the whole thing out by hand. The KJV has 777,746 words, all of which needed to be put in their proper place. Cruden even wrote explanatory entries on many of the words—in effect, including a Bible dictionary as a bonus. The word "Synagogue," for example, prompted a 4,000-word essay.

Furthermore, Cruden's day job was as a "Corrector of the Press" (proofreader). He would give hawk-eyed attention to prose all day long. Then he would come home at night, not to rest his eyes and enjoy some relaxation, but rather to read the Bible—stopping at every single word to secure the right sheet from the tens of thousands of pieces of paper all around him and to record accurately the reference in its appropriate place. He had no patron, no publisher, no financial backers: his only commission was a divine one.

Cruden's Concordance has never been out of print. Some hundred editions have been published, many of which have been reprinted untold times; shoppers at a popular online bookstore today can choose from 18 different in-print versions of Cruden's.

The biblical concordance was destined to become a kind of evangelical equivalent to the rosary—an aid to devotion that many could not imagine living without. Cruden's work was praised by members of the élite ranging from the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford to the Queen. Even more significant, however, are the obscure ministers who wrote to him to express their gratitude. One declared that Cruden's Concordance was as essential a tool for the work of a Christian minister as a plow was for a farmer. Another observed tellingly that it had taught him how to preach.

Indeed, evangelicals have had 250 years of the type of preaching and teaching that has its form and content thoroughly shaped by the use of a concordance. The internationally celebrated preacher that I admired most as a teenager structured every sermon the same way. He would take up a theme and then go on to show how important it was by demonstrating that it could be found throughout the Bible. He had a brilliant flair for juxtaposing one text with another. I remember sitting enthralled during one sermon in which he began in Genesis with God promising that whenever he saw a rainbow he would remember his covenant. This sermon ended dramatically in Revelation where we discover that a rainbow encircles the divine throne; thus the Almighty is perpetually reminded of his covenant with us.

I also recall a less gifted preacher who took as his theme the thesis that God desires to give his people material blessings. He structured his sermon as a parade of verses that contain the word "things": "but with God all things are possible"; "how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?"; "now faith is the substance of things hoped for." At their best, concordance sermons can privilege the world of the Bible, deepen a commitment to the whole counsel of God, and foster biblical literacy. Preaching generated in this way need not be crude, but it is certainly Cruden.

Julia Keay's lively biography, Alexander the Corrector: The Tormented Genius Who Unwrote the Bible, assumes a readership for whom denominational differences are inscrutable. In the first ten pages we are twice helped to comprehend Scottish Calvinists by being invited to think of them as a lot like Muslims. Keay never alludes to the notion that Cruden "unwrote" the Bible. If that was a marketing copywriter's desperate attempt at sensationalism, it mercifully ends with the subtitle. Nor does Keay make any effort to present her subject as a "genius." The book is largely taken up with the argument that Cruden was "tormented." Every other source will tell you that he was, if not insane, then at least someone whose mental grip was not always that tight. Keay advances the simple antithesis that he was not mad.

Her argument is grounded in some first-rate scholarly sleuthing and is often cleverly advanced. Nevertheless, this reader thought that she overplayed her hand. To secure for Cruden a clean bill of mental health, Keay has to offer an alternative reading of the evidence that makes him the victim of four separate grave injustices, each perpetrated by different people.

Alexander Cruden was first institutionalized when he was twenty-one years old. In order to take into account all the known facts—but still assert that his mind was sound—Keay's counter theory is that a woman whom Cruden was pursuing was pregnant with a child by her brother; that the child was successfully passed off as the offspring of the woman's parents; that the woman later married a different brother and had a child by him as well; that the woman's father—one of the leading ministers in Aberdeen—colluded in a plot to get Cruden out of the way in order to cover up the scandal (Cruden apparently being the only person in town observant enough to notice all this); that Cruden's own parents possessed such a strong sense of deference for the minister and his power that they went along with their son being shut up in a prison-cum-madhouse; and that Cruden referred to this man who fathered three incestuous children and unjustly imprisoned him (thereby ruining much of the rest of his life) as a "pious and great minister" in his will simply as a way of showing that "he harboured no grudge." And this is only one of the times that he was allegedly victimized!

Three of Cruden's forced confinements are well known, but Keay herself has uncovered a stay in Bedlam that has hitherto been kept secret. She is so enthralled in her revisionist work, however, that this is instantly batted away as a presumed "nervous breakdown." Would there have been a need to send him to a madhouse, however, unless his behavior was also threatening?

On another occasion, Cruden had apparently gone to break up a brawl but ended up spending the best part of an hour admonishing disorderly soldiers not to swear while periodically whacking them on the head with a shovel. He also would propose to women with whom he had established no romantic bond (one such intended he had not even met). Being unable to take no for an answer, he would then turn himself into a persistent nuisance, if not a stalker.

It would have been helpful if Keay had explored some intermediate terrain between the verdicts of sane or insane, such as the possibility that he was suffering from a non-psychotic mood or personality disorder. Nevertheless, she is right to redress the balance by reminding us that Cruden was more eccentric than mad, and more socially inept than malicious. He was no Don Juan, but rather a Don Quixote.

Cruden took a post as French reader to Lord Derby and wrote grand letters to his relatives about his fine new position. He felt deeply aggrieved when he was fired after his first day of work merely because he did not know how to pronounce French. He decided that he should be knighted and so went about asking any influential person he could accost to secure him the honor. A couple weeks before an election, the notion occurred to him that it would be a glorious thing to be a Member of Parliament, and so he tried to get himself on the ballot.

Cruden also decided that being a proofreader was a kind of metaphor for his divine call to reform the morals of the nation. He therefore started a one-man campaign to have the King name him to a position hitherto unknown in British government, "Corrector of the People." He then went rambling about the country admonishing strangers to observe the Sabbath.

Cruden's human weakness and divine gift was an inability to calculate probabilities. This meant that he had no idea how to estimate whether a woman was likely to consent to marriage or whether or not he might be elected to Parliament. (He had done so little work to prepare the ground that, in the end, he could not even find a nominator and a seconder.) It also meant, however, that he did not know—as all normal people do—that when a man gets propositioned he can feel sad for the plight of the prostitute, but there is really nothing he can do to help. Cruden instead hired her to do legitimate work, and she lived a respectable and grateful life thereafter. Cruden did not know that a prisoner's case was never reconsidered when he was only a few days away from execution. He went at this campaign in his usual obsessive and forthright way and pulled off a political miracle—the man's sentence was reduced to deportation. Most of all, to his immortal fame, Alexander Cruden did not know that one man working alone in his bedroom could not produce a complete concordance of the Bible.

Timothy Larsen, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and the author most recently of Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology (Baylor Univ. Press).

Most ReadMost Shared