Samuel Bogusław Chyliński and the Fate of the First Lithuanian Bible in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Samuel Bogusław Chyliński (ca. 1634 Šventežeris–1668 London) was the translator of the first printed (yet incomplete) Bible to Lithuanian and a Calvinist. Once the Counter-Reformation in Lithuania prevailed, he dedicated his life to an ambitious project to publish the Holy Scriptures in Lithuanian.

The word of God in the vernacular

Translating and publishing the Bible in vernacular languages was one of the most prominent achievements of the Reformation, which affected the Christian mentality of early modern Europe. Unlike the Catholics, the Protestants believed in the need for every Christian to read and know the text of the Bible, even in the 16th century, and would not accept the single Church codified and sacred Latin text of the Bible which St. Jerome had prepared in the early Middle Ages. When Erasmus of Rotterdam was permitted to publish a critical Greek edition of the New Testament in 1516, the wave of translations of the Bible into vernacular languages became unstoppable across all of Europe. The Catholic Church in Lithuania took a conservative and cautious view of translating the Bible.

The Protestants took up the idea of publishing the Bible into vernacular.

The first time that the Bible was printed in Lithuania was in 1563. Prepared at the initiative of Mikołaj Radziwiłł the Black and printed at his expense at a printing press in Brest, the Polish-language Bible (called the Radziwiłł or the Brest Bible) was the first ever Protestant translation of the Holy Scriptures into the Polish language. This Bible was a major landmark in the history of Lithuanian and Polish translations of the Bible, thanks to its literary qualities, and because it was so expensively produced. Sometime between 1572 and 1574, Symon Budny published a translation of the Bible in Polish, which expressed an anti-Trinitarian approach.

In the second half of the 16th century, having to fight for the right to worship, build churches and promote their faith, the Protestants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania did not have much time to put an effort and resources into preparing a Lithuanian Bible. This was done in Prussia between 1579 and 1590 by the Lutheran Jonas Bretkūnas, who translated the Bible into the Lithuanian language, but he did not have the means to get it printed. Bretkūnas is recognised as being one of the people who laid down the basics of the Lithuanian literary language.

The Lithuanian Bible project hatched in Oxford

Samuel Bogusław Chyliński was the second person to translate the whole of the Bible into Lithuanian, and he was the first to begin printing it. Born into the family of the Lithuanian Calvinist pastor Adrian Chylinski, he studied at the Calvinist Gymnasium in Kėdainiai, which was set up in 1625 by the Calvinist Synod on land belonging to Krzysztof Radziwiłł (from 1640, it belonged to his son Janusz). Around 1651, the Gymnasium moved to a new building, which is still standing today.

In the early 17th century, Kėdainiai was a centre for Lithuanian Protestant culture. Much attention was paid to introducing Lithuanian services there and in the Radziwiłł lands around Biržai, and to ensuring that people who knew Lithuanian became priests. In 1651, Janusz Radziwiłł set up a printing press in Kėdainiai, and in 1653 it printed the 17th century’s biggest book in Lithuanian Knyga nobažnystės krikščioniškos. The book consists of Calvinist hymns, services and a catechism.

Chylinski went to study theology at the Academy of Franeker in Holland in 1654, and from 1657 he lived in England. He studied at Oxford University, and between 1657 and 1660 he carried out a longstanding Protestant plan to translate the complete Bible into Lithuanian. He chose the most popular Bible in the Dutch language (Statenbijbeln) as his main source for the translation, for in the 17th century (and especially after the Thirty Years War had broken out in Germany), Holland and its Calvinist universities were the centre for Calvinism in Europe.

One of the worst periods in Lithuania’s history, called the Deluge, occurred in the 17th century, after Chylinski had left to study. In 1655, the area around Kaunas and Vilnius was occupied by the Muscovite army, and the north of the country and Samogitia were occupied by the Swedish army. After the Deluge, the country was plunged into a political and economic crisis. The Catholic and Protestant halves of the country were even more opposed to each other, and from a legal point of view, the Protestants were forced into a minority position. Looking for ways to strengthen the position of the Lithuanian Calvinist Church, the Calvinist Synod (the highest gathering of the Church) sought support in foreign Protestant countries, especially England. From the late 16th century, England was well known as a country offering support and refuge to Protestants from European states in which the Counter-Reformation had prevailed. Money was collected in England to pay to rebuild destroyed Protestant churches, and to publish books in Lithuanian, especially the Bible. However, the collection of the funds and their use was administered by the Church Synod in Lithuania.

A life’s work consumed in a web of intrigue

Chylinski printed about half of the Old Testament (up to the 43rd Psalm) in London in 1660, and he published two books in English and Latin explaining the Bible project (An Account of the Translation of the Bible into the Lithuanian Tongue, Oxford, 1659; Ratio Institutae Translationis Bibliorum in Linguam Lithvanicam, Oxford, 1660). Unfortunately, the scheme to print the Lithuanian Bible in London was halted half-way through, when he failed to receive the funds he needed and the suport of the Calvinist Church in Lithuania. Two of the keenest supporters of the halt on printing it were Jan Borzymowski and Teodoras Skrodskis, who accused the translator of being ignorant and of making mistakes.

However, it seems that petty intrigues and competitive rivalries had led to the suspension of the plan, rather than general Calvinist concern about the quality of the translation.

Something that could also have held it up was the fact that the main source was not the Polish Gdansk Bible of 1632. The first part of Chylinskis’ printed translation was thrown away. Only in the 20th century was a surviving part of the print run found (two pieces of it), which are now kept in the British Library in London.

Chylinskis lived out the rest of his life in poverty. He fell ill and died in London, in the hostel of the parish Church of St. Giles Cripplegate. He is buried in its medieval churchyard.

Literature: [S. B. Chylinski,] Biblia tatey ira Rasztas Szwętas seno ir naujo Testamenta. Pirmą kartą dabar perguldytas Lietuwiszkań lieźuviń. uźmariose. nog Samuelies Baguslawo Chylinska. Lietuwniko. ó nakłodu Diewo-baymos Karalystes Anglios, uź karalawima Jo Milistos Karalaus, Karolo Antroia Karalaus Anglios, Szkocios, Irlandios ir Francios, London: E. Tailor’s Press, 1660–1662. Gina Kavaliūnaitė, Samuelio Boguslavo Chylinskio Biblija. Senasis Testamentas 1. Lietuviško vertimo ir olandiško originalo faksimilės, Vilnius: Lietuvių kalbos institutas, 2008. 

Dainora Pociūtė