Read, Or Die!

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Volume III, Issue 1
Spring 1995
Read, Or Die!
Dr. E. Lee Bez

O Theophilus is the Quarterly Journal of The Center For Biblical Literacy



The Gloucester Gazzette – September 26, 1087

Read, Or Die!

William Rufus II, third son of William the Conqueror, ascended to the throne of England today with coronation pomp and ceremony. Expectations are running high that the door of European refinement opened by William I will remain open under William II. The British Isles are eager to accelerate cultural advancement after decades of isolationism.1

William II had earlier proposed setting in motion a program aimed at fostering literacy. With the able cooperation and counsel of Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, a first draft of the royal decree has been circulated. At the heart of this decree is the dual purpose of providing judicial relief for condemned prisoners and advancing literacy by familiarization with the Latin Vulgate.2

The proposed decree states, “A person subject to the death penalty can appeal for Benefit of Clergy.” Benefit of Clergy is the legal appeal to an official representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury for commutation of the death penalty. Under the statute, the clerical representative (one assigned to each of England’s prisons) is to stipulate a particular passage of Scripture to be read aloud by the accused. A prisoner showing his ability to read scripture can save his neck literally, not figuratively!

If the prisoner appeals to the “Neck-verse” before the courts, the magistrate is free to open the Bible at random for the test. If the appeal is before the church’s representative, the stipulated verses would most likely come from the 51st Psalm. 3

At London’s Newgate prison the first condemned man appealed to the cleric of Newgate today. This will prove an excellent test for King William’s Civil Literacy decree. At press time it has been learned that the prisoner will be required to read Psalm 51:1: “Misere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam; et secundum multitudinem misetationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.”4 According the decree, if the ecclesiastical official pronounces “Legit ut clericus” (He reads like a clerk), the prisoner will have saved his own neck. His hand will then be branded as punishment. But, if the condemned bungles his “Neck-verse,” he will be executed on schedule.

The king’s literacy campaign hasn’t escaped criticism. Some unknown hack poet summed up the root of cynicism in crude verse:

If a clerk had been taken
For stealing bacon,
For burglary, murder rape,
If he could but rehearse
Well prompt his neck-verse
He never could from canada fail to escape.5

Criticism not withstanding, it is hoped that this decree might be a significant piece of legislation coming from William Rufus’ hand.6 It seems to this reporter that in these times, it would definitely pay to learn to read particularly, the Christian scriptures. At the very least one ought to memorize Psalm 51.




The above “news” article is fictional, but it might interest you to know that all of the facts are correct! This Civil Literacy decree was one of William II’s lasting legal legacies. Nominally, it was in force as late as 1700.

This judicial use of the Bible may have been the precursor of “swearing to the truth” in our court system. I was reminded of this while watching the Rev. Rosie Grier place his hand on the Bible and swear to the truth of his testimony he was about to give in the O.J. Simpson trial.

If this decree was in effect today, I wonder how many could “save their necks,” as it were, by reading aloud with intelligence and passion from the Christian scriptures? How many professing Christians may know even one “neck-verse”?

William II’s reign was not stellar, but he may have been on the right track with his plan of literacy. Memorizing the scripture has become a lost devotional discipline in America. With anti-Christian forces ever trying to eradicate the Holy Scriptures from our culture, perhaps its time to learn to read Psalm 51 or memorize a few verses?



1. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Son, 1926) Vol. V. Pt. I.

2. By this time the Vulgate would have been the “Bible of choice” for over half a millennium. Translated by Jerome in 405 AD.

3. Neck-Verse [ME neke verse; fr. the possibility of its saving the accused person’s neck]: a verse usually consisting of the first lines of a Latin version of the 51st Psalm formerly set before an accused person claiming benefit of clergy so that the person might vindicate his claim by an intelligent reading aloud of the verse before examiners. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, 1966.

4. Webb Garrison, Strange Facts About the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1969) 56-57.

5. Ibid., 57.

6. Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 10, pp. 222-223; Vol. 28, pp. 776-777. International Edition, 1993.



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