The Good, Insane Concordance Maker

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By John Piper About Christian Biography
Part of the series Taste & See

There’s a catch to this story that comes later. I hope you read to the end. I think you’ll be encouraged. I was. I read in a recent issue of Books and Culture a review (by Timothy Larsen) of a new biography of Alexander Cruden, the man who single-handedly wrote one of the early concordances to the King James Bible (Alexander the Corrector: The Tormented Genius Who Unwrote the Bible by Julia Keay). That means he recorded every one of the 777,746 words in the Bible and made a note of every place where it occurs. For example, the word “him” (6,667 occurrences), “her” (1,994 occurrences), “God” (4,444 occurrences), etc. 

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.

For this, thousands of lovers of the Bible thank God. They have studied the Bible seriously for almost three hundred years with Cruden’s help. If this is all we knew, we would simply be amazed at his industry and give thanks. But here’s the catch. He was, if not insane, utterly maladjusted.

Cruden was institutionalized for madness four times in his life. His behavior was often bizarre.

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.

Eventually he decided that God’s call on his life was to reform the morals of Britain. “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.”

He simply could not discern what was fitting and probable. This meant he did foolish things. But not all foolish things are bad. “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.”

On another occasion “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.”

What encourages me about this is to realize that God’s ways are strange. “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). And in this strangeness, sinful and sick and broken people fit into God’s designs. He has purposes for the mentally ill and for the emotionally unstable and for the socially maladjusted. And he has purposes for you.

As Timothy Larsen observes, Cruden did not have the sense to know that “one man working alone in his bedroom could not produce a complete concordance of the Bible.” And from this folly millions have been blessed. Beware of belittling God’s crooked sticks. With them he may write the message that that makes a thousand people glad.

Looking for merciful design everywhere,

Pastor John

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