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Saturday, 5 June 2010


Joseph Gurney was my great great great uncle. He followed his father and grandfather in the office of Official Shorthand Writer to the Houses of Parliament, using the Gurney shorthand system invented by his great grandfather Thomas Gurney.

Joseph Gurney (1804-1879),
communicator of government and gospel

The Gurneys were Non-Conformists by faith. Baptists (and other Christian churches not aligned with the Church of England) were emerging in the nineteenth century from the shadows of intolerance and marginalisation, driven by radical religious zeal and a passionate belief in education. Disenfranchised, they had a hunger for god and knowledge which the establishment Church of England had rather lost sight of over the centuries.

Joseph managed to combine his zeal for both heaven and learning through his fifty years of membership of the Religious Tract Society, an organisation founded in 1799 and committed to spreading the Word of God in print, particularly to children, women and the poor.

The Lord’s Prayer for Little Children,
published by the Religious Tract Society, 1870

An active member from the moment he joined in 1829, Gurney became a trustee and in due course the Society’s treasurer. He was a biblical scholar, and when it became clear that the laws on publishing the Bible were not as restrictive as previously imagined, he determined that the Society should publish its own edition.

What seems blindingly obvious and commonplace to us now was Gurney’s inspired innovation. Guided by the Society’s core ethos of making religious text accessible to the masses, he introduced two very simple ideas. Up until then Bibles had been huge, family-sized volumes, solemn and severe with column after column of uninterrupted text. Gurney’s Bible, the Pocket Paragraph Bible, was small enough to fit in your pocket so that you could carry it everywhere with you; and for the first time the text was divided into paragraphs, making it easier to follow and less overwhelming on the page. It appeared in 1846, and was so well received that it became the standard prize for Religious Knowledge given by School Boards throughout the country for decades to come.

Buoyed by the success of the Pocket Paragraph, Joseph Gurney set to work on his next brilliantly simple biblical novelty – explanatory notes, designed to assist further with understanding God's word and will. He enlisted the help of many linguistic and biblical experts, who laboured for ten years in willing anonymity on the new project and like Gurney himself without pay. It was published in sections between 1850 and 1860, when the first complete edition of the Annotated Paragraph Bible appeared.

Paragraphs, notes, and a plan of Solomon’s Temple
Title page of the New Testament, with a handy pull-out map of Palestine

It was a towering academic and spiritual achievement, an instant success which was widely and quickly translated into many languages for the benefit of the hundreds of Non-Conformist missionaries working overseas from Africa to the Far East.

The Annotated Paragraph used the classic King James Version of the Bible which was first published in 1611. Gurney’s next Big Idea was to dispense with explanatory notes and instead update the text itself, with a new translation. With the assistance of eminent Greek and Hebrew scholars of the day, he published the Revised English Bible in 1877, eight years before the Church of England’s officially sanctioned Revised Standard Version.

Joseph Gurney died on 12th August 1879, just two weeks after the death of his brother-in-law and lifelong friend, my great great grandfather William Augustus Salter. Salter was a Baptist minister and brilliant Greek and Hebrew scholar. He had been, so Gurney’s obituary revealed, one of the major contributors to the Annotated Paragraph Bible.

“In a memoir of one [wrote the obituarist] it is impossible not to name the other of these true brothers, who after years of intimate correspondence on the word of God, departed almost hand in hand, death dividing them  for only a few weeks, to continue their study of truth in the all-revealing light of their Saviour’s presence.”

The single-volume edition of
Joseph Gurney’s Annotated Paragraph Bible, 1860

In the year of their death the Religious Tract Society began publication of its long-running magazine of stories and improving articles, The Boys' Own Paper! Salter's son William Henry Gurney Salter succeeded Joseph in the post of Parliamentary Shorthand Writer.


  1. Hello and a good day to you! I was happy to run across this bit of history on your ancestor. I recently purchased a mourning locket with his name and photo. Wanted to inform you that there is still a brooch avail on ebay! Thought you'd like to know so your family can have a chance to purchase it. Perhaps in his will there is mention of the pieces. I would love a copy of this picture of him emailed to me if possible. Also here is the link on ebay to the brooch that is for sale. May this message find you in good spirits and health!
    Kindest Regards, Carlos

    1. Hi Carlos, thanks for the link. I'm afraid it's far too expensive for me, but I'm delighted to have seen it. I hope someone will value its history and buy it.

  2. Hi Carlos, thanks for the link. I'm afraid it's far too expensive for me, but I'm delighted to have seen it. I hope someone will value its history and buy it.


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