Click here to read part 1.
(The primary source of information for this lesson is Adam Nicholson’s wonderful book, God’s Secretaries, an unbiased and purely fact-based account of the history of the King James Version of the Bible.)
On March 24, 1603, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. But he was inheriting a greatly divided nation.
The most profound division fracturing the country had been growing for many decades beforehand. Sixty-seven years earlier, King Henry VIII had seceded England from the Catholic Church so that he could divorce his first wife. However, the Catholic churches throughout England simply changed their names from “Catholic” to “Church of England.” The newly formed Anglican Church bore little difference from the Vatican; they carried out the same ceremonies and masses and the structure and hierarchies of priests were basically identical. The Puritans, on the other hand, were Protestant to the core, completely rejecting all Catholic practice as heresy. The tension growing between the two factions on the future of England had festered during the monarchy of Henry and Queen Elizabeth, and by the time James took the throne, it had reached a fever pitch.
King James was himself quite the opposite of his predecessor. Queen Elizabeth had an almost goddess like demeanor about her; the throne was high above the court, in front of the light-emanating stain glass windows, as if her being emanated an ethereal presence. She was a regal stateswoman, stoic and with the utmost seriousness of her royal duties. James, on the other hand, was loud and bawdy, with an in-your-face abruptness. With a fiery red beard and a Scottish accent so thick he was almost unintelligible, the king was known to tell vulgar jokes that made the holy men around him blush. He was also known to be very eccentric, with an almost obsession with the Word of God. It is said he even slept at night with pastor’s sermons under his pillow.
But despite his rough demeanor, James was no fool. Having been crowned king of Scotland at the age of thirteen months, he had grown up and survived in the brutal world of Scottish politics. His entire life had been spent as a monarch, and he was a very shrewd leader who knew how to work with people in the top inner workings of governments. With his strange demeanor, he was easy to underestimate, but was hardly weak. Often viewing himself as an incarnation of Solomon, James considered himself more than up to the challenge of bringing peace and unity to a nation that was increasingly crumbling apart with tension around him.
The hatred between the Church of England bishops and the Puritans is perfectly reflected by their respective Bibles. While the Tyndale Bible had been a powerful and influential book that was respected by both sides, it was considered a rough and flawed translation, and different versions attempting to improve upon Tyndale’s work had sprung up over the years. The official Bible of the Anglican Church was the Bishops Bible, translated in 1568. This version was very Catholic-biased, filled with ceremonious and formal depictions of the events in God’s Word. The Puritans largely preferred the Geneva Bible, translated in 1599, a version that is almost cartoonish in its Protestant bias. The Geneva Bible is notoriously literal, translating even the names of the characters into their original names. Adam, for example, is only referred to as “Red Earth” in the Geneva Bible, and Isaiah is strictly called “Yahweh is Salvation.” (This led to a strange phenomenon in the 1600s of Puritans naming their children with worded names, after the Geneva translations). The Geneva Bible is also filled with biased footnotes; so many, in fact, that on many pages more footnote than text appears.
The first challenge to face James’s kingship rocked England immediately after he took the throne, when the third wave of the Bubonic plague fell in 1603. While the infamous Black Death that had killed a third of Europe’s population initially struck in the early 1330s, at least three more outbreaks occurred in the following centuries, each one as devastating as the previous. The epidemic had been a long time coming. During the Dark Ages, basic sanitation had all but ceased to exist for the human race. Even Ancient Rome, many centuries earlier, had better sewage and sanitation methods than medieval Europe. The cleanest people were the church clergy, and they only bathed twice in a year. The streets of every major city were overrun with filth. What’s more, medical knowledge was almost nonexistent. As it was considered heresy to dissect human cadavers, little was known about the basic workings of the human body, and people had little concept of germs. Most believed spreading of disease to be from evil spirits, and people often superstitiously carried around bags of spices believed to ward off the devil’s plague.
Conditions had improved somewhat by 1603, but the plague still brought a cloak of death that decimated the English population. No one; rich or poor, clergy or peasant; was immune. As people caught the disease and died rapidly, piles of bodies began lining the streets of London. Entire families were destroyed and neighborhoods wiped out, and parts of the city became eerie ghost towns. As not many were brave enough to gather and bury the bodies for fear of catching the disease, piles of decaying corpses became impossible to bury, and mass cremations were the only way to dispose of them. The stench of death covered the land, and within a few months the city looked apocalyptic. Ironically, the King James Bible, one of the greatest life-giving books ever published, was born in the shadow of the Black Death.
And that wasn’t all. In 1605, not long after the plague, the infamous Gunpowder Plot occurred, an event that is still seared onto England’s national conscious. A group of radical Catholics, scheming to bring London back under the Vatican’s control, hatched a plot to assassinate the king by filling the cellar of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder and blowing them up. The plot was discovered and stopped shortly before the act of terrorism occurred, and the affect it had on England is comparable to America in the aftermath of 9/11. People were horrified and outraged that such treason would dare occur. After an intense manhunt, all six conspirators were captured and publicly executed (most by being hanged, disemboweled and castrated, before being pulled apart by horses), but the blow done to England’s sense of stability was not stopped. Ten years later, the hatred for the conspirators was undiminished.
To this day in England, an annual celebration with ringing church bells commemorates the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. The phrase “Remember, remember, the 5th of November” is still sang loudly through the streets. Ironically, one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, has been turned by some from villain to folk hero. Guy Fawkes masks have been made popular by the 2005 movie V for Vendetta, and now appear in counter-culture rallies around the world (though most who wear them likely have no idea what they mean).
With the one unifying queen now gone, and an untested new king taking over, the ingredients were in place for a perfect storm of chaos engulfing England. The national debt was at an all-time high. The division between the Church bishops and the Puritans had torn the nation apart, and was now bordering on a civil war. The plague had weakened England even further, and now the Gunpowder plot was the final event threatening to push it over the cliff into chaos. Action had to be taken immediately.
Robert Cecil, the king’s trusted adviser, was the Earl of Salisbury, and perhaps the most powerful man in England. He had played a critical role in Queen Elizabeth’s government and was instrumental in the selection of her successor and the transition of monarchs. Cecil was a deformed hunchback, but hardly a Quasimodo; in fact, he was the wealthiest man in England and his family was tremendously influential. It was Cecil who was able to facilitate the meeting at Hampton Court in 1604.
With the division between bishops and Puritans at the forefront of his attention, King James managed to get every Anglican Church bishop and Puritan church leader in one place. His ambitious goal was to find some solution to the tension between the two parties. Unfortunately, bringing both sides together proved to be explosive. Predictably, the Conference of Hampton Court broke out into chaos, with both sides shouting at one another. Hardly was anyone able to keep the meeting under control.
Remember that the main division between the Church of England and the Puritans was reflected in their radically different Bible versions. It was actually one of the Puritan leaders, John Rainolds, who quietly and calmly voiced his idea amidst the shouting.
“May your majesty be pleased that the Bible be new translated?”
On the other side was Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury. Bancroft was a powerful, hardline member of the Church of England, and radically pro-Catholic. He despised the Puritans and considered them all heretics that needed to be wiped out. He personally had authorized the execution of many Protestants around England. Bancroft had no interest in comprising with his enemies, and immediately shouted a sarcastic response to Rainolds’ suggestion.
“If every man’s humour might be followed, there would be no end of translating!”
But the king was intrigued by this idea.
Despite the confrontational nature of the Hampton Court Conference, the initial goal was met and every party walked away with a sense of accomplishment. The decision had been made; a new version of the Bible would be translated, to unify the people of England. The Church bishops and the Puritans would each have equal say in the translation process, and it would be the book to bring them all under one Bible. Peace would come at last.
Perhaps one of the greatest miracles of the King James Bible is the extent to which men were willing to set aside their differences to bring it into being. Much to his chagrin, Bancroft was the first one chosen for the task. It is amazing for one to consider that a fanatical pro-Catholic like this man, who hated Puritans so much he had personally put many to death, would suddenly be willing to sit down and work together with them to form this new Bible version. Because it was what his majesty desired.
All that was left was to select the men for the task. The plan was in motion.