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(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.)
The translation of the King James Bible took approximately seven years to complete, starting in 1604 and ending sometime in 1611. Despite all the effort put into the project: the meeting at Hampton Court, the selection of 50 of England’s greatest minds, etc., its release was hardly a milestone. Early copies began appearing in some cathedrals across London, but no celebration took place. If anything, this supposed great unifier, this Bible that would bring Puritans and Church of England bishops together, was met largely with indifference. If any curiosity existed over this new translation (originally called the “Authorized Bible”), it was quickly replaced with disdain. Puritans would hate the book for being too pro-Catholic, and the Church of England bishops would revile it for its Puritan influence.
Even the king himself may have lost interest; little evidence exists of James devoting any time to the translation process once it began. In fact, by the time it was finished, he apparently had long since forgotten about it. The book that bears his name is likely his most lasting impression on history; but in all likelihood, King James never actually read his own Bible.
Even the translators themselves, who put their hearts and souls into this version, abandoned it once it was released. Possibly due to the lukewarm reception it received, most of them likely considered it a waste of time that did not accomplish its intended purpose. Lancelot Andrewes, the man who is synonymous with the King James Bible, resumed preaching from his Bishops Bible once he was finished with the translation, never to pick up his own life’s work again. He would never live to see how influential his Bible would someday become.
The King James Version was intended to unify England. It failed miserably in its objective. Shortly after its release, the book all but vanished, almost becoming a forgotten footnote in history. James’s own grand vision of bringing together the Puritans and Church of England bishops under one Bible was eventually met with harsh reality. At the beginning of his kingship, he had worked feverishly to bring the English Puritans into the fold as a represented faction. But within a few years, this enlightened king, who at one time considered himself the grand wise ruler in the shadow of Solomon, became as wicked and fanatical in his hatred of English Protestantism as anyone before him. As he began putting Puritans to death all over his country, the persecuted people finally had enough. In 1620, the first group of them set sail on a ship called the Mayflower, with the hopes of escaping James’s cruel reign to a New World, where they could worship as they pleased.
Contrary to popular belief, the Pilgrims were not deranged adherents to the King James Bible; the Puritan Geneva Bible was the only version brought with them on the voyage. The Pilgrims hated King James and were fleeing his tyrannical rule; why would they bring his Bible translation with them? And the King James Version has nothing to do with any terrible acts in the coming years; it was never used to justify executions during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.
King James I of England himself remains a controversial figure. He had many great accomplishments and many terrible ones, but two details of his rule over England stand out above all others. He is remembered as the king who authorized the greatest translation of the Bible ever published, but he is also immediately recognized as the king who forced out the people whose journey would ultimately lead to the foundation of a new nation. His monarchy has a dual nature; the King James Bible is the symbol of his enlightened early years, but the Mayflower stands as the dark symbol of his terrible later years, a man bitterly consumed with hatred towards the people whom he considered obstacles to his success. James died in 1625, but his son, King Charles I, would hardly be a more unifying figure than his father.
Preventing domestic unrest was another of the King James Version’s initial failures. The English Civil War, started in 1642, tore the nation apart for 9 years, led to the toppling and execution King Charles, and for the first and only time in history, brought the disbanding of the monarchy. The Puritan Oliver Cromwell ruled England as a military dictator for a brief 4 years before he was deposed and replaced by King Charles II and the monarchy was reestablished. If any good came out of those bloody years, it is that the Anglican Church ultimately lost its power as the dominant Christian Church in England, and paved the way for religious freedom to finally flourish.
But why, then, is the King James Bible the most influential translation of all time? What happened in the 400 years since its release to today that has propelled it from a forgotten anomaly to the best-selling book of all time? Frankly, no one knows. It is perhaps the greatest mystery in Christian history; the steps through the fog of the centuries are impossible to trace.
While the Pilgrims may have hated King James, their descendants did not. Long after his death, when the fear of him had subsided, as Puritans were massively migrating to the New World to establish the American colonies, somehow some old dusty copies of King James’s Authorized Bible ended up on one of their ships. And inevitably, it was read, and reprinted, and slowly began to spread.
Perhaps it is the text of the book itself that has proved so enduring. Something is universal about the undercurrent of unity permeating the King James Bible. It is that great spirit of compromise, that enlightened vision of England brought together, that still resonates with people to this day. It were as though the cataclysmic years following the translation were like a giant tsunami that wiped out an entire civilization, and centuries later, future generations found that one great monument that washed up on the shore. The King James Bible is that monument, that eternal symbol of a moment in time during James’s England, when people believed in peace and unity.
But unity wasn’t a myth; it simply befell the wrong nation.
As the American colonies began to thrive through the 1700s, the Geneva Bible the Pilgrims had brought with them became a distant memory. Through some impossible odds, the King James Bible, this old forgotten footnote of history, was fast taking its place to become the most popular version in the New World. This seems as miraculous as the translation process itself. But it is no coincidence that this Bible struck the Americans so deeply; in a time where they felt increasingly alienated from their ruling nation, its message of putting one’s differences aside made them feel a certain kinship with one another.
This plays a critical role in the course of our nation’s founding and independence. It was the King James Bible that became the favorite of the Revolutionaries. And as its intended purpose, it did eventually become the Bible that unified a nation: ours. Without it, America likely would not have been brought together during such a trying time as the War for Independence. We, the United States of America, as a sovereign nation and as a people, owe our very existence not just to the Bible, but specifically the King James Version. Its role has been ignored by the school system and history revisionists, but we must not forget. It must always be in our churches, in our schools, in our courts, and in our homes, somewhere, as the constant reminder of our freedoms bestowed upon us by God.
And as such, America became the springboard for the King James Bible to go to the entire world. Eventually, it came back home; by the 19th century, almost all England preferred it, while every other Bible translation from the past had been lost by history. As it has aged and the English language has evolved beyond it, it has only grown in power and mystique. Its strange antiquated language resembles ours, yet is alien to us, and perhaps that is why it seems to come from Heaven itself. With its regal dialect yet strangely intimate prose, it is difficult not to believe that the King James Version contains the language spoken by God Himself.
And as it has spread to the entire world, been translated into almost every language, and saturated every nation on Earth, it is hard to look at the King James Bible not as a purely divine inspiration. One cannot just read the language of God, but can hear His voice speaking through it, and see His hand shaping it and guiding its course throughout history. It contains a stirring message not just from our past, but pointing to our destiny.
Many literary historians consider the greatest accomplishment of the English language not any work of a playwright or philosopher: it is not Shakespeare’s King Lear or any of Sir Francis Bacon’s essays. It is Lancelot Andrewes’ translation of the 23rd Psalm that still stands as the pinnacle of all English ever written. In it, we can hear not only David speak, but Andrewes, and the King James Bible itself, almost narrating its own journey through the years, speaking a Word to us of its own enduring power.
1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.