HISTORY OF THE KING JAMES BIBLE
Churches around the world are celebrating a quadricentennial:
400 years ago marked the publishing, at the request of the Anglican clergy, of what would become the Authorized Version of the Bible, to wide acclaim.
But there are 3 problems with that statement.
While it is true that the King James Bible was published in 1611 and eventually became the most influential Bible in the English-speaking world — if not the most printed book of all time — it was not requested by the Anglican clergy, at least not by the conformist Episcopalian ministers. Nor did it subsequently become officially Authorized by the King. Finally, those who originally requested it, the Puritans, refused to read it but used another Bible instead.
The details of how the King James Bible came to be are a bit different.
Origin of the King James Bible
It was the heyday of William Shakespeare and good manners. The Tudor dynasty ended with the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Following this the Scottish King James VI, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, was brought to the throne as James I of England. As James made his way from Scotland to London the Puritans intercepted him to present to him the Millenary Petition in 1603, signed by 1,000 Puritan ministers (1,000 = millenary, representing some 10% of all clergy).
They requested some modest changes to the Church of England. James ignored almost all of their requests. One that interested him, and which he believed would ultimately placate the Puritans, was their request to create a new English translation of the Bible.
Who were the Puritans, and where did they come from?
To answer that requires royal history from one of the most colorful periods of England. You’ll recall that Henry VIII of England was married six times, ostensibly in the hope of producing a male heir. His first marriage to Catherine of Aragon (daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain) had brought the English crown huge tracts of land on the continent. But she could not give him a son that survived infancy. The Pope would not grant Henry a divorce.
The Queen’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the most powerful monarch in Europe, did not take kindly to the idea of the King of England jettisoning his Aunt Catherine. For Henry to obtain an annulment and marry Anne Boleyn it was expedient to break from the Roman Catholic Church and set himself up as the head of the Church of England. But theologically Henry did not move toward a Protestant theology. Indeed, earlier in his life, he had written a criticism of Luther’s teachings entitled “Assertion of the Seven Sacraments Against Luther” and was declared by the Pope to be “Defender of the Faith” in 1521. Nevertheless, in rejecting the authority of Rome over the church in his realm he seized Roman Catholic property in England and close monasteries.
Henry’s successor, his only son Edward VI (from his third wife Jane Seymour) became an advanced Protestant under the tutoring of Henry Bullinger, the Swiss Protestant Reformer and the preaching of John Knox (the Scottish Reformer who would later study under John Calvin in Geneva). However, this advanced form of Protestantism ended when the sickly Edward died at the age of 15.
Edward was succeeded by his half-sister Mary Tudor in 1553, the daughter of Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon. Mary was bitter following her parent’s divorce. Like her mother, she was devoutly Catholic. While Mary wished to restore the Catholic Church in England, at least politically if not economically, the Pope would not cooperate with her unless she pledged to return the Roman Church’s lands that her father had nationalized — which Mary could not do. Doing so would have effectively brought England into the Spanish Hapsburg holdings as a mere province.
Instead, what Mary did was to kill off the most influential of her Protestant opponents at home, such as the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer and Protestant leaders at Oxford Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer — and at least three hundred other Protestants. This earned her the title “Bloody Mary.” At this time John Knox fled to Geneva while English Protestants went into exile in Strasbourg, Frankfurt, and other parts of Europe.
At Mary’s death in 1558, she was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth I. Henry VIII’s last heir to succeed him, “Good Queen Bess” ruled a Golden Age of England for 45 years, though not quite as long as the current Queen Elizabeth II who has ruled for 58 years so far! (By the way, when Elizabeth II was coronated in 1953 she ordered that every English child receive a King James Bible. Indeed, the Commemorative Prince William and Kate Middleton Royal Wedding Bible is the King James Bible.) Elizabeth I could not be Catholic, lest she admit that her father’s divorce from Catherine to marry her mother, Anne Boleyn, was invalid and that she herself was illegitimate. Instead, she pragmatically fashioned a Via Media, a church of the “middle way” that featured a High Church that would appeal to her subjects in the House of Lords with a Catholic liturgy, worship style, and rituals. Elizabeth liked the candles, clerical robes, kneeling for communion, the pomp, and the music. She did not so much care for the sermons, and on more than one occasion would rudely interrupt sermons which annoyed her. In her model, the Low Church included a kind of Calvinistic doctrine that would placate her Protestant subjects in the House of Commons.
So here’s where the Puritans fit in:
When the Marian Exiles, those who fled the persecutions of Bloody Mary, returned from Europe to England expecting to enjoy a new Protestant Queen, they found a church that had more Catholic tendencies than they preferred. They wanted to see the Church of England change more quickly from the Catholic forms of worship and church government to a simpler form of worship they had witnessed on the Continent. Though they still held that the Anglican Church was the “true church” — and did not wish to be perceived as Separatists, rather as non-conformists — they called themselves “the godly.” However, they were called by those who did not like them “precise,” or less frequently but in the end more lastingly, “Puritans.” They were Anglicans but did not care for an Episcopalian form of church government.
The New Testament Greek word “episcopos” or overseer is usually translated as bishop. Not unlike the Catholic church, the Anglican church practiced a hierarchical system of government with bishops, under whom were priests, then deacons. Puritans preferred either a congregational form of government — each local church was independent with democratic polity– or a presbyterian form of government. The New Testament word “presbuteros” means elder and hence a presbyterian church government involves a plurality of elders elected as representatives of the congregation. This form of polity was popularized under John Calvin in Geneva and emulated by his follower John Knox in Scotland.
Of interest to American history, one of Knox’s descendants was John Witherspoon, a Scottish preacher who emigrated to America. He was the only clergyman who signed the Declaration of Independence, and as president of Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey) greatly influenced several of the Founding Fathers — framers of the Declaration and Constitution who studied under him, notably, James Madison, “Father of the Constitution.” Witherspoon’s students included 37 judges (three of whom became Supreme Court justices), 10 Cabinet officers, 12 members of the Continental Congress, 28 U.S. senators, and 49 United States congressmen. Oh, and one of Witherspoon’s descendants is Reese Witherspoon.
These Puritans, who had felt suppressed under Elizabeth, now with the advent of James, the new monarch, asked for among other things a new translation into English of the Bible from the original languages. King James I, a well-educated man who saw himself as an intellectual and enjoyed a good theological debate, granted them their request. He had proposed that he had “never yet seen a Bible well translated into English.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Where to read more:
Church History journal, Issue 100 “Celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible”
“Wide as the Waters, The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired” by Benson Bobrick
“In the Beginning, the Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture” by Alister McGrath