Four hundred and twelve 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 three 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 initially requested it, the Puritans, refused to read it but used the English language Geneva Bible instead.
The details of how the King James Bible came to be are a bit different. And while May 2 is the date the publication is celebrated, the actual printing date is uncertain.
Origin of the King James Bible
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 from where did they come?
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 closed monasteries.
However, this advanced form of Protestantism ended in England when Edward died at 15.
Instead, Mary killed 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 Calvin’s Geneva while many English Protestants went into exile in Strasbourg, Frankfurt, and other parts of Europe.
(By the way, when Elizabeth II was crowned 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 that annoyed her. In her model, the Low Church included a weak kind of Calvinistic doctrine to appease 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, instead 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.
What is an Episcopalian 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 church 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
- 49 United States congressmen.
Oh, and one of Witherspoon’s descendants is reportedly the actor Reese Witherspoon.
King James I, a well-educated man who saw himself as an intellectual and enjoyed having a good theological debate, granted them their request.
He had proposed that he had “never yet seen a Bible well translated into English.”
Where to read more:
- “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.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian