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How the King James Bible changed the world

June 21, 2011

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By Dr. Philip Jenkins

The year 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James translation of the Bible, one of the landmark events in the history of Christianity -- in the history of the faith in England, in Europe, and ultimately on a global scale. To commemorate the event, Baylor University recently played host to a remarkable international conference on "The King James Bible and the World it Made, 1611-2011." The need for such a celebration seemed obvious enough, given the translation's vast importance in shaping Anglo-American culture and literature, language and politics; but it was of course the book's central religious element that made it such a natural fit for Baylor. It is scarcely too much to say that the King James Bible represents a critical foundation of Protestant Christianity in the English-speaking world, and the book's influence ranges deep into other traditions. How could we let such an epochal moment pass without proper notice?

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In 1611, the new British state headed by King James I issued its translation of the complete Bible, "newly translated out of the original tongues, and with the former translations diligently compared and revised. By His Majesty's special command. Appointed to be read in churches." The book gave English-speaking Christians a common standard through which they could express their faith. Soon, the spread of printing technology meant that this translation above all became the definitive Bible that believers kept in their houses, and before too long, carried in their pockets. Although originally intended for Anglicans, the new translation soon spread its influence across the spectrum of emerging denominations and sects, as it gave voice to Presbyterians and Congregationalists, Quakers and Baptists. After all, King James's reign coincided with an astonishingly spiritual ferment, as Protestants debated furiously their relationship with the state and whether it was even possible for faithful Christians to accept the decisions of secular power. The year 1609, for instance, marked the beginning of the Baptist churches in the English-speaking world.

"England has two books, the Bible and Shakespeare. England made Shakespeare, but the Bible made England."

- Victor Hugo

And of course, there was a vast global dimension. When we recall how English colonies were beginning to spread around the world in 1611 -- how a settlement was already developing tentatively in Virginia (from 1607), with Massachusetts only a few years away -- we realize how wonderfully the translators timed their work, how providentially. Over the coming centuries, the Christianity of the British Isles would become a driving force in Christian expansion worldwide -- in North America, in Africa, in the Caribbean, in South Asia -- and wherever those believers went, they brought with them the structures and cadences of the King James Bible. Whenever and wherever English-speaking Christians debated their faith, when they debated the nuances of words and phrases, the words over which they battled were those of a common Bible translation, the one that appeared in 1611.

The King James Bible formed the emerging Protestant Christianity of the Anglo-American world, and that claim is stunning in its own right. But the text had an impact even beyond that, shaping the whole culture of the English-speaking world. As even its bitterest detractors concede, the 1611 Bible is a literary masterpiece of the first order, a triumph of both prose and verse. If the year 1611 coincided with the beginnings of the British Empire, it also marked the high point of the English Renaissance. The new Bible translation appeared within a couple of years of the first performance of some of the greatest plays in English -- William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and "The Winter's Tale," John Webster's "The White Devil" and "The Duchess of Malfi," Ben Jonson's "The Alchemist" -- and at the time of John Donne's poetry, and the philosophy and science of Sir Francis Bacon. (Even this list does not begin to mention the contemporary achievements in music, architecture and the visual arts.)

The Bible translators were working in an era of staggering literary accomplishment, but moreover at a time when writers felt no inhibitions about restructuring the language and its literary forms, or of coining hundreds of new words as it fitted their moods and met their purposes. Nor did they have the slightest hesitation about borrowing freely from foreign cultures, or about drawing from the humble plebeian forms they saw all around them; all was grist. In the hands of these linguistic entrepreneurs, the English language was passing through an intoxicating period of transformation and re-creation.

What a moment in history! Rudyard Kipling celebrated the making of England in a once-famous poem, which appeared in the tercentennial year of the King James Version, in 1911: "England's on the anvil! Heavy are the blows! (But the work will be a marvel when it's done.) ... England's being hammered, hammered, hammered into shape!"

To adapt his words slightly, around 1611 the English language likewise was being hammered into shape, and the Bible translators were both the beneficiaries of this process and its craftsmen. The King James Bible survives as a definitive monument of the process of invention -- and the work was, indeed, a marvel when it was done. This was the work that would soon find itself on the shelves of millions of ordinary, faithful believers, and even for those who could not read, these were the words they would hear in the church and marketplace. French writer Victor Hugo thought that "England has two books, the Bible and Shakespeare. England made Shakespeare, but the Bible made England."

The new Bible indeed shaped the emerging English language, and spread those patterns of speech, thought and meter throughout the world. And the fact that this Bible, of course, proclaimed the core Judeo-Christian message and worldview meant that those were the irreducible, foundational ideas of the English-speaking world. Noting the power that speech and language possess in shaping thought and behavior, linguistic scholars declare not that we speak language, but rather that "language speaks us." After the King James Bible, English speakers had no option but to declare that Scripture speaks us. The quirks of the King James translators became a basic part of our everyday speech and thought.

Most observers would say that this heritage has been vastly beneficial in linking religious truth so closely with linguistic majesty, aesthetic splendor and verbal precision. Among other things, the King James Bible established a universally familiar pattern of what "religious speech" should sound like in English. The model would be followed by virtually every alternative gospel and new prophetic revelation over the centuries to come, although the results would often represent a pastiche. Of course, it is implied, God must be speaking in this bold new text: Does He not sound like He did in 1611?

Just how fundamental a part of our language the Bible's words have become is hard to exaggerate. In a recent piece in the British newspaper The Independent, journalist Boyd Tonkin illustrates the point:

"In a secular age where ignorance of religion goes from strength to strength (Psalms 84:7) among lovers of filthy lucre (1 Timothy 3:8) who only want to eat, drink and be merry (Luke 12:19), we know for a certainty (Joshua 23:13) that these resonant words endure as a fly in the ointment (Ecclesiastes 10:1) and a thorn in the flesh
(2 Corinthians 12:7) of the powers that be (Romans 13:1). They can still set the teeth on edge (Jeremiah 31:29) of those who try to worship God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24). But does this ancient book, proof that there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9), now cast its pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6), and act as a voice crying in the wilderness (Luke 3:4) -- a drop in a bucket (Isaiah 40:15) of unbelief, no longer a sign of the times (Matthew 16:3) but a verbal stumbling-block (Leviticus 19:14)?"

Yet while Christianity might be on the defensive in some parts of the world, it is clearly thriving and expanding elsewhere. Indeed, we live at an astonishing time in the expansion of Christianity beyond its historic heartlands, as the church grows with astonishing rapidity in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Even thinkers not sympathetic to the Bible's message still praise its language. Famous skeptic H. L. Mencken found in the King James "a mine of lordly and incomparable poetry, at once the most stirring and the most touching ever heard of." Another remarkable testimonial to the influence of the KJV comes from New Atheist thinker Richard Dawkins, who normally has nothing good to say about any aspect of religion. On the King James, however, he becomes lyrical, so much so that he prays, apologetically, "Forgive me, spirit of science!" But as he asks, how on earth can anyone who cares about language be so ignorant and insensitive as not to appreciate the magnificent tones of the KJV? He continues, again freely quoting King James-isms, "If my words fall on stony ground -- if you pass me by as a voice crying in the wilderness -- be sure your sin will find you out. Between us there is a great gulf fixed and you are a thorn in my flesh. We have come to the parting of the ways. I fear it is a sign of the times." And those are the words of a declared mortal enemy of the Bible!

No serious study of literature in English can neglect the impact of the 1611 Bible, and that is equally true for any century from the 17th through the 20th. All the great canonical authors are immersed in that Bible, even (or especially) those who reject its fundamental religious message. To put it ironically, the Bible they reject is the 1611 version, which created the literary air we breathe. The King James language informs and inspires American literature, from Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne through Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. It has its special power in African American tradition, from Frederick Douglass through Alice Walker.

Scientists too, as well as literary giants, found their awestruck vision of the universe in this Bible. When Samuel Morse sent his first revolutionary telegraph message in 1844, it quoted the Book of Numbers in -- what else? -- King James English: "What hath God wrought!" Historians sometimes use that phrase to encapsulate the ecstatic spirit of joy in discovery that characterized 19th-century America, but the innovation was rooted in that ancient English-speaking past.

Politically, too, the language of the 1611 Bible is inextricably bound up with the evolving discourse in freedom, in Britain and its Commonwealth, but above all in the American colonies and the later United States. John Winthrop famously envisaged a "city upon a hill." As the Liberty Bell proclaims -- quoting the King James translation of Leviticus -- "Proclaim freedom throughout the land!" And the prophetic visions of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and other radical reformers were, almost infallibly, framed in the language of King James. The dreams they had owed their shape to the visionary translators of 1611. If, generally, Scripture speaks us, then specifically, the King James Bible spoke America.

Given the central role of the 1611 translation, its quadricentennial naturally demands celebration, with an added sense of rededication. But beyond commemoration, the anniversary also calls for a rethinking of the text and its importance in the 21st century, and these themes have stimulated much recent writing and research. For example, the original King James Bible owed its success to the development of new media forms that massively democratized access to knowledge in the form of cheap printing. That era began the great era of printed text, an epoch that may be drawing to its end in our day. We must think just how the Bible adapts to new forms of media technology.

In wider terms, we look at the Christian world which relies on the Bible, whether the King James or some later version. For centuries, the King James stood at the heart of Christian culture in the Anglosphere, the English-speaking world. But what is the role of Christian culture in much of that world today, in the face of widespread secularization? Countries like Great Britain and Australia are today among the most secular on the planet. We must ask what relevance that history has in these post-Christian cultures: At what point does the Bible cease to be the anchor of a Christian culture?

Yet while Christianity might be on the defensive in some parts of the world, it is clearly thriving and expanding elsewhere. Indeed, we live at an astonishing time in the expansion of Christianity beyond its historic heartlands, as the church grows with astonishing rapidity in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Many of these, particularly in Africa, have tremendous devotion to the King James tradition, in a world in which English is becoming a lingua franca. As scholars, we must explore how the experiences of these newer churches compare with the historical record of the English-speaking world. What can we in the global North learn from them -- or they from us?

Four hundred years after the King James Bible, it would be tempting to consign its story to the past, to see it as fading into antiquity. Yet the more we consider the King James phenomenon, the truer we may find the words of William Faulkner: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." If we do not understand where our Christian tradition comes from, we cannot begin to understand our future.

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