Published May 5, 2011
For years the King James Version of the Bible was the number one selling book in America and perhaps in the English-speaking world. It continues to be one of the top two or three best-selling books in our nation. On May 5 we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of this marvelous translation of the Word of God.
National Public Radio recently reported that in the early years of the 17th century England was in a Bible war between two English translations. “The Bishop’s Bible” was read in churches. It was clunky, ineloquent. The Geneva Bible was the choice of the Puritans and the people. It was bolder, more accessible.
In January of 1604 King James VI called the Hampton Court Conference in order to consider problems that existed in the church. At this conference, Dr. John Reynolds and a group of moderate puritans requested of the King a new translation of the Bible, suggesting that earlier editions, which had been available to English speaking people, were corrupt.
King James embraced the idea and by July of 1604 he had appointed 54 men to the translation committee. These men were not only the best linguists and scholars in the kingdom, but in the world. Much of their work on the King James Bible formed the basis for our linguistic studies of today.
In 1858 Alexander McClure noted that the translation committee consisted of “true divines and scholars.” McClure added, “The King James Bible translators were men who regularly debated in Latin and Greek, one (Dr. Lancelot Andrews) had read the entire Bible in Hebrew by the time he was six (Andrews had also mastered at least 15 other languages).
“But even more importantly, they were godly men devoted to spiritual pursuits. They believed that they were translating the very words of God – they were sanctified witnesses that took their sacred duties seriously.”
King James was born James Charles Stuart on June 19, 1566 at Edinburg Castle in Scotland. He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. To say that he was the product of a dysfunctional home would be an understatement.
His mother was thought by many to have been involved in the murder of her husband; and Lord Darnley was generally considered to be a worthless character himself. Since James’ father was murdered in 1567 before young James was one year old and since his mother was forced to abdicate her throne due to her suspected involvement in the murder, little James was crowned King James VI of Scotland at the tender age of 13 months. John Knox, one of the leaders of the Reformation, preached the sermon at his coronation.
When the Scottish lords deposed Mary from her throne in 1567, she fled to England where she hoped to find sanctuary, but Elizabeth I threw her into prison and had her beheaded 20 years later.
Although King James was reared by neither father nor mother, he was assigned four tutors, one of whom was George Buchanan, who was a great influence in James’ life.
Buchanan, a staunch Calvinist, was a strict teacher who groomed James into one of the most learned and intellectually curious men to ever sit on any throne.
King James’ great aspiration to be the first King of both Scotland and England was realized in 1603 upon the death of Queen Elizabeth. When he ascended to the English throne that year he had already been king of Scotland for 36 years. He was now known as King James VI of Scotland and James I of England.
King James VI and I had numerous enemies, one of which was the Catholic Church. Papists (Roman Catholics) attempted to assassinate him on several occasions. He was an evangelist of the true Gospel, which automatically made him an enemy of Rome.
King James loved the theatre and developed a special relationship with William Shakespeare, was successful in keeping his kingdom out of war, wielded an effective influence over the more far-flung areas of his kingdom, and established the first English settlement in North America (Jamestown, Virginia).
However, many would agree that King James’ crowning achievement was the translation of the Bible into what has come to be known as the Authorized Version of the Bible in 1611.
Gordon Campbell, author of “Bible, The Story of the King James Version,” said, “It is the most scrupulous process of Bible translation that has ever been.”
National Public Radio reported, “What astonishes David Jeffrey is that a committee could produce such beauty.”
Consequently, Jeffrey remarked, “The quality of the poetry is extraordinarily high. It’s memorable. It’s beautiful; and in the KJV it is distinctively the voice of God.”
NPR suggests that 400 years later newer, colloquial translations have pushed the King James aside. It is mainly used in African American, Mormon and a few protestant churches, but in moments of tragedy, turmoil or change leaders have often turned to the King James as did President Clinton after the bombing in Oklahoma City and when Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, only the King James would suffice.
The King James Version of the Bible has inspired great oratorios and modern day songs, provided the titles for numerous books and given us phrases that we use every day, such as: “behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket,” “apple of his eye,” “can a leopard change it’s spots?” “put your house in order,” “put words in her mouth,” “the root of the matter,” “no rest for the wicked,” “how the mighty have fallen,” “by the skin of your teeth,” “the writing is one the wall,” “fall by the wayside,” “the straight and narrow,” “the blind leading the blind,” “by the sweat of your brow,” and “fall from grace.”
Gordon Campbell says, “This Bible is the foundation of the English language. It is in the texture of our society rather than on the surface of it. If you chase back to who we are, how we speak and how we think many of those things have their origin in the King James Version of the Bible.”
Actor Charleston Heston had this to say about the King James Bible in his autobiography: “The King James translation has been described as the only great work of art ever created by a committee… The authors of several boring translations that have followed over the last fifty years mumble that the KJV is ‘difficult’ filled with long words... Over the past several centuries it’s been the single book in most households, an enormous force in shaping the development of the English language. Carried around the world by missionaries… Exploring it … was one of the most rewarding creative experiences of my life.”
Former Southern Baptist Convention president and pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL Jerry Vines has written an essay in the newly published 400th Anniversary King James Bible, published by Broadman-Holman.
Vines recently commented, “Though I am helped by many modern translations, I still value the King James Version. There is an ease of memorization and a beautiful flow of language that make it a blessing to read. Should the Lord tarry His coming, it will probably still be prized for another 400 years.”
Pastor Bill Harrell of Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez says, “Even though many different versions have emerged especially in the last number of years, the King James Version of the Bible is still the Bible of the people. All other versions are compared to the KJV as to their usefulness and correctness. It will long remain the major translation used by the people of our Southern Baptist Zion.”
David Owen, pastor of Piney Grove Baptist Church in Acworth, writes, “Though occasionally I will read or study from another version, since I surrendered to preach as a 13-year-old boy in 1982, I have regularly studied and preached from the King James Version of the Bible. The verses that I memorized as a child were from this version. It would be inaccurate, though, to say that it is the 1611 King James Version. It is actually the 1769 Oxford text reflecting quite a few changes to the spelling of the 1611 version, as well as the exclusion of 14 Apocryphal books.
“I have heard people defend the King James Version in a militant way, and I have heard others disparage the King James Version in a mocking way. My desire has been to simply declare this book in a meaningful way.
“It has been suggested that the language of this old version is archaic and cumbersome. But I regard it as the precious and familiar book that consistently feeds my soul and lights my path.”
Walter McBride, a retired physician and Sunday School teacher at Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta, remarked, “Since the King James translation of the Bible is the first I knew, it will always hold a special place in my hear. Most of the memorization I have done has come from the King James Version and I quote it far more than any other.
“During my forty-plus years of teaching Sunday School I have used many translations in my study, and have found the King James to be among the best. To me the language is of incomparable beauty.”
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR’s religion correspondent, says, “New translations will come and go as our language changes with each generation, but as long as we can understand the King James Bible, this four century old book will be seen as the voice of God and the highest poetry of man.”
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