In 1604, England’s King James I authorized a new translation of the Bible aimed at settling some thorny religious differences in his kingdom—and solidifying his own power.
But in seeking to prove his own supremacy, King James ended up democratizing the Bible instead. Thanks to emerging printing technology, the new translation brought the Bible out of the church’s sole control and directly into the hands of more people than ever before, including the Protestant reformers who settled England’s North American colonies in the 17th century.
Emerging at a high point in the English Renaissance, the King James Bible held its own among some of the most celebrated literary works in the English language (think William Shakespeare). Its majestic cadences would inspire generations of artists, poets, musicians and political leaders, while many of its specific phrases worked their way into the fabric of the language itself.
Even now, more than four centuries after its publication, the King James Bible (a.k.a. the King James Version, or simply the Authorized Version) remains the most famous Bible translation in history—and one of the most printed books ever.
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King James I of England, 1621.
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How the King James Bible came to be
When King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603, he was well aware that he was entering a sticky situation.
For one thing, his immediate predecessor on the throne, Queen Elizabeth I, had ordered the execution of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, who had represented a Catholic threat to Elizabeth’s Protestant reign. And even though Elizabeth had established the supremacy of the Anglican Church (founded by her father, King Henry VIII), its bishops now had to contend with rebellious Protestant groups like the Puritans and Calvinists, who questioned their absolute power.
By the time James took the throne, many people in England at the time were hearing one version of the Bible when they went to church, but were reading from another when they were at home. While one version of Christianity’s holy texts—the so-called Bishops’ Bible—was read in churches, the most popular version among Protestant reformers in England at the time was the Geneva Bible, which had been created in that city by a group of Calvinist exiles during the bloody reign of Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I.
For the new king, the Geneva Bible posed a political problem, since it contained certain annotations questioning not only the bishops’ power, but his own. So in 1604, when a Puritan scholar proposed the creation of a new translation of the Bible at a meeting at a religious conference at Hampton Court, James surprised him by agreeing.
Over the next seven years, 47 scholars and theologians worked to translate the different books of the Bible: the Old Testament from Hebrew, the New Testament from Greek and the Apocrypha from Greek and Latin. Much of the resulting translation drew on the work of the Protestant reformer William Tyndale, who had produced the first New Testament translation from Greek into English in 1525, but was executed for heresy less than a decade later.
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A 1616 printed King James bible translated by James I on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. on September 27, 2011.
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Bringing the Bible directly to the people
Published in 1611, the King James Bible spread quickly throughout Europe. Because of the wealth of resources devoted to the project, it was the most faithful and scholarly translation to date—not to mention the most accessible.
“Printing had already been invented, and made copies relatively cheap compared to hand-done copies,” says Carol Meyers, a professor of religious studies at Duke University. “The translation into English, the language of the land, made it accessible to all those people who could read English, and who could afford a printed Bible.”
Whereas before, the Bible had been the sole property of the Church, now more and more people could read it themselves. Not only that, but the language they read in the King James Bible was an English unlike anything they had read before. With its poetic cadences and vivid imagery, the KJV sounded to many like the voice of God himself.
Religious and political impact
By giving more people direct access to the Bible, the King James Version also had a democratizing influence within Protestantism itself, especially in the English colonies being settled in the New World. The Puritans and other reformers “didn’t overtake the Anglican Church in England,” Meyers explains. “But in the colonies, the Anglicans no longer had supremacy, because the Puritans, Presbyterians, Methodists came,” all of whom made use of the King James Bible.
Meanwhile, back in England, the bitter religious disputes that had motivated the new Bible translation would spiral by the 1640s into the English Civil Wars, which ended in the capture and execution (by beheading) of King James’s son and successor, Charles I.
If James had hoped to quash any doubt of his (and his successors’) divine right to power, he clearly hadn’t succeeded. Meyers points out that the King James Bible gave people access to passages that were not ordinarily read in church—passages that limit the power of secular rulers like James. As an example, she cites Deuteronomy 17, which reads, “One from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee.” But it also suggests that the king should not acquire too many horses, wives or silver and gold for himself; and that he, like anyone else, should be subject to the laws of God.
“King James wanted to solidify his own reputation as a good king by commissioning the translation,” Meyers says. “Maybe he didn't know about those passages about the limits of the king's powers, or think making them available to all might threaten his divine right as king.”
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A copy of the King James translation of the Bible seen in the Bible Baptist Church in Mount Prospect, Illinois.
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The cultural legacy of the King James Bible
From Handel’s Messiah to Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” the King James Bible has inspired a wide swath of cultural expression across the English-speaking world over generations. Writers from Herman Melville to Ernest Hemingway to Alice Walker have drawn on its cadences and imagery for their work, while Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the King James Version of Isaiah (from memory) in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Beyond the countless artists and leaders inspired by the King James Bible, its influence can be seen in many of the expressions English speakers use every day. Phrases like “my brother’s keeper,” “the kiss of death,” “the blind leading the blind,” “fall from grace,” “eye for an eye” and “a drop in the bucket”—to name only a few—all owe their existence, or at least their popularization in English, to the KJV.
From the early 20th century onward, mainstream Protestant denominations increasingly turned toward more modern Bible translations, which have been able to provide more accurate readings of the source texts, thanks to the use of more recently discovered ancient Semitic texts unavailable in 1611. Still, the King James Version remains extremely popular. As late as 2014, a major study on “The Bible in American Life” found that 55 percent of Bible readers said they reached most often for the King James Version, compared with only 19 percent who chose the New International Version, first published in 1978 and updated most recently in 2011. (The high percentage also likely included people who favor the New King James Version, an update of the classic English text published in the 1980s.)
It’s clear that after more than 400 years, the King James Bible has more than proven its staying power. “[For] reading in worship services, it's much more majestic than most of the modern translations,” says Meyers. “It’s had a very powerful influence on our language and our literature, to this very day.”