How the King James Bible was Born

PICTURE YOURSELF in 1604 England. It is a slow-moving world, where security and stability are prized. Someday England, along with the rest of the West, will pursue constant, rapid innovation. For you, however, what is old and hallowed by tradition is what is best. You rest in the knowledge that God rules all things by an unchangeable providence and orders all things by an equally unchangeable natural law.

But all is not well in your world. Beneath its peaceful and orderly reality, an uneasy undercurrent bubbles. True, for much of the past 45 years you and your family have dwelt in the secure, stable England of Elizabeth. Under her reign population and wealth have grown, and the enmities between small, zealous groups of Christians have, with the judicious use of force, been repressed for the greater good. But for some time now, the Elizabethan idyll has been fraying at the edges. By the 1590s starvation, disease, and unemployment are spreading like a miasma. The urban landscape has grown overcrowded, squalid, and chaotic. Poor Laws have emerged to punish the idle poor and set the able-bodied poor to work in the proliferating workhouses.

Then comes the queen’s illness and her refusal to the very end to name her successor. Your anxiety and suspense could hardly be imagined by dwellers in modern democracies. A change of monarch reaches deep into the hearts of his subjects, evoking uncertainties and absorbing the attention of the nation. The monarchy, after all, is God’s instrument of order and his hand of guidance. To paraphrase Proverbs, “Without a monarch, the people perish!”

Now, in the year of our Lord 1604, the news has been confirmed: The new king will be James VI, from England’s generations-old enemy, Scotland! The remains of Hadrian’s Wall dividing the countries stand as a lasting symbol and reminder of the enduring enmity between the two. Frantic speculation is erupting all around you. What can loyal subjects of England and worshipers in the English church expect of a man who was brought up under Geneva-influenced Presbyterian tutelage? What, of a man whose crowning as King of Scotland, when he was just a toddler, was accompanied by a fiery sermon from John Knox himself? How will this man act who since adolescence has made of himself an author and intellectual? Will he know how to take advice?

Your more pessimistic neighbors may also be asking a darker question: What latent pathologies may lurk in a 37-year-old man whose parents were killed for political reasons, who harbors no doubt that God is on his side, and who is an outspoken advocate of the divine right of kings? James’s wide learning (in which he takes great pride) and his taste for theological debate are well-known—could these spell trouble in an England already seeded with religious dissension?

The Elizabethan settlement

The King James Version of the Bible was born at the Hampton Court Conference in January of 1604. This, as we will see, was a meeting cannily called by the newly-crowned James I (still James VI of Scotland) to appease the Puritans, though he made few concessions there. Political uneasiness was in the air as religious factionalism continued unabated, despite Elizabeth’s efforts. She had solidified and entrenched the English Reformation begun under Henry VIII. But many pious English subjects had never been pleased with “the Elizabethan Settlement”—the uneasy state of equilibrium she had engineered to stave off religiously motivated civil war.

Roman Catholics, of course, had reason to be embittered about their disenfranchisement. And on the other end of the spectrum, Puritans within the Church of England insisted that the Reformation had not gone far enough in their native land—that it retained too many Catholic elements. They had no trouble agreeing with Presbyterian John Knox’s description of Elizabeth as “neither good Protestant nor yet resolute papist.” They perhaps remembered God’s words in the Book of Revelation about the church in Laodicea: a lukewarm church he would “spew out of his mouth.”

Eager to see the task of reformation completed, the Puritans felt that in James they might finally have found their royal champion. After all, hadn’t he been brought up under the influence of Calvinist Presbyterians, who shared the Puritan commitment to a continuing reformation?

It was not to be. James had seen enough of the Puritans’ ilk in Scotland, and he didn’t like them or their theology at all. They were spared their king’s outright enmity only by being a sizeable minority, well educated, and highly motivated. Since James wanted unity and stability in his church and state, he needed to consider how to satisfy this constituency as far as he could.

Walking the factional balance

James would need to walk a delicate balance in trying to keep the various factions in peaceful accord. The Roman Catholics, called Papists by Protestants, longed for the English church to return to the Roman fold. The main body of Puritans were loyal to the crown but wanted further distance from Rome. Orbiting beyond these two groups were a number of others, all with their needs and demands to be navigated by the new king.

The Presbyterians were Puritans who were ready to do away with the hierarchical structure of powerful bishops. They advanced what they identified as the New Testament model of local and collegial church administration under elders or presbyters, and they sought every opportunity to remake the Church of England in that image. It would never happen, but that didn’t stop them from trying.

There was also Parliament, eager to expand its power base beyond the perfunctory role it had been allowed thus far. And, not incidentally, there was a significant Puritan influence and representation in Parliament. Then there were the bishops of the Church of England. Their role was different from that of their successors today. They were a genuine elite, with exceptional power, privilege, and wealth to protect. To them, Puritan agitation was far more than an intellectual abstraction to be debated at Oxford and Cambridge. If the Puritans were to prevail, this hierarchy had much to lose.

The Great Leveler among all of these groups was no political or ecclesiastical party, but an implacable foe nonetheless. From the moment of his accession, James found himself face to face with this most pitiless of enemies. Its very name struck terror everywhere it went: Plague!

The outbreak of this disease that descended on England the year James became king was unusually severe, causing a reported 30,000 deaths in and around London. In those days, not far removed from the great, millennium-long medieval synthesis of the City of God with the City of Man, plague was far more than a public health issue. Many saw it as their ancestors would have: as a vehicle of God’s judgment and wrath. Although different parties disagreed about exactly who was being judged and why, most agreed that this horrifying scourge was the very hand of God on a sinful nation.

A time of upheaval

At the time of the Hampton Court Conference in January of 1604, the cultural and political climate roiled with turbulence from a number of other sources. This was the very time John Smyth from Gainsborough was teaching and organizing his group of dissident Lincolnshire farmers, laying the groundwork for what would soon emerge as the first expression of the English Baptist movement. At that point they were seen more as a nuisance than as the founders of what would become a large Protestant tradition.

Then, too, a more pernicious cabal was about to form, one whose near-successful act of horrendous terrorism would leave an unhealed wound on the nation’s psyche for centuries to come. A mere four months after the Hampton Court Conference, on May 20, 1604, a group of Catholic radicals met in London’s Strand. At the innocuously named “Duck and Drake,” the conspirators worked out the details of a monstrous plan.

So shocking, so heinous was the act of terrorism these men proposed to commit that, as Adam Nicolson puts it, the plot “would come to define Jacobean England [that is, England during the reign of James I] as much as September 11, 2001, would shape the attitudes, fears and methods of revenge of the western world in the first decade of the twenty-first century.” The aim of the so-called “Gunpowder Plotters”: to blow up the Parliament building with all the royal family and Britain’s political leaders inside. Had the plot not been discovered at the eleventh hour, the carnage would have been immense.

Nor did the religious and social upheaval stop there. The seeds had already been sown for the horrific Thirty Years’ War, the last and most savage of the Post-Reformation religious wars, which would begin just 14 years after Hampton Court, in 1618.

Sixteen years after Hampton Court, in 1620, English religious dissidents gave up on both the Established Church and their own nation and fled to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to set up a new church and a new state. These were the “Pilgrims” of Thanksgiving fame. They shared many of the convictions of the more conservative Puritans and Presbyterians, but wanted the state to be removed from church affairs altogether—hence the public label “separatist.” Though their exodus from James’s England was little-noticed at the time, the king would come to call the colonies “a seminary for a fractious Parliament.”

And on it would go: in 1642, the English Civil War began. The following year, James’s son Charles I was made prisoner at this very same Hampton Court Palace—the place of his own honeymoon. Then Charles was executed by Parliament itself, under the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell—a regicide that horrified the crowned heads of Europe.

The Puritans make their case

As James prepared to take the throne, these events were still in the future, but portents abounded. His was a nation whose apparently calm surface hid powerful stirrings of discontent. From the first, he worked with a kind of monomaniacal passion to preserve unity, law, and order within his kingdom.

James received word of his cousin Elizabeth’s death and his appointment to the throne while he was in Edinburgh. It didn’t take him long to head south. On April 5, 1603, he began his journey to London to be crowned. He was in no hurry, his trip taking a little over a month. (Sir Robert Carey’s urgent—and selfishly motivated—trip to Scotland from London to bring James the news of Elizabeth’s death had taken just over 3 days.) He arrived in London May 7.

James’s journey south was a kind of extended triumphal procession as the populace came out to celebrate and welcome him in the towns and villages along the way. Although still wondering what this new king would bring to their land, the canny and the wise were determined to be on his good side when he brought it.

This happy tour was marked by an important interruption. Along the way, James was approached by a Puritan delegation, who presented the new king with the petition that would lead to the Hampton Court Conference and the eventual commissioning of the King James Version of the Bible.

The document must have come from well-coordinated organizations among the Puritans. It outlined their grievances to the king, stating the additional reforms they implored James to implement. Known as the Millenary Petition because, although no copy has survived, it is supposed to have borne over 1,000 clergy signatures (some 10 percent of the clergy in the land), the plea of this group to their king calls to mind various 20th-century movements of “10 percenters.”

Ten percent can make a huge difference and have dramatic impact, especially when comprising those who have felt marginalized and are highly motivated, well organized, and clear in their goals. They can demand attention, and they often do gain it.

“. . . longing for the redress of diverse abuses of the Church . . .” At 1,100 words long and respectful in tone, the petition assured the king of the Puritans’ loyalty to the crown and commitment to national unity. It began:

[W]e, the ministers of the Gospel in this land, neither as factious men affecting a popular parity in the Church, nor as schismatics aiming at the dissolution of the state ecclesiastical, but as the faithful servants of Christ and loyal subjects to your Majesty, desiring and longing for the redress of divers abuses of the Church, could do no less . . . than acquaint your princely Majesty with our particular griefs. For as your princely pen writeth, “The King, as a good physician, must first know what peccant humours his patient naturally is most subject unto before he can begin his cure.”

The petition asked for an overhaul of the church’s worship, ministry, ecclesiastical finance, and discipline. It implored James to allow no “popish opinions” in worship, no bowing at the name of Jesus, and no use of “apocryphal” biblical books—books of the Christian Old Testament that were not part of the Hebrew Bible but were traditionally included in Bibles as deuterocanonical (“second canon”).

The reforms were to be thoroughgoing, attending even to matters that may sound trivial today but were deadly serious to the Puritans, with their devotion to things spiritual and their suspicion of things material. No more wedding rings, no more use of the sign of the cross, and no more wearing of certain liturgical clothing were to be countenanced.

Ministers must be able to preach effectively—away with those who wouldn’t, or couldn’t. And away with the abuse known as “pluralism,” in which ministers and bishops enjoyed jurisdiction over (and income from!) far more churches than they could reasonably serve. Finally, the church courts must cease arbitrary and inappropriate uses of canon law.

In closing, the Puritans appealed to the king with a rationale they trusted would move him to action: “Thus your majesty shall do that which we are persuaded shall be acceptable to God . . . profitable to his Church which shall be thereby increased; comfortable to your ministers which shall be no more suspended, silenced, disgraced, imprisoned for men’s traditions; and prejudicial to none but to those that seek their own quiet, credit, and profit in the world.”

With boldness, the authors reminded James that he too was under authority—God’s: “Thus with all dutiful submission referring ourselves to your Majesty’s pleasure for your gracious answer as God shall direct you, we most humbly recommend your Highness to the Divine Majesty, whom we beseech for Christ’s sake to dispose your royal heart to do herein what shall be to his glory, the good of his Church, and your endless comfort.” With their last words, they assured their king that they were his obedient servants, who desired “not a disorderly innovation but a due and godly reformation.” What did not appear in the Millenary Petition was any mention of a new Bible translation.

Conference called

James took these Puritan ministers seriously enough to call a conference. In a royal proclamation in October 1603, the king announced a meeting to take place before “himself and counsel, his bishops, and other learned men on the first day of the next month.”

However, the conference did not convene as planned on November 1, but had to be postponed “by reason of sickness reigning in many places of our kingdom.” Both the later date and the choice of the Hampton Court venue may have arisen because of the plague ravaging London.

Built by Cardinal Wolsey in the era of Henry VIII, Hampton Court Palace is a magnificent estate 15 miles southwest of London on the Thames River. Wolsey, the son of a butcher, had risen to become Lord Chancellor of England, cardinal, and the pope’s representative. He began to build the opulent Palace in 1515. 2,500 workers were hired to build the 1,000-room palace, and 500 staff were employed to keep it running smoothly.

James came to Hampton Court that first year for lavish Christmas and New Year’s events. William Shakespeare’s “King’s Men” players (so named because they had procured James’s personal sponsorship) performed before the king in the Great Hall on Boxing Day in 1603. Shakespeare himself performed there in A Midsummer Night’s Dream on New Year’s Day.

The players, the stage, and the action

As the participants in the conference gathered in the palace, there would have been a special feeling of substance, significance, and permanence. They met in the king’s sanctum—his “Privy Chamber” or private apartment. The participants were the king, his Privy Council of advisors, and nine bishops and deans. The bishops included John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Richard Bancroft, the bishop of London.

Also present were four representatives of the Puritan cause, known to be mature, experienced, and moderate men: Dr. John Reynolds (or Rainolds), head of Corpus Christi College, Oxford; Laurence Chaderton, a noted preacher and Master of Emmanuel College in the Puritan stronghold of Cambridge (says Nicolson: “Chaderton . . . once paused after two hours of a Cambridge sermon. The entire congregation stood up and shouted, ‘For God’s sake go on!’ He gave them another hour”); John Knewstubs, Rector of Cockfield in Suffolk; and Thomas Sparks, a relatively unknown preacher. But, although the Puritans were given a voice, it was clear the deck was stacked against them.

The Conference met on Saturday, January 14, 1604, and then also on the 16th and 18th. No official transcripts of the conference proceedings were permitted, so results have to be pieced together from various reports. The two main sources are Thomas Barlow’s official report The Summe and Substance of the Conference at Hampton Court and An Anonymous Account. Like Constantine at the Council of Nicea, James delivered the opening address. His opening words set the tone. The doctrine and polity of the state church was not up for evaluation or reconsideration:

It is no novel device, but according to the example of all Christian princes, for Kings to take the first course for the establishing of the Church both in doctrine and policy. . . . Particularly in this land, King Henry VIII towards to the end of his reign altered much, King Edward VI more, Queen Mary reversed all, and lastly Queen Elizabeth (of famous memory) settled religion as it now standeth. Herein I am happier than they, because they were fain to alter all things they found established, whereas I see yet no such cause to change as confirm what I find settled already.

James hinted that he found great security in the structure and hierarchy of the English church, in contrast to the Presbyterian model he had witnessed firsthand in Scotland. At this point he was surprisingly self-revealing. Though he obviously intended to please his delegates, he also made no effort to hide his previous frustration in Scotland:

For blessed be God’s gracious goodness, who hath brought me into the Promised Land where religion is purely professed, where I sit among grave, learned and revered men, not as before, elsewhere, a King without state, without honour, where beardless boys would brave us to the face.

James then made it clear that although basic structural changes in doctrine and practice were not needed, there might be room for some cosmetic enhancement. “I assure you we have not called this assembly for any innovation,” he began. Yet he admitted that even the best of systems is subject to corruption over time. And he acknowledged that “we have received many complaints, since our first entrance into this kingdom, of many disorders, and much disobedience to the laws, with a great falling away to popery.”

Therefore he would take the role of the “good physician,” “to examine and try the complaints, and fully to remove the occasions thereof, if scandalous; cure them, if dangerous; and take knowledge of them, if but frivolous . . .”

Despite this apparent concession, James did not allow the Puritans to attend the first day of the conference. On that day, James discussed with his advisors, bishops, and deans various church practices such as baptism, absolution, and excommunication.

On the second day the four Puritans were allowed to join in the meeting. John Reynolds took the lead on their behalf, and at one point in the deliberations raised the question of church government. But if Reynolds had any chance of being heard, he lost it by one inopportune, and no doubt unintended, reference.

Reynolds wanted to know whether a more collegial approach to church administration might be in order—a broadening of the decision-making base. Unfortunately, he posed his question this way: “Why shouldn’t the bishops govern jointly with a presbyterie of their brethren the pastors and ministers of the Church?”

Using the word presbyterie in James’s presence was like waving a red flag before a bull. The king exploded: “If you aim at a Scots Presbyterie, it agreeth as well with Monarchy as God and the Devil! Then Jack, and Tom, and Will, and Dick, shall meet and censure me and my council, and all our proceedings.”

He then uttered what can be considered his motto: “No bishop, no King!” That is, without the episcopacy, there can be no properly functioning monarchy.

He followed this heartfelt cry with the other famous phrase, perhaps the most memorable and most quoted that has survived the conference, as he warned Reynolds: “If this be all your party hath to say, I will make them conform themselves, or else I will harrie them out of the land, or else do worse!”

Some British scholars question this statement’s authenticity, suggesting that it might have been not the direct words of James but high-church propaganda. But the sentiment cannot be far off, for in a letter almost contemporaneous to the conference, written to Henry Howard the Earl of Northampton, James described his own performance in response to the Puritans:

We have kept such a revel with the puritans these last two days as was never heard the like. I have peppered them as soundly as you have done the papists. . . . They fled me so from argument to argument, without ever answering me directly, and I was forced at last to say unto them, that if any of them had been in a college disputing with their scholars, if any of their disciples had answered them in that sort, they would have fetched him up in place of a reply and should the rod have been plied upon the poor boys’ buttocks.

James also revealed his true feelings toward the Puritans from his time in Scotland when he said that he had “lived among Puritans and was kept for the most part as a Ward under them, yet, since he was of the age of his Son, ten years old, he ever disliked their opinions; as the Savior of the world said, ‘though he lived among them, he was not of them.’”

While Reynolds’s indiscreet use of the term “presbyterie” may have damaged the Puritan case, he did get credit for one move on this second day that turned out to be the most significant achievement of the conference and a historic landmark. Reynolds “moved his majesty that there might be a new translation of the Bible, because those which were allowed in the reign of King Henry the Eighth and Edward the Sixth were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original.”

James warmed to the suggestion. Strong resistance came immediately from the bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, but once the king showed his support for the translation project, the bishop quickly and conveniently changed his mind—to be rewarded by James with the chairmanship of the project. Why a new translation warmed the heart of the king The king liked the idea of a new translation for a few reasons. First, he despised the popular Geneva Bible. He “could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but the worst of all, his Majesty thought the Geneva to be.” It wasn’t so much the quality of the translation of the Geneva Bible that bothered James.

What irked him most were the marginal notes, which contained commentary and interpretation that he found politically subversive. He urged, “Let errors, in matters of faith, be amended, and indifferent things be interpreted, and a gloss added unto them.”

So, a project to create a new, reliable translation commended itself to this new king. It would displace the despised Geneva Bible, throw a bone to the Puritans, provide a single Scripture for public reading in the churches, represent a symbol of unity in his realm, and not least, edify the lives of his subjects, the church, and the nation.

James spoke of the “special pains” he wanted taken on this translation. The mandate issued by Archbishop Bancroft insisted that this translation was to be accurate, popular, non-sectarian, speedy, national, and authoritative. He also mentioned getting the translation right according to the originals. He had 47 of the nation’s finest scholars of the biblical languages and of English appointed to do the work. Then he approved rules, written by Bancroft, for carefully checking the results.

Did King James get what he wanted?

James was looking for a single translation that the whole nation could rely on. “To be read in the whole Church, and none other,” as he phrased it. In his original statement calling for a translation, the king insisted that he wanted a translation with scholarly and royal authority, observing: “I wish some special pains were taken for an uniform translation, which should be done by the best learned men in both Universities, then reviewed by the Bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly ratified by the Royal authority.”

How can we assess these men’s work? Did they serve their king well in this matter of a Bible translation? The easiest answer to this is that the KJV achieved an un- rivaled accuracy (even, at certain points, rendering impenetrable Hebrew expressions in equally impenetrable English.) For Protestants only generations removed from the Reformation—James among them—this was certainly its highest value. By this measure, the KJV is a tremendous success.

Then there are the qualities of the language itself. It is surely these qualities that make the KJV still today, by most measures, the most beloved Bible translation in the English language. Adam Nicolson celebrates the KJV’s “sense of clarity and directness” combined with “majestic substance . . . the great ceremonial atmosphere of its long, carefully organized, musical rhythms.” This is surely just what James must have wanted: a Bible that breathed “an atmosphere both godly and kingly.”

No wonder the KJV has shaped the English language more than any other book. James’s Translators created a Bible version that is “an exact and almost literal translation of the original,” infused at the same time with “a sense of beauty and ceremony.” Truly this was a translation fit for a king. CH

By A. Kenneth Curtis

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #100 in 2011]

Dr. A. Kenneth Curtis was the founder of Christian History magazine.
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