old book in a new world

IN 1630, Massachusetts founding governor John Winthrop—of “city on a hill” sermon fame—brought his own personal copy of the KJV ashore: the first known KJV on American soil. But this was something of an aberration; a solid majority of the earliest colonists preferred their Puritan-friendly Geneva Bible. In fact, given the popularity of that version at the time, Winthrop’s KJV seemed destined to remain a mere curiosity.

Within two decades, however, the KJV was well on its way to becoming The Bible of the New World. As the Geneva ceased publication in 1644, British-printed KJVs began flowing into American churches, homes, and libraries. And when, in the late 1700s, KJVs began issuing from American presses, the floodgates opened. By the 1800s, American editions numbered in the millions, and the KJV was singing its cadences through the greatest American novels, shaping the solemn phrases of presidential speeches, and changing the American language itself with hundreds of new idiomatic phrases.

Beloved above all in the churches, the KJV became so dominant by the 1900s that in 1936, a scholar complained that many Americans “seemed to think that the King James Version is the original Bible which God handed down out of heaven, all done up in English by the Lord himself.”

1777 saw the first publication of the KJV on American soil. The printer was Robert Aitken of Philadelphia, and that year he released his New Testament. Four years later he released his full Bible after petitioning Congress for support in his enterprise.

Said Aitken, “In every well regulated Government in Christendom The Sacred Books of the Old and New Testament, commonly called the Holy Bible, are printed and published under the Authority of the Sovereign Powers, in order to prevent the fatal confusion that would arise, and the alarming injuries the Christian Faith might suffer from the Spurious and erroneous Editions of Divine Revelation . . .”

Congress responded with a resolution, printed in the front of Aitken’s 1782 KJV: “Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an instance of the progress of the arts in this country . . . they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States . . .”

A nice sentiment, and Aitken printed a full ten thousand copies of the edition—just stunning for a printing project of that size and complexity with the technology of that time. But the Aitken Bible struggled against better-printed, cheaper editions shipped from England—in fact, he took a significant financial hit on the project, losing over £3,000.

Revival sells Bibles

But soon after Aitken’s edition, American Bible publishing broke wide open, and for an unexpected reason. With the dawning of the 1790s came the first stirrings of renewed revivalism since the Great Awakening of the 1740s. These would quickly build into a veritable evangelistic tidal wave.

First came the emotional frontier camp meetings in places like Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Then the aggressive revivalism of Charles Finney in the “burned-over district” of upstate New York, the sudden eruption in the late 1850s of noon-time prayer-and-testimony meetings in major East Coast cities, and the genteel but power-packed mid-century parlor meetings and camp meetings of Phoebe Palmer and her Wesleyan holiness colleagues.

Eventually the movement culminated in the late-century mass evangelism and Bible conferences of D. L. Moody. Countless conversions and a boom in church growth created a nationwide thirst for more Bibles.

By 1800, 70 different printings could be had from the presses in 11 different towns. By 1840, that number ballooned to over a thousand. And by the 1850s, says David Daniell in his panoramic The Bible in English, America was being inundated by “an avalanche of giant, heavily bound Family Bibles, all of them KJVs, full of pictures and massive extra matter, sold in colossal numbers right across the States as an essential piece of furniture in the American home.”

One of those who capitalized early on the Bible-publishing boom was the craftsman-scholar Isaiah Thomas. This self-educated printer, one of Paul Revere’s group of 1775 riders before the fighting began at Lexington and Concord, made himself the leading publisher and bookseller in the postwar years. He printed magazines, an almanac, the first dictionary in America, and what he hoped would be the first “completely correct” KJV. This he pursued by working from almost 30 KJV editions, imported from various printers. He also drafted pastors and scholars into the work of correction. Thomas printed KJVs for many markets, both with and without the Apocrypha, according to folks’ tastes. His most remarkable innovation was his unique pay- ment arrangement. Seven dollars, the price of his Bible, was a lot of money in those days. So Thomas agreed to take up to half of that payment in “Wheat, Rye, Indian Corn, Butter, or Pork.”

First American study Bible

Despite Thomas’s valiant attempts at precision, it was Delaware Quaker Isaac Collins’s 1791 Bible that became the standard for accuracy. That Bible was something new on the American horizon: “the American Bible embellished for home study,” including a longer concordance, plus frequent marginal notes and, between the two testaments, a detailed account of the basic argument of each book in the Bible.

It also goes all the way in “Americanness,” deleting the standard dedication to King James and putting in its place an address to the reader by John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) who served for 12 years as a congressman.

Nearly a dozen other Bibles or New Testaments were produced in America during the years 1791 and 1792. Says David Daniell, “In the rush of printers in these years to make money, Bibles came in many shapes, some of them ugly. Those that are over-packed strained to get everything between small covers, usually the result of including the Apocrypha.”

It is a myth that Protestant Bibles did not include the apocryphal books. Having examined KJVs printed throughout the 19th century, Daniell discovered that in at least the first half of that century, more of them than not included the Apocrypha.

19th century: proliferation

By the early 1800s, multiple versions of the KJV were inundating the market. Historian Mark Noll notes that Mason Weems, who is famous for making up the story about George Washington and the cherry tree, sometimes earned his living as a traveling Bible salesman. Shortly after 1800 Weems wrote from Virginia to his publisher in Philadelphia about the various KJV editions he was retailing: “I tell you this is the very season and age of the Bible. Bible Dictionaries, Bible tales, Bible stories—Bibles plain or paraphrased, Carey’s Bibles, Collin’s Bibles, Clarke’s Bibles, Kimptor’s Bibles, no matter what or whose, all, all, will go down—so wide is the crater of public appetite at this time.”

Crucial to this mushrooming growth of Bible sales were the new Bible Societies founded in America in the 1800s, along with the associated Sunday school and tract societies. Many such societies were local groups of citizens who bought Bibles at cost for resale to their neighbors. Their goal: to put a Bible in the hands of every American.

When in 1816, 34 of these societies joined to form the American Bible Societies, they launched into achieving this goal with a will. Avowedly non-sectarian, the ABS had printed the King James Version in almost 60 different forms by 1850. Their output in 1829 alone was an astounding 360,000 Bibles—this, at a time when first editions of books usually topped out at around 2,000! In 1845, that number increased to over 417,000; in each year of the 1860s, the ABS printed over a million Bibles.

Such powerhouses were the Bible publishers in America during the 1800s that they drove technical innovations in their industry: paper quality improved, stereotypes replaced costly standing type, power presses multiplied output, and in-house binding reduced costs.

The ABS itself pioneered so effectively in such quality-improving and cost-cutting measures that they were attacked as a monopoly. And indeed, through the economies of scale, they were able to sell New Testaments for an unbeatable six cents apiece, and whole Bibles at 45 cents—prices almost impossible for smaller publishers to beat. Soon they stopped trying and began to capitalize on that other trend, toward huge KJV editions with thousands of annotations and lavish illustrations.

Of course, someone had to sell all these Bibles, and the 1840s saw the innovation of the “colporteur”—the door-to-door Bible salesman. The ABS soon employed a national network of these hardy folks, and other publishers followed suit. And what version was it that poured from America’s presses during those heady days? Almost exclusively the KJV.

Daniell notes that by 1850, 73 years after the first Bible was printed on American soil, “nearly fifteen hundred separate editions of the KJV had been published in America.” Of the more than 1,000 different editions of the English Bible (or New Testament) published from 1840 to 1900, only a handful were not KJVs—and most of those were Catholic Douay-Rheims editions or editions direct from the Vulgate.

Music to American ears

This saturation of America’s soil with KJVs changed our very language. KJV stories, proverbial sayings, metaphors, and idiomatic phrases and words all entered the everyday language of the American public (see quiz of KJV phrases on p. 1). The themes and stately cadences of the King James worked their way especially into the “canon” of American literature.

From Moby Dick’s “Call me Ishmael” to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (II Sam. 19:4) and Go Down Moses (Exod. 19:21), to the modern-day Pulitzer-winning author Marilynne Robinson and her Gilead, notes Noll, “the ability to evoke vast worlds of meaning with a simple phrase depended on wide-spread reading, not just in the Bible per se, but the Bible as known from the KJV.”

Robert Alter, in his Pen of Iron, a study of the impact of the KJV on American literature, has said that in America, the KJV determined “the foundational language and symbolic imagery of a whole culture.” Because it was present in every home, quoted in every church, and echoed in every public meeting, the KJV “created a stylistic precedent for the American ear in which a language that was elaborately old-fashioned, that stood at a distance from contemporary usage, was assumed to be the vehicle for expressing matters of high import and grand spiritual scope.”

Not surprisingly, then, American writers loved the KJV’s “powerful eloquence, paradoxically coupled with a homespun simplicity”—and they plundered its resources freely. But ironically, says Alter, novelists who were at odds with Christianity—and that was many, if not most, of the American “greats”—also absorbed not just the language and style but indeed the worldview and values of the KJV.

After all, since they wove KJV language into the fabric of their stories, they could hardly ignore what the Bible was saying about the world. And so they were always in dialogue with the Bible, wrestling with it, arguing with it, even (almost against their will) affirming it as they wrote.

The sword of public speech

At every defining moment of American history, the KJV was there. Noll describes how countless preachers during the Revolutionary period used the KJV’s words and phrases to express their vision of American liberty. “Touch not; taste not; handle not,” said a 1774 Presbyterian Sermon on Tea in the words of KJV’s Col. 2:21. During the Civil War, it was the same story. One Southerner even adapted the KJV wording of II Chron. 6:34–35 to describe the sectional crisis: “Eleven tribes sought to go forth in peace from the house of political bondage, but the heart of our modern Pharaoh is hardened, that he will not let Israel go.”

Nowhere is the effect of KJV language on American rhetoric more evident than in Abraham Lincoln’s famous speeches. Lincoln, although he did attend New York Avenue Presbyterian Church while in the White House, never joined a church or made a clear profession of faith. In fact, he always harbored suspicions of organized religion because of the excessive emotion and bitter quarrels he had seen in the camp meetings of his youth.

But Lincoln did absorb some of the tenets of his parents’ “hard-shell Baptist” affiliation. This was a group that spoke out against missions on the basis of a particular interpretation of Calvinism: God had predestined and would save those he wanted to—no human intervention was required. Throughout his life and presidency, Lincoln retained both a strong sense of God’s superintending providence and a kind of determinism that sometimes descended into fatalism. Whenever he spoke of the Civil War, it was through that lens.

Brought up as he no doubt was with the phrasings of the King James ringing in his ears, Lincoln wove that language into his own powerful oratory. For example, says Alter, think of the famous opening of his Gettysburg address: The “four score and seven years ago” is an intentional echoing of the “three score and ten”—KJV’s way of rendering the sacred number 70—that appears 111 times in that translation. Doesn’t that sound more weighty and solemn than “eighty-seven”?

Consider, too, the address’s very last phrase: “Shall not perish from the earth.” This is a direct quotation from the King James. It appears there three times, each time without the “not”—in Job 18:17, Jer. 10:11, and Mic. 7:2. What Lincoln is doing here is not making direct reference to those Scriptures, which have nothing to do with the point he is making about the longevity of the republic. Rather, says Alter, this language gives Lincoln’s point “cosmic perspective,” a “sense of magnitude,” the sense of the nation “realizing a new and hopeful destiny ‘under God.’” All of that with a simple turn of phrase.

Similar King James rhetoric can be found in all of Lincoln’s speeches. Listen, for example, to the grand final phrases of the Second Inaugural Address, delivered near the conclusion of the Civil War. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Echoes of the KJV are unmistakable in Lincoln’s words.

Bible of the oppressed

During the time of slavery, while it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, most still heard the Bible read (and many stole away to teach themselves to read from its pages). Slave spirituals have been described as “native African rhythms and the King James Version of the Bible.”

Of course, African-Americans before and after Emancipation realized that the same KJV in which they found the liberating message of the gospel was also being used by white masters to defend the institution that oppressed them. In 1899, Noll tells us, African Methodist Episcopal bishop Henry McNeal Turner complained that “the white man” had “colored the Bible in his translation to suit the white man, and made it, in many respects, objectionable to the Negro.” His solution: a new translation of the Bible, done by “a company of learned black men.”

Nonetheless, says modern black historian and pastor Cheryl Sanders, “The best-known abolitionists among the slave population, most notably Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, David Walker, and Maria Stewart, each advocated for freedom using word and thought steeped in the language and imagery of the King James Bible.”

Sanders reflects on when and why she chooses to use the KJV in her own worship services: “When celebrating the Lord’s Supper or baptizing believers by immersion, we always tend to use the KJV language, even in paraphrase. We say, ‘This is my body, which is broken for you,’ ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood,’ and when we baptize, ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ Somehow, it seems that special dignity and grace are added to these symbolic rituals of the church when we use this language.” Publishers have taken note of this African-American preference for the KJV. Bibles published especially for African-American use, such as the Original African Heritage Study Bible, the African-American Devotional Bible, and the African American Jubilee Edition, always offer a KJV version.

In a 1994 collection of African-American prayers by James Melvin Washington, Conversations with God, two centuries of prayers show the clear stamp of the KJV, right down to the “Thee,” “Thou,” and “Thy” language used of God. Concludes Sanders, “The King James Bible has been cherished by generations of African-American Christians as a source of comfort, inspiration, empowerment, and prophetic insight. Its language and imagery continue to undergird fervent prayers, inform sermons and lessons, and stimulate creative expression in art, music, drama, and other modes of cultural performance.”

While Sanders predicts that modern Bible translations will increasingly attract black readers, she feels the KJV “will hold its own as a significant spiritual landmark for people seriously seeking justice, redemption, and liberation in the twenty-first century.”

Legacy of a version

From the vantage point of the 21st century, it seems that the age of the KJV is finally passing in America. Of course, many of the reasons the KJV was a blessing to the church also apply to the cornucopia of new translations: It is always good to have Bibles that speak to the people in a language they can both understand and relate to. But along with this benefit comes the confusion of such a multitude of tongues claiming to best speak the language of Scripture. Debates abound over which versions are “most accurate”—that is, true to the original languages. In the “King James Only” movement, these disputes have turned rancorous, condemning all other versions as heretical.

More troubling, the day is quickly passing when any Bible translation will be woven into the fabric of public life, the speeches of presidents, and the novels of the literati. Reality TV shows and YouTube clips are supplanting books and magazines as our nation’s media content of choice. To many of the Information Generation, the language of the King James Version sounds quaint, backwards, or even incomprehensible.

Although many phrases from the KJV still live in our language, Mark Noll is right when he says that “now often-repeated phrases are more likely to come from a consumer culture dominated by the media—as in ‘make my day,’ ‘where’s the beef?’ or ‘beam me up, Scottie,’ or when we speak of ‘the DNA’ or the ‘hard wiring’ of an organization, describe a political ‘full court press’ or ‘media blitz,’ refer to ‘x-rated testimony’ or ‘soft-ball questions,’ and ‘Google’ for an obscure fact.” In other words, the rhetorical world of an America dominated by biblical locutions has passed away, and a new world has taken its place.

Will any Bible translation again have the cultural and moral influence in America that the KJV once had? Perhaps since “for every thing there is a season” (Eccl. 3, KJV), a new translation will arise for this new season. CH

By Chris R. Armstrong

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

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King James Version: Recommended Resources

If this issue has piqued your interest in the KJV, here are some further windows into the history, language, and legacy of this translation

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