By Wilson, Derek
History Today , Vol. 61, No. 1
The Authorised Version of the Bible was first published 400 years ago. It is one of the bestselling books of all time, but was its remarkable success due to its intrinsic merits or to the accidents of history?
For three centuries, this book has been woven into the life of all that is best and noblest in English history; it has become the national epic of Britain and is as familiar to noble and simple ... as Dante and Tasso once were to the Italians ... it is written in the noblest and purest English and abounds in exquisite beauties of pure literary form.
It may come as something of a surprise to learn that the above endorsement of the Authorised, or King James, Version of the Bible came from the pen of Thomas Huxley (1825-95), 'Darwin's Bulldog; champion of the theory of evolution and the first public figure in Britain to call himself a religious 'agnostic'. The man who sought to debunk much of biblical 'truth' in the name of science was perfectly ready to acknowledge the prime place this book could claim in the development of English culture.
Huxley was far from being alone in his enthusiasm. The critic and social reformer John Ruskin (1819-1900) regarded the work as 'the one essential part of my education: And it was said of Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), one of the greatest orators in history, that the Authorised Version of the Bible was so fundamental to his education that he could almost be calked 'a man of one book'. The book which first saw the light of day in 1611 still has its devotees and admirers among believers and nonbelievers alike.
Exactly why this should be so requires explanation. The genesis of this book was fraught with anomalies. Even the names by which it has come to be known are deceptive. The Authorised Version was never authorised by the monarch for use in public worship, as some earlier translations of the Bible had been. Indeed, the King James Version owes little to the self-styled scholar and theologian who from 1603 to 1625 was James I of England and James VI of Scotland. He certainly set the project of translation in motion, but appears to have soon lost interest in it, did nothing to promote its use and never paid a penny towards its publication. Indeed, Robert Barker (d. 1645), the book's first publisher, ended his days in a debtors' prison. The entire project was born of religious controversy.
When James Stuart travelled south to London in the summer of 1603 to claim the English crown he had waited for so eagerly he found a church divided not so much over doctrinal issues as over matters of authority and practice. The Church of England was Calvinist in its theology, but its liturgy and ceremony were stuck in a halfway house between Catholicism and the Reformed traditions of the Continental churches. This was the distinctive, Janus-faced church beloved of Elizabeth I. Its liturgy was set out in the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549 during the reign of the hardline Protestant boy-king Edward VI, the work of his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer; its clergy wore scaled-down 'popish' vestments; above all, it had a hierarchical government. The monarch was head (or, in the case of Elizabeth I, Supreme Governor) of the church and his or her authority was mediated through archbishops, bishops and the lower grades of clergy. It was a church which had order; and order was considered vital in a country whose establishment was always wary of social unrest. That was why the bishops disliked the Puritans.
The English Reformation had not gone far enough for the Puritans. They wanted to do away with bedecked altars and vestments used in Church of England services and wanted certain theological ambiguities removed from the Prayer Book to make it one of pure evangelical doctrine. But what was of greater concern to the establishment was their attitude towards church government. Elizabeth I had accepted a pyramidal concept of the constitution. …