The 1611 King James Version (KJV) of the Bible is often regarded as a timeless monument of Bible translation, the crowning achievement of English literature somehow remote from the influences of politics, doctrinal disagreement, or personal bias. This viewpoint, though appealing, is misleading. While the King James Version is, in truth, a fine translation and a remarkable literary achievement, while it occupies a unique position in the hearts of many of God’s people, while it is, for many of us, “our Bible” in a special way, it did not emerge in the undisturbed calm of an evangelical Utopia. Rather, its origins were complex and politically charged, and its success was by no means assured. In the providence of God, however, it did succeed, and the complicated and messy circumstances in which it had its roots served to further its usefulness and enhance its value as a sound translation of God’s Word.
To understand the context in which the KJV had its origin we must pay attention to the events that were happening in England at the dawn of the seventeenth century. On March 24, 1603, Elizabeth I had died. During her reign, the Church of England had been established as a moderately reformed church, Protestant in its doctrine, but retaining many of the ceremonies of the pre-Reformation church. This Elizabethan settlement, in trying to please everyone, had come to please no one and, at the time of the queen’s death, two parties had emerged within the English Church. The majority party, certainly among the bishops, tended to favor an increased ceremonialism, emphasizing the role of the clergy and the importance of the sacraments. A sizeable majority – often described as Puritans, though that is a problematic term in the English context – felt that the Elizabethan settlement had only commenced the work of the Reformation. They wanted a simpler and less ceremonial church, with a greater focus on preaching and with a less exalted view of the ordained ministry. Toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign, these groups were at a stalemate – the aged queen seemed to have little interest in supporting either. Her death, however, opened up an exciting range of possibilities for both parties.
Elizabeth died unmarried and childless. There was, therefore, no direct heir to fill the English throne. The closest candidate was James VI of Scotland. His religious views were something of a puzzle. On the one hand, his mother had been the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been executed on Elizabeth’s orders. On the other, he had reigned over Presbyterian Scotland effectively, seemingly getting on well with the ministers of the Scottish Kirk. Faced with such a conundrum, the leaders of both groups in the English Church rushed to lobby the new king, and to secure his approval for their positions. The Puritans didn’t wait for James to arrive in London, but presented him with the Millenary Petition during his slow progress southwards. The Millenary Petition was a statement of Puritan hopes for further reformation, reportedly signed by over 1,000 ministers. It objected to those aspects of church practice that these ministers, and many English lay-people, regarded as unacceptable hangovers from Catholicism. In response to this petition, James called a conference of bishops, held at the magnificent Hampton Court Palace, for the discussion of these and other concerns.
James appears to have had a politician’s ability to appear to promise everyone what they wanted, and then to do whatever he wanted personally. It quickly became clear to the Puritan delegates at Hampton Court that they could expect little in the way of further reform from this new king. The four Puritan delegates, who faced 18 of the most illustrious members of the opposing party, failed to secure the king’s endorsement for any of their positions. As the conference drew to a close, it seemed that they would take away no success, no concession.
However, in the last minutes of the last session, Dr. John Reynolds, the leader of the Puritan grouping made a suggestion. This, seemingly, came out of nowhere. It was not part of the Millenary petition or of the Conference’s agenda. Whatever the reason, Reynolds called for a new translation of Scripture to be authorized by the King. Reynolds’ proposal was greeted with the only unanimity the conference produced. The Puritans liked his idea because it stressed the importance of Scripture. It also offered their only prospect of a positive result from the conference. The more ceremonially-minded bishops liked it because it offered the opportunity to replace the massively popular Geneva Bible, whose annotations did not sit well with their theology. And the king liked it. Probably the idea appealed to James for a number of reasons. He too was unhappy about some of the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible – less on theological grounds than on the basis that they seemed to undermine the absolute authority of the king and to legitimize the sort of action that had seen his mother deprived of her head. A newly authorized translation also allowed a unique opportunity for James to stamp his authority on the English Church, and to offer something that would appeal to both parties within that church.
So it was that work began on the translation of Scripture variously (though inaccurately) known as the King James or the Authorized Version. The project proceeded quickly. Within six months 54 translators had been appointed who worked in six teams, two each located in Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster. These panels included the leading experts in Hebrew and Greek, from across the doctrinal range of the English Church, from the ceremonially and sacramentally-focused Lancelot Andrews to the Puritan John Reynolds. We know very little about some of these men. Many of them held doctrinal positions that would occasion us considerable unease. They were united, however in the conviction that the Bible was the inspired Word of God. These men were not inspired, nor was their work inerrant, but over the next seven years, as they set aside doctrinal and personal differences to work on the new version of the Bible, they did accomplish a remarkable feat. In spite of circumstances that seemed scarcely propitious, they produced a translation of Scripture whose popularity and usefulness has endured over four centuries and that celebrates its 400th birthday as valuable as ever.