The poetic power of the King James Bible is part of our heritage. Around the world people have been comforted by the words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” They have been challenged by, “Be strong and of good courage.” They have celebrated with the proclamation, “Fear not . . . For unto you is born in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
The early 16th century was a tumultuous time in Britain. England had been Catholic for more than 1,000 years, but when Pope Clement refused to annul the marriage of King Henry VIII, Henry separated the Church of England from the Church in Rome.
While Henry was still Catholic, William Tyndale sought permission to translate the Bible into English so that even “a boy who drives the plow” might know Scripture. Permission was denied, and Tyndale moved to Germany where he completed the first translation of the English New Testament made from Greek. It was published in 1526, and over the next ten years 50,000 copies were smuggled into England. Tyndale was betrayed, captured, and in 1536 killed for the crime of publishing the New Testament in English.
Although his body was burned at the stake, Tyndale had unleashed an enormous demand for Bibles in “the vulgar English tongue.” A number of translations were printed, including the Bishops’ Bible and the immensely popular Geneva Bible, which was the Bible Shakespeare read and the Bible Puritans carried to New England.
Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to 1603, sought to bring peace among religious factions. But more importantly for our story, varied creative forces came together then to form the most splendid age in English literature. James VI of Scotland was a product of this season of creativity. When James VI became king of all Great Britain and Ireland in 1603, he called a conference to try to settle differences between Anglicans and Puritans. Out of this conference came the decision to create a new translation of the Bible.
Fifty-four scholars labored nearly seven years. In spite of its title page saying that the KJV was “newly translated,” the committees were instructed to follow the Bishops’ Bible when possible. Because the Bishops’ Bible depended on the work of Tyndale, more than 80% of the KJV is Tyndale’s wording. The KJV was published in 1611 and within 50 years it was the dominant English translation of the Bible—a position it held for 300 years.
Wherever the British went to build an empire—either for their monarch or for their God—the King James Version went too. When a clergyman in Scotland read the Scripture, when a student in America memorized a Bible verse, when a speaker in India or Australia told a story from the Bible, they all used the same words from the King James Version.
The King James Bible is the best-selling English-language book of all time. It has been in print continuously for 400 years. It has helped form our language; it has given context to our literature; it has inspired our music; and for centuries it was the one book a family would own and read before all others.
Larry Stone, is author of "The Story of the Bible: The Fascinating History of Its Writing, Translation & Effect on Civilization" (Thomas Nelson).