The King James Version in the Church: Past, Present, and Future
The King James Version of the Bible has reached the milestone of the four hundredth anniversary of its first publication. Academic and religious conferences, museum displays, books and articles, and commemorative editions of the KJV have exploded in such quantity that 2011 can confidently be declared The Year of the King James Bible.
The King James Version is a book of superlatives. Sources claiming that the King James Bible is the best-selling book of all time are too numerous to cite. Adam Nicolson, author of the book God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, claims that more than five billion copies of the King James Bible have been sold. According to David Daniell in his magisterial book The Bible in English, the King James Version is “still the bestselling book in the world.” Multiple sources claim that the King James Bible is the most frequently quoted book in existence. The author of the book The Story of English calls the King James Version “the single-most influential book ever published in the English language,” and Bartlett’s Bible Quotations agrees. A rare book web site claims that the King James Version is “the most printed book in the history of the world.” Finally, Gordon Campbell, in his recent Oxford University Press book entitled Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011, believes that the King James Bible is “the most important book in the English language.”
My aim in this article is two-fold: (1) to provide a wide-angle survey of the influence of the King James Bible in the Christian church for the past four centuries, and (2) to provide some thoughts on how the King James Version continues to be a presence in the Christian church, even among those who do not use the “Authorized Version” as their primary Bible.
The Puritan Origins of the King James Bible
I have no doubt that the heading that I have affixed to this section of my article will raise a few eyebrows. After all, everyone knows that the Geneva Bible of 1560 was “the Puritan Bible.” Yes, it was, but the Puritans played a key role in the translation and publishing success of the King James Version.
The point of origin for the King James Bible was the notorious Hampton Court Conference of 1604. This conference was occasioned by the Puritans, and the circumstances are as follows. When James I, king of Scotland, succeeded Queen Elizabeth I as monarch of England, he went in procession from Scotland to London. He was intercepted by a Puritan contingent and presented with the Millenary Petition (so-called because a thousand Puritan pastors had allegedly signed it). It was a list of Puritan grievances and requests.
The new king responded by calling the Hampton Court Conference. The conference turned out to be a farce. It pitted four hand-picked moderate Puritans against eighteen Church-of-England heavyweights. The king summarily dismissed all of the Puritan requests, threatening to “harry them out of the land, or worse.” With everything apparently lost, the Puritans made a last-ditch request for a new English translation of the Bible. Unbeknown to the assembly (and preeminently to Archbishop Richard Bancroft, who scoffed at the request for a new English Bible), the king had already given thought to a new translation. He surprised everyone by granting the Puritans’ request.
So there is a very real sense in which the King James Version owes its origin to the Puritans. But there is more to the story than that. Why did King James put his support behind the project of a new Bible translation? He himself partly answered that question. In the very act of consenting to a new translation, the king made a sneering comment about the Geneva Bible, the preferred translation among the Puritans. According to the “official” account of what was said, the king professed “that he could never yet see a Bible well translated into English, but the worst of all his Majesty thought the Geneva to be.” Why did the king support a new translation? Because he despised the Puritans’ preferred Bible and the revolutionary sentiments expressed in its marginal notes.
Additional factors expand the picture of the indebtedness of the King James Bible to the Puritan movement of the day. Although the King James Version was conceived partly as a putdown of the Puritans, when the actual process of translation was set into motion, everyone rose above partisan spirit. Something like a benediction fell on the process of translation. All members of the translation committee were ordained clerics in the Church of England, but within that parameter all viewpoints were represented. Approximately a fourth of the forty-seven translators were men of Puritan sympathies.
Furthermore, we hear so much about how 80-90 percent of the King James Bible was carried over from William Tyndale’s translation that we have been lulled into believing it. Those figures are true for the parts of the Bible that Tyndale translated, but he translated no more than two-thirds of the Bible before his martyrdom. In the final analysis, the Geneva Bible contributed most to the King James Version, with one source claiming that the Geneva Bible “is textually 95% the same as the King James Version.”
If we turn from the origins of the KJV to its reception history, the Puritans again play a role. The last edition of the Geneva Bible published in England appeared in 1616, just five years after the first publication of the KJV, suggesting that the Geneva Bible did not retain its dominance as long as is often assumed. Additionally, it might be expected that when the Puritans gained the ascendancy around 1642 they would have thrown their weight behind the Geneva Bible, but they did not do so. In another surprise, between 1642 and 1715 at least nine editions of the KJV were printed with the Geneva Bible notes.
Even that is not the end of the story of the Puritans and the KJV. As noted in the preceding paragraph, the King James Version had already gone a long way toward supplanting the Geneva Bible during the decade in which the Westminster Assembly held its meetings. But I did not know until Gregory Reynolds sent me a copy of the Orthodox Presbyterian edition of The Confession of Faith and Catechisms that “the language of [the KJV] is at times reflected in the Confession and Catechisms” (p. x). In confirmation, upon further research I discovered that the Authorized Version “immediately superseded the Bishops’ Bible for use in [English] churches.”
The King James Bible in the Church
In situating the King James Bible in relation to the Puritans I have actually told the first chapter of the story that I announced at the outset, namely, the influence of the King James Version in the church. The King James Version began its influence in the church from the moment of its publication, but when we think of the total history of the King James Bible we appropriately think of its influence as extending from the middle of the seventeenth century to the present moment. For those of my readers who are older than forty-five, chances are good that they themselves experienced the dominance of the King James Version. After all, until the 1970s, when the British and Americans spoke of “the Bible,” they meant the King James Version. By contrast, today I commonly find that virtually none of my students has experienced the King James Version firsthand or regularly.
I can tell the story of the influence of the King James Version in the church best by means of snapshots that gesture toward a larger picture. So let me start with my own childhood and early adulthood. From earliest years I heard the King James Bible read three times daily after family meals. The KJV was the basis for my biblical education and memorization at church and Christian school. Midweek lessons on the Heidelberg Catechism during my high school years were saturated in proof texts from the KJV. The same was true of my study of Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine in my “Senior Bible Course” in high school. When I was nine years old, my Christmas gift was a King James Bible with my name inscribed on the cover and on the inside a presentation note from my parents. I used this Bible to the end of my college years.
When I revisit my Iowa roots, a stroll through the rural cemetery where some of my forbears and family acquaintances lie buried presents me with a virtual museum display of famous resurrection verses from the King James Bible: “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Ps. 27:1). “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord… , that they may rest from their labours, and their works do follow them” (Rev. 14:13). “Asleep in Jesus” (an allusion to 1 Thess. 4:14). “I know that my redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25). All of these verses—and more besides—were chosen and inscribed with verses from the King James Bible because it was the only Bible that evangelical Protestants used.
The same thing is true of wall plaques that I remember from my childhood. When my family visited fellow church members or neighbors, it was rare not to see Bible verses on the walls. I helped myself to a plaque from my parental home when I got married and left home. After all, it bore the verse that my pastor had given to me when I made public confession of faith: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). It had escaped my notice until I wrote my book on the King James Version that, with the eclipse of the King James Version in evangelical circles, the presence of Bible plaques on walls also nearly vanished. I propose that this congruence is not unexpected.
Another snapshot that gives us a glimpse into the degree to which the King James Version seized the affections of Christians through the centuries is the Bible verses found on the walls of Protestant churches. I once jotted down the Bible verses that came into my view as I sat on an outside aisle at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. They included these: “He being dead yet speaketh” (Heb. 11:4); “Being made conformable unto his death” (Phil. 3:10); “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of they Lord” (Matt. 25:21).
I have seen dozens of Bible verses on the walls of old churches and cathedrals in England, and many in churches in the U.S. This includes Covenant Presbyterian Church in suburban St. Louis, where I was married and where after the sanctuary was enlarged and rearranged the words of John 3:16 in gold-edged lettering were again positioned on the wall behind the pulpit. I can imagine someone’s saying that the King James was used in these churches because that was the only Bible in town. That is true, but when the King James Version ceased to be the common English Bible, Scripture verses largely ceased to be placed on church walls, suggesting that nothing else has stepped in to fill the place that the KJV once held.
Christian Publishing and Preaching
As I have noted, the story of the King James Version in the church is told partly by its public inscription on tombstones, plaques, and church walls. I will note in passing that if we widen the scope from the church to culture at large, the same picture emerges: the King James Version was permanently inscribed in full public view for over three centuries. For example, every year two million visitors file past the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and read Leviticus 25:20 in its King James form: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.” Anyone passing through the gate of Harvard University can read the inscription, “Open ye the gates that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in” (Isa. 26:2, KJV).
If we shift from publically displayed inscriptions from the King James Version to Christian publishing and preaching through the centuries, the same picture of the dominance of the KJV in the Protestant church emerges. Several years ago the annual conference of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology published a booklet in connection with the conference theme of justification. The great theologians of the past whose writings on justification were excerpted in the booklet had all used the King James Version: Charles Spurgeon, Charles Hodge, Horatius Bonar, A. W. Pink, J. C. Ryle.
The same story is told by Bible commentaries from the past. Today authors and publishers of Bible commentaries conspicuously note the English Bible that has been used in the commentary. By contrast, I recently looked in vain in the prefatory material to Matthew Henry’s commentary for an indication of what translation Henry had used. That omission was the norm for Bible commentaries until approximately 1970. Everyone knew what translation the author had used, namely, the King James Version.
The same is true of famous preachers from 1700 through the middle of the twentieth century. What translation did Jonathan Edwards use? Charles Spurgeon? John Wesley? Billy Graham? We hardly need to ask. It was the King James Version, which for more than three centuries was the Bible of the pulpit in Protestant churches throughout the English-speaking world. Charles Spurgeon was so fond of the KJV that he said regarding it that it would “never be bettered, as I judge, till Christ shall come.”
It would be inaccurate to think only of England and America when assessing the role of the King James Bible in the Christian church. We also need to consider its influence in the missionary work of English-speaking missionaries around the world. During my 43 years of teaching at Wheaton College I have witnessed a steady stream of students from non-Western countries, and overwhelmingly the English Bible of these students has been the King James Version. David Daniell tells the story of the activity of the English and American Bible societies in the nineteenth century, and he entitles the unit that covers this history “KJV for the World.” Alister McGrath notes that “wherever English-language versions of Christianity sprang up, these would usually be nourished by this definitive translation. The impact of the King James Bible on the language and worship of Christianity in Africa and Australasia has been immense.”
The King James Version Now
It is easy for people who have never used the King James Version as their primary Bible individually or in church life to dismiss the KJV as being no more than a relic in the museum of the past. Actually, the King James Version remains a major influence in the life of the church. For starters, the King James Version is still the English Bible of choice in many Protestant churches and among perhaps millions of Bible readers. When we consult the charts on current Bible sales, to this day the KJV remains the second best selling English Bible on the market. In March of 2011 it actually rose to first place on one index of sales.
A second sphere in which the KJV maintains a highly visible presence is the Christian art and culture of the past. Even if all copies of the King James Bible were to suddenly vanish, the KJV would live on as a cultural presence for Christians and non-Christians alike. Literature is the most obvious instance. Starting with early seventeenth-century writers like George Herbert and John Milton, and continuing for three centuries, the King James Bible was the single most important source and influence for English and American literature. Charles Spurgeon made the oft-quoted comment regarding John Bunyan, “Prick him anywhere, and … the very essence of [our Authorized Version] flows from him.”
What is true of English and American literature is true also of music, hymnody, and painting. Every Christmas thousands of people hear Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. As they listen, they hear the King James text for more than two hours. Because hymn writers usually do not quote verbatim from the Bible, we are usually only vaguely aware of how much they take from the Bible. To become more aware, sitting down with Isaac Watts’ hymn “O God, Our Hope in Ages Past” and Psalm 91 before us will prove an instructive exercise. Likewise with some famous paintings: American Quaker painter Edward Hicks was so fond of the “peaceable kingdom” passage in Isaiah 11:6 that he painted it a hundred times, and on many of those paintings the King James Version of the verse is painted right on the picture frame.
The Future of the King James Version
In terms of both its inherent qualities and its influence, the King James Version is the greatest English Bible ever. But it started to “show its age” two centuries ago, and its extreme archaism of language and grammar, combined with the fact that it is not based on the best available scholarship, will ensure that its once-towering stature will continue to erode. The loss of a common Bible (which is what the KJV was for three centuries) has been catastrophic in the evangelical church, which now suffers from a famine of the Word in the pulpit and widespread illiteracy among the laity.
Still, the King James Version has not become as invisible as many people think. It lives on in modern translations that perpetuate its philosophy of translation and its style. I agree with a verdict that Alister McGrath states on the last page of his book on the KJV. The true heirs of the King James translators, writes McGrath, are not people who regard English Bible translation as perpetually fixed with the KJV, but rather those who continue the work of the King James translators by producing new translations. I believe that this is primarily true of new translations based on the King James premises of verbal equivalence (an English word or phrase for every word of the original text) and a dignified style.
I think it demonstrable that the modern translation that best fits those criteria is the English Standard Version. (The New King James Version is essentially an updated King James Bible, not a genuinely modern translation.) The preface to the ESV conspicuously plants its flag with “the classic mainstream of English Bible translations,” which it also calls “the Tyndale-King James legacy.” Nearly everywhere we read in the ESV, we feel that we are reading the King James Version in contemporary form. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev. 3:20, ESV), not, “Here I am!” (NIV) or “Look at me” (The Message). “Vanity of vanity, says the Preacher” (Eccl. 1:2, ESV), not “Meaningless! Meaningless! Says the Teacher” (NIV).
Honor Where Honor Is Due
It is right that we honor the King James Version of the Bible in its anniversary year. It is the greatest and most influential Christian book of the English-speaking world. It is understandable that non-Christians would seek to debunk it, but it is disgraceful when evangelical Christians do so. Even if we do not use the KJV as our primary Bible all of the time, we can read it part of the time. And we can perpetuate its presence—not just its memory but its presence—by adopting a modern translation that follows in its lineage.
 Adam Nicolson, interview on Online News Hour, December 24, 2003; accessed at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment/july-dec03/nicolson_12-24.html
 David Daniell, The Bible in English (New Haven: Yale University Press), 427.
 Robert McCrum, The Story of English (New York: Viking, 1986), 109; Bartlett’s Bible Quotations (New York: Little, Brown, 2005), xi.
 Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2.
 Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired (New York: Penguin, 2011), 218.
 Craig H. Lampe, “English Bible History,” online essay at http://greatsite.com/timeline-english-bible-history. David Daniell claims that when the King James preface states the translators’ aim to make a good [translation] better, they “were referring to the Geneva Bible,” and in fact, in the rest of the preface entitled “The Translators to the Reader,” Miles Smith “quoted Scripture almost always from” the Geneva Bible. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 294.
 Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York: Anchor, 2001), 284.
 Alec Gilmore, A Dictionary of the English Bible and its Origins (Sheffield: Academic Press, 2000), 26.
 The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon (Cincinnati: Curts and Jennings), 4:269.
 McGrath, 290.
 Spurgeon, Autobiography, 4:269.
Leland Ryken is Professor of English at Wheaton College, where he has taught for 43 years. He has had a publishing career as well as a teaching career. His three dozen books cover a broad range of subjects, including the Puritans, the Bible as literature, and Bible translation. He is the author of The Legacy of the King James Bible (Crossway, 2011). Ordained Servant Online, October 2011.
Reposted from Ordained Servant at OPC.ORG