The King James Bible, 1611 — The Father Bible, by Rev. W.H. Lindemuth 1903
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With pride we contemplate the noble ancestry of our present English Bible. Tracing its history remotely through a thousand years, we find in it the lifeblood of kings, scholars, reformers, and saints, whose memories we revere as of those who kept alive the word of truth through the dimly lighted ages. Our Authorized Version is the most useful and beautiful fruitage of the biblical tree, and it has come down to us weighted with the treasures of the wisdom, scholarship, and piety of a millennium of history, and very naturally it has become the focal point of our interest, and it speaks to us in a language so simple and yet so ornate that all can understand and all admire.
The production of a new version of the Scriptures can be justified only by a growing need of a better translation. It was thus that the work of Wycliff and Tyndale grew out of the intellectual and spiritual requirements of the developing age in which they lived. The origin of the Great Bible, the Bishops' Bible, and the Geneva can be easily traced to ecclesiastical differences between ritualists, low churchmen, and Puritans. At the dawn of the seventeenth century, with splendid English Bibles already in the field, what was the necessity for a new revision? The Great Bible was antiquated and cumbersome; the Geneva Bible, most excellent as it was, had become the version of the Puritan party; the Bishops' Bible, authorized by royal and ecclesiastical sanction, was unpopular with the people. A new and more uniform translation was inevitable, but the fact is that the idea which originated such a work was entirely incidental and not the result of a special or popular demand. The immediate cause of the enterprise which gave birth to the Authorized Bible was the objection of the Puritan party to the Bishops' Bible, and the prompt decision of James I, the newly crowned English king, to signalize his reign by so great a work as the production of an English Bible.
When James the Sixth of Scotland, son of Darnley and Mary Queen of Scots, succeeded Queen Elizabeth on March 24. 1603. he proceeded with brilliant pageantry to England's throne. Encouraged by the knowledge that the new king, though of Roman Catholic parentage, was by profession a Presbyterian, the representatives of the Puritan party at once presented to him the famous Millenary Petition, praying that there be a change in church service and greater strictness in ecclesiastical discipline. The king was in no sense a religious man, but be loved to dabble in ecclesiastical matters, and he at once summoned Puritans and Ritualists to a conference at Hampton court. The High Church party, knowing that secretly the king's sympathies were with them, felt confident of a decision in favor of the existing order but the final result, as we shall see, was that the Puritans carried off the spoils.
On the second day of the assembly Dr. Reynolds, a veritable pillar of Puritanism, while speaking in behalf of his brethren, "moved his majesty that there might be a new translation of the Bible, . . . because others were corrupt and not answerable to the original." The suggestion, made so incidentally, found immediate favor with the king, much to the chagrin of Bishop Bancroft and his ritualistic followers. In this instance James I shows how he merits the title "The wisest fool in Christendom." He at once proposed that a new translation should be undertaken by the most learned men of the schools and the Church, and the convention formally endorsed the enterprise. It is evident, however, that the king was the only one really interested in the project, for the council closed without making further preparations for the work of translation. But James, not to be hindered by such masterly inactivity, began at once the serious task of selecting the translators and drafting rules to guide their labors.
It is not known by whose advice he selected the fifty-four learned divines who were appointed to make the new version, but extraordinary care was evidently taken to secure the interest of the wisest and best of English scholars, and every possible resource was taxed to yield up its treasures of wisdom and knowledge. A wise provision for the direction of the work was found in the restrictive rules which the king had formulated for the guidance of the revisers, the moat notable being that the Bishops' Bible should be followed as far as possible, no unnecessary changes should be made, no marginal notes except for the explanation of Hebrew and Greek words, chapter divisions should be as little changed as possible and all differences of opinion should be settled at a general meeting. Among the older versions allowed to be used were Tyndale'a, Coverdale's, the Geneva, and the Rheims, together with Bibles in French, German, Latin, and Spanish, but at the basis of all should be "the original Hebrew and Greek."
The translators, divided into six companies, each having its special work, did not actually begin their labors until 1607, but from that time they wrought assiduously, self-sacrificingly, and with the most intense devotion. Their secular rewards were in the gifts of positions in the Church, but their lasting remuneration is in the glory of their work and the gratitude of succeeding generations.
The first edition of the new translation was issued in 1611, and as might be expected, it was met with considerable disfavor. The Romish party was uncompromisingly hostile to it in any form; the High Church party was wedded to the Bishops' Bible; and the Puritans were quite contented with the Geneva Version, whose notes so sharply defined their theological and civil views. Since there was no popular demand for the new Bible it was compelled to work its way into the affection of the people and the esteem of scholars. At first there was a general feeling of discontent, and it was publicly attacked from the pulpits, and even Hugh Broughton, the first Hebrew and Greek scholar of the day, delivered his invectives against it; but all this opposition was short lived. In thirty years the Geneva Bible contested the field with the King James Version, but in 1644 its last edition was published, and from that time the new translation began to prevail. Its superior merit was the chief cause of its complete triumph, although the absence of marginal notes did more than anything else to commend it to all classes.
In a brief summary of the excellences of the Authorized Bible we must note the general accuracy and fidelity to the original, the predominance of Anglo-Saxon words, the simple, pure, and nervous style, its beauty and dignity, all of which surround it with a charm for all lovers of the word of God. Of course it is not perfect, but considering the state of scholarship, and the lack of critical material when it was made, the result is simply marvelous. In the seventeenth century the sciences of sacred philology, biblical geography, and antiquities were not far advanced, and on this account there is often a lack of precision. From the viewpoint of present-day scholarship we can see how little force was then given to prepositions, articles, moods, tenses, and nice shades of meaning; how the poetical portions were rudely reduced to prose; how the same Greek words were translated by different English words, producing a lack of uniformity; what confusion exists in chapter and verse divisions. And yet we must argue with Selden that "our English translation of the Bible is the best in the world, and renders the sense of the English best."
With what marvelous tenacity the people cling to this grand old version! The Revised Version of 1881 takes preeminence for scholarship, but still the King James Bible receives the reverent praises of mankind. "Who will say," says Father Taber, "that the uncommon beauty and marvelous English of the Protestant Bible is not one of the strongholds of heresy in this country? It lives on the ear like music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells, which the convert scarcely knows how to forego. ... It is part of the national mind and the anchor of the national seriousness. Nay, it is worshiped with a positive idolatry. . . . The memory of the dead passes into it. The potent traditions of childhood are stereotyped in its verses." Says John Fiske: "The sonorous Latin Vulgate is very grand, but in the sublimity of fervor as in the conscious sublimity of strength, it is surpassed by the English version, which is scarcely, if at all, inferior to the original, while it remains to-day, and will remain, the noblest monument of English speech."
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