The British (Bible) Invasion: KJV 400-Year Anniversary Rolls On

To the chagrin of the UK’s Secular Society, which has protested, as the Guardian reports this week, that schools are “awash in Bibles,” every state school in England is going to get a new copy of the 1611 King James Version by the spring.

Sure the British are committed to the cultural legacy of the Book, now celebrating its 400-year anniversary, but what has it meant in America? A three-day conference, “An Anglo-American History of the KJV,” was held in DC this fall at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Among the high points were the following:

The KJV was never really “authorized” by King James despite the authorization announced on the Book’s title page (namely, that it was authorized to be read in the churches). The KJV did not replace its rival Catholic and Puritan Bibles for quite some time; in some places it never did. The first print version was a very big book and thus a very expensive one; many churches could not afford it. So many bishops did not, or could not, require its purchase by the churches under their direction. It could not be published in the New World colonies, which required copies to be imported from England.

For these reasons, and more, the KJV did not secure its literary reputation as one of the singular achievements of English letters until the 19th century. And in the U.S., this Bible was not upheld as a testament to English literature, but rather as a monument to Protestant (and primarily evangelical) theology… until its pride of theological place was supplanted by the New International Version (NIV) in 1980s.

A History That No Longer Dares to Speak Its Name

That point—that the KJV functions very differently, and is remembered very differently, on the two sides of the Atlantic—offers one way with which to make sense of a new book celebrating the KJV by Melvyn Bragg. His purpose, he notes, is the following:

My book wants to look at what has been neglected: a history that no longer dares to speak its name. A history of positive achievement catalysed by the King James Bible and the Protestant movement.

It is curious at best to say that the history of the positive contributions of the Bible and of Protestantism to world civilization is a history that “no longer dares to speak its name.” Perhaps this is the case in England, but the claim is obviously false as a description of the current cultural situation in the United States. In the current election cycle, that twinned history—scriptural and Protestant—virtually shouts its name from the rooftops, often in ways designed to drown out other stories, other names.

Moreover, to refer to this history of the KJV as a history that dare not speak its name is decidedly strange in a nearly 400-page book that elects to devote precisely one page to the ways in which scripture functions in contemporary debates about gay sexuality. Perhaps that debate is so different on the two sides of the Atlantic that Bragg, and English Anglican of a curious sort, does not know how to comment on it, or how to fit it into his story of the KJV’s “radical impact.” 

Bragg also assumes that the United States is a sort of second, younger Britain. Indeed, he concludes his encomium on the KJV by observing that it “is a book which has informed and enriched two English-speaking empires over 400 years and carried many of its messages around the globe.”

Ten years after King James Bible was published, the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America. They found and they founded a New World. It became a great democracy. It was a world based on the book, the Word of God. And America propagates its faith like no other people has ever done. 

This glad-handed embrace of the book and the empire must sound odd to a North American reader in the year 2011, and it is not entirely clear how Bragg intends us to hear it. He is the first to admit to all of the violence and mayhem unleashed by this Book of Books, after all.

From America to Nigeria

Bragg’s admiration for the United States runs deep; it is our cultural youthfulness that seems to attract him. Americans seem to symbolize the innocence of childhood, and the untutored spiritual aspiration of adolescence. And there are many places in which he seems to feel that the KJV, that supreme achievement of British scholarship, Early Modern political triangulation, and literary lyricism, was destined to find its home, not in the imperial center, but in the colonies.

These words, like certain names—Moses, Cain, Abel, Abraham, Isaac—drove into the vocabulary of the faith debate and some remain there today. Most have seen their resonance abate in the UK through the secularising of our history, but elsewhere still they carry the meanings drawn from the Bible. America and Nigeria are prime examples. (italics mine)

So, is it literature or theology that we Americans and Nigerians are preserving? Bragg almost seems to connect the two, suggesting a causal connection between the emphatic embrace of the KJV’s language and the survival of religion in a secular age. Here is his slightly anguished observation at the conclusion of a chapter entitled simply “Language”:

As a disseminator of Protestantism, the King James Version has been without equal. As a hoarder and breeder of language, it is without parallel in our culture. Why has its begetter, the Church of England, abandoned it?

The cries go up that the new translations are simpler to understand and that Christianity in certain countries, especially in the United Kingdom, is on an inevitable decline due to a multitude of causes and therefore drastic renovations were needed. In my view one cause of the decline is the retreat from the words of the King James Version. Do we tolerate (save for schoolchildren) the dilution and simplification of the words of Shakespeare?…

We appear to have thrown the King James Bible away on the bonfire of populism… The best of what we are—Protestant or not—was grounded in this book… And it was written in the language of beauty that is our bedrock. Perhaps the real reason that the Protestant Church here is in decline is that it is now lost for words. (italics mine)

Clearly, the “we” here are English, and the “here” is England. This sounds for all the world like contemporary anti-modern Catholic complaints against the abandonment of the Latin liturgy after the Second Vatican Council. The same argument animates both forms of cultural complaint: that the abandonment of an archaic and more traditional religious language has led to the erosion of the religion itself. Beauty of a sort really is the business of the church. I’ll return to that point.

But a closer reading of this book, and of the subtitle, suggests that this cannot be Bragg’s final view. The radical impacts he traces lay more in the realm of ethics, science, and politics. The story he wishes to tell is unapologetically Protestant and unapologetically English, but the crux of the liberating and radical impact of the Protestant Reformation and its vernacular translation of the scriptures is a new spirit unleashed by both.

The spirit of these two movements—Reformation and translation—was radically egalitarian and individualistic. The contention was that all people were capable of close reading, and the commitment was to individual Christians’ rights to make up their own minds about what the scripture said. These political commitments hinged in turn, on the recognition that a great many biblical passages were ambiguous at best, hence a wider interpretive spectrum was the very essence of a more respectful approach to scriptural revelation (noting this is part of what makes his almost total avoidance of the scriptural view of same-sex sexuality so odd).

In Bragg’s view, the combined forces of Reformation and English translation unleashed profound political and social forces that lie at the very heart of the modern Euro-American achievement. The spirit of free enquiry led to the formation of the Royal Society and of Early Modern scientific enquiry, for instance, in an era when “religion and science” were not yet anxious and antipathetic competitors. The spirit of republican individualism unleashed revolutionary forces that would lead to the execution of a king, an atrociously violent civil war, the Cromwellian protectorate, a restored monarchy and the eventual institution of a Bill of Rights of sorts under the aegis of a “Glorious Revolution” in 1688.

On the far side of the Atlantic, these same forces, grounded in the rejection of the divine right of sovereigns, fueled a confusing hodgepodge of religious communities, by turns authoritarian and antinomian, and culminated in colonial rebellion and independence from Britain. By the mid-18th century, Tocqueville could observe that “the Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.”

Transatlantic Express

An almost continual dance back and forth across the Atlantic is central to the story Bragg wishes to tell.

The KJV was born in England in 1611, but almost immediately crossed over to the New World. John Wesley’s Methodism, Charles Wesley’s music, and George Whitefield’s hypnotic sermonizing enjoyed some successes in England but took firm root in New World soil and positively blossomed there. Mary Wollstonecroft’s feminism, as enunciated in her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Women, was utterly indebted to her own immersion in the religious culture of the KJV. So was William Wilberforce’s opposition to human enslavement; both flourished on the frontiers of a New World. Abolition was enacted as an economic policy in England, but in the United States it came at the tremendous, Bible-inspired cost of more than one million dead.

While Bragg is deeply interested in the ethical and political impact of Protestantism and the KJV, he clearly has a special fondness for the cultural implications of these things, literary ones especially. The KJV has left its imprint on the history of English literature on both sides of the Atlantic. Shakespeare died just five years after its publication, so it is hard to discern a direct influence of the Book of Books on the Bard. “Yet by an indirect route, we can trace how it did influence Shakespeare,” Bragg tells us. “There is also a teasing possibility that Shakespeare worked on Psalm 46” (maddeningly, he says no more about this). Better is his subtle tracing of the biblical lines of influence on a number of important American writers, especially Melville, whose Moby Dick also counts as the single most important work of American fiction by no less a religious and cultural critic than Cornel West.

Bragg’s book is an extraordinary compendium of information, less about the creation of the KJV than about its long cultural aftermath. It thus supplements the story of the creation of KJV as told quite brilliantly by Adam Nicholson in God’s Secretaries (2003) and by Lori Anne Ferrell in The Bible and the People (Ferrell was responsible, along with Kathleen Lynch, for the Folger Conference). If the result is a difficult book to read, then this is because Bragg seems uncertain how far his praise of the Reformation, and of the KJV, and of the U.S. should go.

But why? In one very real sense, because he wants the KJV to be a theological foundation as he believes it still to be in the U.S., but in fact for him it can only be a testament of literature and of language. He seems to want an American kind of adolescent spirituality, but he is older, wiser, a product of the old empire. Bragg has been living with this Book since he was six years old “in the north Cumbrian town of Wigton,” a village boasting twelve churches to its 5000 souls. He grew up with its cadences and “the language of the King James Version flowed into me.” He still goes back home when he can, though there are precious few hangers-on these days, and “the choir can outnumber the congregation.”

The whole idea—God, Genesis, Christ, Resurrection—is now to me a moving metaphor, a poetic way of attempting to understand what may be forever incomprehensible. 

So the six-year-old steeped in the rhythms of the KJV grew up, but he did not grow away. He clearly loves the Book, with a winsome blend of nostalgia for a bygone era and a lyrical love of its luxurious language. And this book, imperfect though it be, is intended as an offering on the altar of that great and abiding affection.