(In case you missed the previous post, this is a continuation of a brief biography of King James I of England. The purpose is to present the life of the man responsible for commissioning the translation of the English Bible that bears his name. Since 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the translation of the KJV, it’s an ideal occasion to consider the man and the circumstances which led to the formation of the version of the Scriptures which has been used almost exclusively in the English speaking world for much of that time. Hopefully these posts will cause us to rejoice in a sovereign God, who uses imperfect men and unlikely circumstances to accomplish His will. This post will focus more specifically on the circumstances surrounding the translation of the KJV. To review the previous post, click here.)
James’ Protestant convictions were an ongoing source of conflict. Unlike Elizabeth, he wasn’t tolerant of Roman Catholicism. Living in a time when church and state were inextricably united, he wouldn’t have valued modern concepts of pluralism and tolerance.
Catholics had reason to hope James would follow Elizabeth’s general tolerance. James’ wife Anne was from Roman Catholic stock, and James himself had lifted fines imposed on those practicing Catholicism. But a few treasonous plots by Catholics left him suspicious. In 1604, at the Hampton Court Conference, James showed his intentions to restrain Catholicism, expelling Jesuits from the court and reimposing fines on practicing Catholics.
This angered the more zealous Catholics. In 1605, thirteen Catholic men plotted to blow up James and all of Parliament. They snuck 36 barrels of gunpowder into the cellar just below the House of Lords. Fortunately for James, the infamous “Gunpowder Plot” was discovered just before it was carried out. Their leader, Robert Catesby, was shot and killed while fleeing London. Eight others were sentenced to hanging.
James wasn’t universally accepted by all Protestants, though. The Puritans were Calvinist ministers who felt that the reforms of the Church of England had not gone far enough. The state Church of England had retained many unscriptural rituals and ceremonies, and all ministers in England were required by law to observe these rituals–even if it meant going against conscience. Good ministers were often ejected from their pulpits for failing to conform, earning them the nickname “nonconformists”.
The Puritans’ Bible was also a source of contention for James. Named “The Geneva Bible” after the Swiss city where it was translated, it was the work of Puritans who fled England under Mary’s reign. Like a modern study Bible, it contained explanatory notes in the side columns–notes to which James objected. For example, the note in Exodus 1:19 appeared to vindicate the Hebrew midwives for disobeying Pharoah–tantamount to calling the overthrow of kings to be just and Scriptural, running counter to James’ view of the “divine right” of kings. He called such notes “very partial, untrue, seditious, and savoring too much of seditious and dangerous conceits.”
James wanted a Scripture translation which united Anglicans and Puritans, as well as Scottish and English. At the Hampton Conference, Puritan John Reynolds suggested a new translation; James was enthusiastically receptive. Developing an alternative translation wouldn’t be easy, though. A mere translation with new notes supporting his views would be too transparent, facing rejection by Puritans and labeled as unfaithful to the Scriptures. James’ task, then, was to develop an indisputably faithful translation.
He was meticulous in carrying this out. He appointed 54 scholars to a translation committee, including Anglicans and Puritan Calvinists to prevent denominational bias; one scholar was perhaps an Arminian. These men were incredibly accomplished. Lancelot Andrews, for instance, read the Hebrew Bible by age 6; during his lifetime he mastered 15 languages. Many wrote foreign language dictionaries and lexicons. Some were even accustomed to debating in Greek. There were university presidents, including Laurence Chaderton, Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, when many noted Puritans (like Jeremiah Burroughs and William Bridge) were enrolled there.
The committee was divided into 6 subcommittees, meeting at Westminster, Cambridge, and Oxford Universities. Each subcommittee translated one sixth of the Scriptures. Individual members first translated the text on their own; the subcommittee then met, comparing individual translations and eventually arriving at a consensus. The section was then presented to the larger committee for final approval. It was completed in 1611.
The Bible immediately gained wide acceptance by English-speaking Christians. The only resistance came from Catholics, who still considered it dangerous to let laymen read the Scriptures in their vernacular. The KJV has enjoyed ongoing acceptance, becoming the best-selling book of all time. Many consider it the capstone of James’ accomplishments.
Despite accomplishing such a God-honoring task, James’ life wasn’t free from controversy. Some report he was a homosexual; even some prominent reformed church historians hold this view. However, others argue that these rumors appeared late, after the death of James and Charles. James had also apparently warned his sons against the sin of homosexuality. Further, these rumors were spread by James’ enemies, known for their anti-Scottish bigotry.
James’ rule after this was rather uneventful. Some hail James’ reign as successful due to the peace he enjoyed. Others argue he merely set the stage for the eventual British Civil War with which his son Charles had to contend.
Because James was king when British colonists founded Virginia, he has been called “the founding monarch of the United States.” Jamestown, Virginia still bears his name.
James was physically frail. He had a leg handicap, producing frequent falls and injuries. Charles Dickens commented on his distorted physical appearance, noting he had a tongue “too large for his mouth”. He experienced arthritis, colic, gout, and kidney pain. He further suffered from depression after Henry’s death in 1612, a condition worsened by Anne’s death in 1619. James died in 1625, at peace with his subjects and other countries.
James was flawed, to be sure. But like any man used by God, his flaws point us to God’s sovereign goodness. God deserves all the glory for all James accomplished, and for all we accomplish. For this, we ought to thank God for this man, whose Bible translation has been used to convert multitudes to Jesus and mature His Church for 400 years.