The 400th anniversary of the most published book in history, the King James Bible, is this Monday, May 2. Its importance and influence in Western civilization is without equal, and it still outsells, by far, all other English Bible translations. It is timeless, authoritative, and the crowning glory of the English language. The late Andrew Motion, British poet laureate, expressed its impact. "The King James Bible is a cornerstone of our culture and our language. Whatever our faith, whatever we believe, we have to recognize the rhetorical power of this book…To read it is to feel simultaneously at home, a citizen of the world, and a traveler through eternity."
When King James I ascended to the throne in 1603, the unity of the British kingdom was threatened by schism in the state church. The divisions were magnified through the no less than 50 different English versions of the Bible. Each sect seemed to have a biased translation to support their unique doctrines.
One version in particular irritated the King to no end. The Geneva Bible was translated and published by exiled English biblical scholars who had fled to the Protestant sanctuary of Geneva, Switzerland. Queen Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) persecuted and murdered many hundreds of Protestants during her reign from 1553-1558 in an effort to force the English Church back into Rome’s jurisdiction.
While in Geneva, the refugees published an English version which was influenced by John Calvin and other leading theologians of the Reformation. The Geneva Bible also included notes in the margins which interpreted scripture through the prism of Calvin and English Puritanism. By the time of James’ coronation, the Geneva Bible had become a beloved and popular translation especially among the Puritans who strongly believed that the king should not be the head of the church.
King James correctly perceived that some of those notes were a threat to his rule and against his belief in the divine right of kings. For example, a marginal note for Joshua 10:8 states, “… so tyrants take to themselves glorious names, when indeed they be very enemies against God and all justice.”
James stated, "I profess that I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst." So, he brought together the best and brightest Biblical scholars in England to bring forth an English translation authorized by him and his government. It was published without marginal notes and was issued with the hope of healing the religious strife threatening to tear Great Britain apart. All of the English churches were instructed to use in divine service.
The scholars’ efforts resulted in a masterpiece. The King James Bible became the one common standard that was used in worship services by denominations of every stripe and color throughout the English-speaking world.
Every President from George Washington to Barak Obama began his administration with his hand on the King James Bible to take the oath to uphold the United States Constitution.
The first book read in outer space was the King James Bible. With the inspiring background of the sun rising on the lunar landscape, the Apollo 8 astronauts read, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” from Genesis 1:1 through verse 10 to the largest television audience in the world at that time on December 24, 1968.
The King James Bible has been and continues to be revered by English speaking Christians everywhere as the Word of God. Even outspoken atheist, Professor Richard Dawkins, admires it. He said, “Not to know the King James Bible is to be in some small way barbarian."
For the past 400 years, the beautiful poetic 23rd Psalm read from the King James Bible by chaplains has comforted gravely wounded soldiers and little children have taken to heart “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…” from John 3:16.
God has used the King James Bible to bring untold millions to faith in Christ. That Bible has also made an indelible impact on the religion, culture, and governments of the English-speaking world and will continue to do so for years to come.
Pastor Dan White is the founder and pastor of North Columbia Church, Appling, GA
Read more articles by Pastor Dan White or search for articles on the same topic or others.