The Birth of the King James Bible
By David Teems
“May your Majesty be pleased that the Bible be new translated?” It was a suggestion that changed the world. The year was 1604. James VI of Scotland had been crowned James I of England the previous year. Among his many obligations as the new monarch, he called three conferences that year. One was to end a twenty-year war with Spain (the Somerset House Conference). Another was an attempt in Parliament to join the realms of England and Scotland, to make a single kingdom called Great Britain. The Somerset Conference was a success. The attempt to join Scotland and England was not.
The third conference was called the Hampton Court Conference. Since the monarchy was supreme authority over the Anglican Church, there were issues that needed to be sorted out. The Bishops had questions about their new king. Since he was a Scot, was he Presbyterian? Was he Catholic as his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been? There was also a group within the church that were unsatisfied with certain elements of worship—the Puritans. A conference was necessary.
Being a Puritan was not easy. The word “Puritan” itself was derogatory. They were no fun, and were not well liked. James was not fond of them either. The Hampton Court Conference (so called because it was held at the magnificent Hampton Court Palace) lasted three days. The first day, the Puritans (only four were invited) were not allowed into the session. James spoke for three hours that day to about twenty bishops and other leaders of the church to settle their concerns.
The second day of the conference, the Puritans were finally allowed to make their complaints known. They wanted the cross to be taken out of the worship service because to them it was idolatrous. There was also too much singing. And even the use of rings in the wedding ceremony was suspect, as the use of too much symbolism was to the Puritan.
James, having little patience with them, shot down every request they made. He gave them nothing. Well, that is not exactly true. There is one suggestion the Puritans made that changed everything. As a matter of fact, John Reynolds, the spokesman for the Puritans, was the big winner of the conference. And the suggestion for a new bible was not even on their agenda. It was not on any list of grievances. It was more of an afterthought.
But when the suggestion for a new bible was made, James’s first response was pure delight. He admitted that he had “never yet seen a Bible well translated into English,” and that he longed for “one uniform translation.” The thought came over the king like epiphany. James and his archbishop Richard Bancroft chose the fifty some odd translators, established the rules of translation (there were fifteen rules) and set the enterprise in motion.
King James' History
For a little backstory, James Stuart had been orphaned at eleven months old, crowned King of Scotland at thirteen months, and kidnapped no less than nine times before he was a teenager. He was a brilliant child, and yet damaged psychologically and emotionally. He was for the most part unloved. He could speak Greek and Latin before he was five years old, and could quote whole chapters of the Bible in either Latin or English. He was often asked to translate the Bible, in front of guests, from Latin into French and into English.
Coming from a troubled and divided Scotland, and having a troubled psychology himself, James saw a new translation, in part, as a way to heal a troubled and divided realm. But that is not all.
Before entering into his English kingdom, he had grown to be a formidable Scottish King. He believed in divine right and in absolute monarchy. It was important to him for this new Bible to reflect majesty. Indeed, he saw it as a way to disperse majesty among his people in one uniform translation.
In our time, words like “absolute” and “divine right” are held suspect. And yet we worship a God whose rule is indeed absolute. No other translation reflects majesty quite like the King James Bible. It is intrinsic, written in the subtext of the Bible itself. James even specified that the language be “sett forth gorgeouslie.” The following quote from my book, Majestie: The King Behind the King James Bible summarizes nicely.
“Other than linguistic issues, the difference in tone, mood, the depth of its rhapsody, the stateliness, and perhaps age, the major difference between the King James Bible and all other Bibles is that the KJB is the only Bible that has the seal and imprimatur of a king. Other translations may have an organization behind them, a movement, a single personality, maybe even a corporation, but nothing quite like a king, and definitely nothing quite like James.
“If this book preaches anything, it preaches election, the peculiar appointments of a sovereign God, an absolutist God, a monarchist who tolerates only one head, a God whose choices don’t often make sense. For all of his unloveliness, for all the negative spin that has followed him throughout history, for all his crude Broad Scots, James Stuart was the right king at the right time for the right historical event. Only James could have given us the Bible he did, and only by the conditions that existed in culture—the brooding aesthetic, the powerful linguistic genius of the times, the ambivalence (the going national neurosis), the roll and pitch of the English language.”
There is indeed a king behind the King James Bible. He was not perfect by anyone’s standards. Quite the contrary, he was a damaged man, flawed in many ways. And yet he was used by God to do the extraordinary. That gives me comfort, and cause to hope.
David Teems earned his BA in Psychology and Philosophy at Georgia State University. David has been occupied in full-time ministry as a musician, published songwriter, Bible teacher, worship leader, contributor to Christian magazines, speaker, and published author. Transitioning, as he has, from music to books, David remains active in ministry, making public appearances on a regular basis, either speaking or playing worship music with Grammy and Dove winner Joe Beck in Nashville. David’s wife of twenty-five years, Benita, their Dalmatian, Sophie, and their sons Shad and Adam (and Adam’s family) all live in Franklin, Tennessee.
Transitioning from music to books just a few years ago, To Love Is Christ, a devotional, was released in 2005 by Thomas Nelson Publishers. And Thereby Hangs A Tale: What I Really Know About the Devoted Life I Learned From My Dogs released from Harvest House Publishers (June 2010) and went into a second edition within a few months. Majestie:The King Behind the King James Bible released in October 2010 from Thomas Nelson, and he is currently working on his next book for Thomas Nelson, Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God An English Voice, a biography of the bible translator and martyr William Tyndale. David has just recently released Speak To Me: For A Faith That Comes By Hearing, which are the King James scriptures spoken by David with the ambient music of Phil Keaggy and Nashville studio guitarist, Tom Hemby.
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