The American Biblical Tradition

The King James Version used to be our common text.

BY MARK A. NOLL
Friday, July 7, 2006

In 1911 the English-speaking world paused to mark the 300th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, with American political leaders foremost in the chorus of exaltation. To former president Theodore Roosevelt, this Bible translation was “the Magna Carta of the poor and the oppressed . . . the most democratic book in the world.” Soon-to-be president Woodrow Wilson said much the same thing: “The Bible (with its individual value of the human soul) is undoubtedly the book that has made democracy and been the source of all progress.”

Americans at the time mostly agreed with these sentiments, because the impact of the KJV was everywhere so obvious. It was obvious for business, with major firms like Harper & Brothers having risen to prominence on the back of its Bible publishing. It was obvious in the physical landscape and in many households because of the widespread use of Bible names for American places (95 variations on Salem) and the nation’s children (John, James, Sarah, Rebecca). It was obvious in literature, as with the memorable opening of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” And it was obvious in politics, with no occasion more memorable than March 4, 1865, when four quotations from the KJV framed Abraham Lincoln’s incomparable Second Inaugural Address: Genesis 3:19 (“wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”); Matthew 18:7 (“woe unto the world because of offences!”); Matthew 7:1 (“judge not that we be not judged”); and Psalm 19:9 (“the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether”).

Because the KJV was so widely read for religious purposes, it had also become a source of public ideals. Because it was so central in the churches, and because the churches were so central to the culture, the KJV functioned also as a common reservoir for the language. Hundreds of phrases (clear as crystal, powers that be, root of the matter, a perfect Babel, two-edged sword) and thousands of words (arguments, city, conflict, humanity, legacy, network, voiceless, zeal) were in the common speech because they had first been in this translation. Or to be more precise, because they had been in the KJV or in the earlier translations, like those of John Wycliffe’s followers (1390s) and William Tyndale (1520s), that King James’ translators mined for their own version.
But during the past half-century, we have come into a new situation. For believers who read the Bible because they think it is true, a welter of modern translations compete for the space once dominated by the KJV. For the public at large, the linguistic and narrative place that for more than two centuries had been occupied by the KJV is now substantially filled by the omnipresent electronic media. The domains that have been most successfully popularized by television, the movies and the Internet are sport, crime, pornography, politics, warfare, medicine and the media itself. Within these domains there is minimal place for biblical themes of any sort, much less the ancient language of the KJV.

For some purposes, it is well that the KJV has lost its hold. Roman Catholics and Jews were once victims of coercive discrimination when they were forced to recite this Protestant translation of the Bible in the nation’s public schools. And at many moments, like the Civil War, free use of this one version made it all too easy to transgress the boundary between the proper business of the churches and the proper business of the public sphere.

Yet if the KJV was sometimes abused, nearly universal use also meant that its spiritual themes of reproof and liberation, its stories of human sin and divine grace, also exerted a great influence for good. In the 1890s Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other aggrieved feminists published “The Woman’s Bible” in an effort to counter interpretations of Scripture that had done women harm. When they asked others to comment, Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union made a telling response: “No such woman, as Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with her heart aflame against all forms of injustice and of cruelty . . . has ever been produced in a country where the Bible was not incorporated into the thoughts and the affections of the people and had not been so during many generations.”
It was the KJV that Willard meant as the Bible “incorporated” in American consciousness “during many generations.” Today the legacy of the KJV remains fixed in the common speech, even if awareness of the language’s debt to this translation is fading (another KJV word). Whether any modern translation of the Scriptures, or any other moral guide, can anchor the culture as the KJV once did, is a question worth serious consideration in the run-up to 2011 and the 400th anniversary of this unsurpassed cultural force.

Mr. Noll, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, recently lectured on “The King James Version in American History” at the Library of Congress.