In praise of the King James Bible

Four hundred years ago a remarkable book was published and circulated to every corner of the land.  It was a book that was to be read out loud, heard in reverence by those summoned to listen. It was commissioned by the King and prepared by a team of 48 scholars basing their work on previous writings.  I’m referring of course to Authorised Version of the Bible in English, published by King James I in 1611.

The quad-centenary was commemorated this morning in Christ Church, Broad Street.  This is one of Bristol’s most beautiful churches.  Everyone has at some time watched the colourful figures of the quarter jacks on the tower wall strike their small bells every 15 minutes.  The glorious Georgian interior should also be seen by all Bristolians and visitors to our city.  It certainly has great acoustics, as I discovered at 11am when I stepped up to the golden eagle lectern to read from Genesis chapters 14 to 18, following on from the Lord Mayor and the Dean of Bristol Cathedral.

The King James Bible is undoubtedly a great liturgical achievement.  It was the book that was not only read from St Just to Berwick but it was also taken on voyages to North America by the Pilgrim Fathers.  For the next 300 years wherever the British flag was planted the King James Bible followed.  It thus did more to spread the English language than any other work, including the contemporaneous Shakespeare.

It’s primarily as a great work of English that this version of the Bible interests me.  Words are the stock in trade of a politician.  Creating imagery, stirring hearts and winning minds are what I and my colleagues of all parties try to do every day.  Often without knowing it, our speeches draw on the soaring phrases and passages of the King James Bible.  It sits ahead of Shakespeare, Burke (a predecessor Bristol MP), Dickens and Churchill as the source of a rich vein of quotes and parables.

Probably the greatest speech of the twentieth century was Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington in 1963. “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low…the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” King as a pastor certainly knew his Bible and how to use its words (from Isaiah, ch 40, vs 4-5 in this case) to win hearts and minds.

But all of us, political or not, faithful and secular, use the language of 1611 in our conversations.  How many of us have fallen short of a task and said, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”? Depending on whether you’re of a pacific temperament or not you might “fight the good fight” or wish to “turn swords into ploughshares”.  Some of us want for more “filthy lucre”, wish that we could be the “apple of his eye” and if we don’t find the “land flowing with milk and honey” we may as well “eat, drink and be merry” on the way.  And yes, I’m aware that many people think politicians have “feet of clay”!

Books (or party leaders’ speeches) written by a committee are rarely a success.  But the scholars of 1611 drew heavily on the early 16th century translation of William Tyndale.  He came from North Nibley, about 20 miles north of Bristol where the Victorian tower commemorating him can be seen clearly from the M5.  Tyndale was considered a heretic by Henry VIII who hired agents to capture and kill him in Flanders in 1536.  Ironically, Henry himself had already set in train the events that would lead to Protestantism becoming the official religion, eventually needing an official Bible.

For the last 400 years the words of a man from Gloucestershire have gone right round the world, giving billions of people a common library of wonderful words and phrases.

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