Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Archive for July, 2011

The Wicked Bible


Folger exhibitions draw primarily on Folger collections, but are often supplemented with items loaned from other libraries and museums. Most of the time the process goes smoothly, but every exhibition has its challenges. Manifold Greatness has had a few challenges, ranging from chasing down Bibles belonging to presidents and reggae musicians, to finding a pulpit and pew to put in the Great Hall.  Then there’s the Wicked Bible…

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) edition of the King James Bible is an edition from 1631 that has come to be known as the “Wicked Bible” due to a rather outrageous typo in the ten commandments. Instead of having “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” the Wicked Bible has “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Quite a difference!  Even the King, Charles I, took notice and saw to it that the book’s printers, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, were severely fined. Copies of the book were recalled and thus very few survive.

That very few copies survive made it a challenge for us to find one for the Folger exhibition. Finding a Wicked Bible turned out to be a rather wicked endeavor. After a few failed attempts, we finally found a copy with a willing lender: our partner in Manifold Greatness, the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford!

Steven Galbraith, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Books, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


The Bible and The Tempest

Pamela Coleman Smith. The Tempest. Caliban. ca. 1900. Folger.

The King James Bible was published in the same year that The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last single-authored play was produced: 1611. The KJB translation thus appeared too late to influence Shakespeare’s writing, but he was deeply influenced by its predecessor translations, especially the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible. The Bishops’ was the one read in English churches from its publication in 1568, but the Geneva (1560) was more popular for the general reader. It was available in cheaper formats, and it had an elaborate set of interpretive aids like introduction, marginal notes, and indexes––it was really the first “Study Bible.”

All of Shakespeare’s plays contain important allusions to the Bible, just as they allude to classical works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Virgil’s Aeneid. The Tempest is no exception. The story is the old one of shipwreck on a desert island, like the later Robinson Crusoe or even Gilligan’s Island. Shakespeare’s interest in this plot has to do partly with exploring humanity in isolation from civilization. What happens when people are forced to fend for themselves, without the aid of law or civic institutions? Seventeenth-century explorers to the New World were asking similar questions as they encountered native people living seemingly in a state of nature. Were such people brutal savages, in need of civilizing, or were they noble innocents, free from the corruptions of European society? The Tempest explores such questions, often in biblical terms.

Shakespeare’s island is a kind of Eden, presided over by the God-like figure of Prospero, with Ferdinand and Miranda as a version of Adam and Eve, and Ariel and Caliban and angel and devil. As in the Genesis story, temptation and obedience are crucial: Prospero charges Ferdinand and Miranda not to have sex before they are properly married, anxious about the temptation they offer each other alone on the island. Prospero and his brother Antonio may also have a biblical model in Cain and Abel, the first brothers and the first murderer and death. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, the Bible was the place to go for puzzling out life’s big questions: can siblings really get along? can anyone? are humans inherently wicked or just corrupted by society? are forgiveness and redemption possible in this world?

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


The King James Bible and the U.S. Civil War

Drummer boy, Manassas 150th anniversary, July 2011. Copyright Jeff Mauritzen and Discover Prince William & Manassas, VA.

Yesterday, July 21, was the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas or Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil War. The coincidence of the anniversaries of the U.S. Civil War and the publication of the King James Bible offers an opportunity to reflect on how important the KJB was for this crisis in American history.

For both sides, South and North, the war was conceived in biblical terms. As Abraham Lincoln put it in his Second Inaugural Address on March 24, 1865, “Both [North and South] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” In the mid nineteenth century, the King James Bible was overwhelmingly the Bible of American Protestant Christians, with the American Bible Society alone publishing a million KJBs annually. Lincoln was sworn in on a copy of the KJB, just as George Washington and other presidents were before him. The key issue in the Civil War was slavery, and for Southerners the Bible provided its justification, as argued in works like Josiah Priest’s Bible Defense of Slavery (Glasgow, KY, 1852). Yet Northern Abolitionists from John Brown to Frederick Douglass (as discussed in this earlier post) found their justification in the Bible too.

In fact, though the KJB, along with Christianity, was introduced to slaves by their owners in hopes it would encourage obedience, the slaves turned the religion and the book against their masters, finding in them instead a source of hope and a manifesto for freedom from bondage. The spiritual “Go Down Moses,” for instance, interprets the story of Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt as a promise for the exodus of blacks out of slavery. The language of African American religion, music, literature, and public oratory has been steeped in the rhythms and phrases of the KJB ever since.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


The KJB Sea to Sea


Institutions around the world have been celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, and this spring the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA, which houses substantial rare book holdings, hosted an exhibition highlighting the history, context, and ongoing influence of the KJB.

The Clark Library was the lucky recipient of a recent gift of early English books. We used many of these in the exhibition, including the Greek to Latin translation of the New Testament by Erasmus in 1516, the “Wycliffite” version (unpublished until 1731), Cranmer’s 1541 version of the Great Bible, and the large folio edition of the Geneva Bible, printed in 1583. These antecedents helped contextualize the desire to publish a new English translation of the Bible during the reign of King James I, a translation that fit the politics of seventeenth-century Protestant England. The Clark borrowed the first issue of the first edition, or the Great “He” Bible of 1611 (so called because of a typo in the Book of Ruth), which was displayed with the library’s own “corrected” edition printed in 1613.

Later versions of the KJB, including the magnificent Baskerville Bible printed in 1763 using the “Baskerville” typeface created by British printer John Baskerville, an engraved 18th-century miniature of the New Testament done completely in shorthand, and quarto and octavo editions in elaborately tooled bindings, speak to the book’s popularity. We know the initial reception of this new translation wasn’t all roses and there is a fiery essay by Hugh Broughton, a noted clergyman and contemporary of many of the translators, which sharply criticises the King James Bible. But there is no denying that the King James Bible influenced scores of writers, artists, scholars, and even composers.

On online version of the exhibition can be seen here.

Nina Schneider is a guest contributor to the Manifold Greatness blog and Head Cataloger/Interim Head Librarian at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA.


Manifold Greatness in The Big Easy

Manifold Greatness Panel 1 at NEH booth, ALA-New Orleans

Just before the 4th of July weekend, Panel 1 from the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition made its first venture out of its home base at the Folger, and appeared at the American Library Association’s annual meeting, which took place this year in New Orleans. I was there for committee work, and to see the panel on the road.

With its strong tradition of jazz music and its  southern sensibility, New Orleans struck me as an appropriate place to showcase the King James Bible. Biblical allusion and references run deep in much southern literature, and novelists like Kate Chopin, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner have made the city of New Orleans come alive for readers. But it was the music emanating from open doors down in the French Quarter and the unrelenting flow of the Mississippi that made the real connection for me. If you’ve heard any of the spirituals popularized by African American singing groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers or the Selah Jubilee Singers (think of the song “Go Down, Moses”), you’ve heard the influence of the King James Bible’s language in America. While it’s a bit too simplistic to say that traditional spirituals, church music, the beat of drums, and the influence of European horns converged and gave birth to jazz, jazz did arise from pieces of those traditions, and some will tell you that New Orleans was its birthplace. Whether that claim can be validated or not, New Orleans certainly has carried on the jazz tradition in a way most American cities have not.

Canal Street, New Orleans

As I stepped around discarded crawfish on the Riverwalk and heard that music coming up from the French Quarter behind me, I thought this was surely an appropriate place for a piece of Manifold Greatness to appear.

Thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities for showcasing our panel at their booth. The full traveling panel tour gets underway in early October, 2011.  Stay tuned for details on when and where you can see the show out there on the road!

Caryn Lazzuri is exhibitions manager at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


The Museum of Biblical Art

The Museum of Biblical Art in New York, NY  is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bibles with an exhibition, “On Eagles’ Wings: The King James Bible Turns Four Hundred,” that begins today, July 8, and runs through October 16, 2011.  “The exhibition will present the touchstones of the translation process examining how this work was and continues to be inspirational for various audiences over time.” Considering the rich collections of the Museum and the American Bible Society, this exhibition should be excellent.  A unique feature of the exhibition will be a series of paintings by contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura, commissioned for Crossway Publishers’ new edition of the English Standard Version of the Bible.

Tomorrow, July 9, the American Bible Society will host a symposium featuring: Dr. David Norton, Dr. Scot McKnight, Dr. Euan K. Cameron, and Dr. Marlon Winedt. This will be followed by a screening of “KJB: The Book that Changed the World” and a discussion with the film’s director Norman Stone.

Steven Galbraith, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Books, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.


Foreign Affairs

On July 1, 1889, Frederick Douglass was appointed to serve as the United State’s resident minister and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. Before his departure, the congregation of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C. presented him with a leather-bound copy of the King James Bible at a farewell reception.

Douglass wrote several autobiographies and in the second, My Bondage and My Freedom, he describes secretly practicing his writing by copying passages from the Bible and other books. He remained keenly aware, however, of slave-owning whites using Biblical passages to support the institution of slavery. For Douglass and other abolitionists, Christianity and slavery were incompatible, and his forceful argument in favor of religion based on equality carries reminiscences of the tone of the King James Bible:   

 “I love that religion that comes from above, in the ‘wisdom of God,’ which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy…I love that religion that is based upon the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man; which makes its followers do unto others as they themselves would be done by.”

 As resident minister and consul-general, Douglass represented the United States and its interests to the Republic of Haiti, which had become the first black-led republic in the world following its break from France in 1804. Douglass served in this capacity from 1889-1891. His wife Helen (whom he married in 1884 after the death of his first wife, Anna) records their arrival at Port-au-Prince in October 1889 and other events from their time in Haiti in her diary. After Douglass’ return to the United States, he traveled to Chicago as the Haitian government’s commissioner at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, perhaps better known as the Chicago World’s Fair. He also built housing units for black families in Baltimore, MD, and continued his work as a writer and orator supporting equal rights for blacks and women. He died in 1895. 

Frederick Douglass’ King James Bible will be featured in the Manifold Greatness exhibition when it opens at the Folger Shakespeare Library on September 23. Its permanent home is the Frederick Douglass Historic Site, one of the many places Douglass lived in Washington, DC.

Amy Arden is a Communications Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library and developed the online children’s content and Family Guide for Manifold Greatness.


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