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.

The First King James Bible in America?

The John Alden Bible. 1620. (c) The Pilgrim Society. Pilgrim Hall Museum.

As we approach Thanksgiving, perhaps thinking of those Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower and feasted with the Indians, we might think about the English Bibles they brought with them. (We ought to note, though, that despite the popular myth about the Pilgrims founding Thanksgiving, it was actually Abraham Lincoln who fixed the official November date after the Civil War. The Pilgrims had a feast of “thanksgiving” in 1621, but it was hardly the state holiday we know today.)

As the hotter, more godly variety of Protestants, the Pilgrims used the Geneva Bible. It was far the most popular English Bible until the mid-seventeenth century, but especially so among those termed Puritans, given its associations with Calvinist Geneva. John Alden, however, brought a copy of the King James Bible printed in 1620. Though Alden became a prominent member of the Plymouth Colony, he wasn’t originally a member of the Pilgrims, but rather the ship’s carpenter on the Mayflower. This may explain why he carried the KJV.

Virginia before Jamestown. Thomas Hariot. A briefe and true report. 1590. Folger.

Alden’s 1620 KJV may be the first copy of this translation on American soil, but it’s impossible to be certain. The Roanoke Colony was settled long before the KJV and the colonists had disappeared by 1590. Jamestown was founded in 1607, again too early for the KJV. The first colonists probably brought Geneva or Bishops’ Bibles.

The question is, were copies of the KJV brought to Jamestown between its first printing in 1611 and the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620? Alden Vaughan, professor emeritus at Columbia University, informs me that there was considerable traffic across the Atlantic in those years, and it might yet be possible to determine whether Bibles were part of the cargo.

On the other hand, as Kenneth Fincham pointed out at the Folger Institute conference in September, English churches did not immediately purchase that KJV when it was hot off the presses. Within a few years most London churches acquired copies, but in other dioceses churches were using the Bishops’ Bible, the Geneva, or even the Great Bible, well into the 1630s and 40s. It all depended on whether presiding bishops were keen on the idea.

So who knows what happened in Jamestown? That’s a story waiting to be told, if we can ever find out enough to tell it! For now, we’ll remember the King James Bible John Alden brought over on the Mayflower, which is now on display in the Great Hall at the Folger, and which after January will return to its permanent home at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth.

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

One response

  1. The exhibit is fascinating, funny (did you know there was an “Wicked” Bible?) and inspirational (you don’t often get to see a Bible that is nearly 600 years old or an original King James Bible). We don’t often think about how the Bible got into our hands and thus tend to relegate it’s arrival to an appearance out of divine air. This exhibit brings to life the political and cultural context in which the KJV came to be and the influences on the men who made it possible — how they risked and gave their lives and fortunes for their belief that every person should be able to read God’s word in his native tongue.

    January 4, 2012 at 3:22 am

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