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 October, 2012

Saul and the Witch of Endor

Nikolay Ge. The Witch of Endor Calling Up the Spirit of the Prophet Samuel. Painting, 1875.

Nikolay Ge. The Witch of Endor Calling Up the Spirit of the Prophet Samuel. Painting, 1875.

You won’t find vampires and werewolves in the King James Bible, but witches (referred to as mediums) and spirits rising from the grave are mentioned. One famous incident occurs in the book of 1 Samuel, when Saul, King of Israel, secretly contacts a woman with powers for summoning the dead. Her name is not given in the story, although in popular culture, she has become known as the witch of Endor.

According to the Biblical account, the prophet Samuel is instrumental in making Saul king of Israel, and continues to provide counsel during Saul’s reign.  After Samuel dies, Saul faces an enormous threat from an army of Philistine soldiers assembled to attack Israel. Saul’s prayers and attempts to seek divine aid are unsuccessful.

Desperate for advice, Saul disguises himself and seeks out a medium. Although she expresses reluctance at first, she eventually agrees to summon the spirit of Samuel for Saul.

Things go downhill from there.

And Samuel said to Saul: ‘Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?’ And Saul answered: ‘I am sore distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God is departed from me, and answereth me no more, neither by prophets, nor by dreams; therefore I have called thee, that thou mayest make known unto me what I shall do.’ 1 Samuel 28:15

Samuel foretells that Saul will be defeated in the upcoming battle, and that he and his sons will be killed. These prophecies come true, and Israel suffers a crushing defeat, after which Saul commits suicide.

Amy Arden assisted in the development and production of the Manifold Greatness website and Family Guide. She is a Communications Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.


The Amish and the King James Bible

Amish boys using traditional farming techniques. Photograph by National Geographic Channels / Jeff Hoagland.

Amish boys using traditional farming techniques. Photograph by National Geographic Channels / Jeff Hoagland.

Amish culture is popping up on television sets across America, thanks to reality series such as National Geographic’s Amish: Out of Order and TLC’s Breaking Amish. In states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, Amish buggies are a common sight along roadways, as are Amish homesteads, distinctive white-sided houses with a single curtain in each window.

Like many other immigrant groups originating in Europe, the first Amish immigrants arrived in America in the early 18th century. Many settled in Pennsylvania, where they are sometimes referred to as the Pennsylvania Dutch. However, most Amish are of German or Swiss descent.

The Amish denomination emphasizes a simple lifestyle and a rejection of “worldly” pursuits. The name derives from Jakob Ammann, a member of the Swiss Anabaptist movement, who disagreed with other, less radical Anabaptists on matters related to excommunication, and Amman’s followers split from the main Anabaptist community. Amish dogma forbids its followers from holding government office, participating in the military, or owning modern technology. Historically, these beliefs set the Amish at odds with other Christian groups, and continue to distinguish them today. As a result of widespread prosecution in Europe from both Catholics and Protestants in the 17th and 18th centuries, many Amish fled to America.

One practice that the Amish share with many mainstream Protestant denominations is their use of the King James Bible. While Pennsylvania German (also known as Pennsylvania Dutch) is widely spoken in Amish communities, most Amish read and write in English, and the King James Bible is used in Amish worship services. Amish services typically include two sermons. Most of the time, they are spoken extemporaneously. Unlike some Christian churches, the Amish do not follow a liturgical calendar, so the Bible passages chosen for each particular service are selected spontanesouly.

Another influential text in Amish religious practice is the Ausbund. The Ausbund is a collection of hymns dating back to the mid-1500s; tradition holds that the original songs were composed by Anabaptist prisoners held in Passau Castle between 1535 and 1540.  The first printed edition of the Ausbund appeared in 1564. There is no musical notation, with the tunes being passed on from generation to generation. Songs from the Ausbund are sung in a German dialect, and the lyrics are adapted from passages in the Biblical Psalms and the New Testament. The practice of congregational singing–traditionally without musical accompaniment– reflects the Amish belief in simple worship that encourages humility. To hear samples of hymns from the Ausbund, click here.

Amy Arden assisted in the development and production of the Manifold Greatness website and Family Guide. She is a Communications Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.


The Oral Character of the King James Bible

Bible. English. Authorized. London, 1611. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Bible. English. Authorized. London, 1611. Folger Shakespeare Library.

The year 2011 constituted the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Originally created by England’s Anglican Church, it became widely used by all Protestant denominations in America until the twentieth century, as both a pulpit and a personal Bible.

Despite the increasingly old-fashioned character of its language, it was not until the 1950s that a second translation, the Revised Standard Version, gained a foothold in American Protestantism.

Today, the King James Bible, also known as the KJB or KJV (the “V” is for “Version”), still has a revered place among Evangelical Protestantism. The Scofield Reference Bible, widely used among Evangelicals, relies upon it. And although the New International Version has recently gained popularity as a personal Bible, the KJB remains the pulpit Bible for many churches.

Of course, the Gideons continue to place a copy of the KJB in every hotel room in the United States. They believe that an individual alone can read the Bible and by themselves gain an understanding of God.

This attitude derives from the sixteenth-century declaration by the Reformer Martin Luther that the authority for true Christianity rested on “Scripture alone.” Since that time, Protestantism has envisioned each individual believer knowing the Bible. The ideal Christian became someone who read and studied their Bible extensively. Today, most devout Christians own a personal Bible, which they read regularly by themselves.

The achievement of this ideal within modern Evangelicalism has made us forget that for most of Christianity’s history, this ideal was impossible for all but a few. During 95% of its history, the overwhelming majority of Christians could not read.

Until the twentieth century, near universal literacy existed nowhere on earth. Only then, in Europe, did 90% of adults acquire the ability to read. In 1675, 64 years after the KJV’s publication, only about 45% of adult males in England could sign their name at their marriage; for women the percentage was significantly lower. Even in 1850, the best estimates put adult literacy in Europe at no more than 50%. American literacy rates were similar.During most of its history, then, the KJV functioned quite differently from the personal, private use so widespread today. When it was published, it was intended to be read aloud, and that was its primary use until the end of the nineteenth century.

People who can read the Bible gain a sense of its organization as a text and of its character as a physical object. They know how large it is, whether considered in number of words (lots), number of books (66), or just its size (fat). Those who become familiar with it learn the order of its books and develop a sense of the total amount of stories, moral tales, parables, law codes, admonitions and prophecies the book contains.

Those who only hear the Bible read and cannot read it for themselves learn about much of it contents, but they never gain a sense of the book as a written text. Because they are always dependent on a reader, they never acquire any direct access to the text itself.

They know its contents as the material is read to them over the years, in whatever order it is read and whatever passages are selected. They may develop a sense of organization from some of its longer stories, but most oral readings present shorter passages. Just reading a few chapters out loud can take nearly an hour. Hearers will not gain understanding of the Bible’s structure; it will seem an unorganized  collection to them.

Moreover, hearers will rarely gain a sense that they know everything in the Bible. They can always be surprised by some passage they have not heard before. Although many churches have a liturgical calendar that guides regular scripture reading, such calendars present selected readings rather than the entire Bible.

Furthermore, liturgical calendars often feature different readings from different places in Scripture together. The Anglican approach for each Sunday includes an Old Testament passage, a reading from the New Testament letters, and a selection from the Gospels.

So until the twentieth century, the success of the King James Bible came much more from its use for oral presentation of Scripture than from its use as a personal Bible. This is not surprising, for the poetic beauty of much of its language was intended to be heard. The oral hearing of the Bible gave Christians a different sense of Scripture from individual private reading. It is only by the mid-twentieth century, when most Christians can read the Bible by themselves, that a translation whose language is more up-to-date can make headway against the long-standing popularity of the KJB.

 Paul V.M. Flesher, Ph.D. is the Director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Wyoming. The Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition is on view at UW from October 7-31, 2012.


The KJB in America: An Interview with Cristina Cruz Gonzales

The Holy Bible: the Entire Canonical Scriptures According to the Decree of the Council of Trent; Translated from the Latin Vulgate. ca. 1884. Loan of the Ryan family. Image courtesy of Oklahoma State University.

The Holy Bible: the Entire Canonical Scriptures According to the Decree of the Council of Trent; Translated from the Latin Vulgate. ca. 1884. Loan of the Ryan family. Image courtesy of Oklahoma State University.

While the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition was at Oklahoma State University, local scholars presented on topics related to the King James Bible and its impact on American culture. Dr. Cristina Cruz Gonzales, OSU assistant professor of art history, provided the opening lecture. After her talk, “King James Bible: Towards a Visual and Transatlantic History,” she shared her insights about the KJB and America.  Here’s a recap of the interview.

Why were you interested in joining us to talk on this topic?

Because I’m not an English Bible expert, but I am an expert in 17th century religious material in America, not the United States, but rather Spanish America. The topic seemed strangely familiar. I didn’t know much about it, but I wanted to know more. It seemed that I should know more, and I thought I could approach it in a comparative way that I found fruitful for both myself and the audience.

 Did you learn anything surprising as you researched this talk?

Absolutely. I had no idea the author of our American dictionary, that’s Noah Webster, was also an author of an American Bible, and he really pushed his Bible project on an America that was just starting to get into a sort of Bible mania.

You told us about a number of different versions of the Bible. Which one did you find most interesting?

I really enjoy the 19th century versions, these large, lavish, family Bibles mostly because you realize it’s not just about text, but about the materiality and the object-ness of these items. They were kept in American homes on tables as showpieces, so they are not just informing American piety or serving American piety at that time, but also reflecting American taste and what that implies in a secular and non-secular way.

You mentioned a number of Bibles that are arguably more American than the King James. Why does KJB remain the most popular in the US?

The King James Bible was by far the most popular Bible in the late 17th century, and I think that longevity means a lot. If Noah Webster had been born a century earlier and had this wonderful idea and the American Revolution had broken out and it was time to publish an American Bible, maybe his Bible would have taken off. But, by the time Webster comes around, the King James Version is too engrained in early American culture, and Americans aren’t going to give it up.

Misty D. Smith is an Assisstant Professor and Catalog Librarian at the Edmon Low Library, Oklahoma State University.


King James and His Bible

Thomas Trevelyon. Miscellany. Manuscript, 1608. Shelfmark V.b.232. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Thomas Trevelyon. Miscellany. Manuscript, 1608. Shelfmark V.b.232. Folger Shakespeare Library.

King James I, the royal sponsor of the Bible that bears his name, grew up as a king. After Queen Elizabeth I executed his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, when he was just one year old, he became King of Scotland and the heir to the English throne after Elizabeth’s death. He was raised by a team of Scottish Presbyterian ministers under the control of his regent, but upon his ascension to the English crown in 1603, he seemed more attuned to English religious politics.

Less than a year after his arrival in England, James officially launched the translation project that would become the King James Bible at a conference in Hampton Court Palace. The complex’s status as a favorite dwelling of King Henry the VIII, the founder of the English church, would not have been lost on the attendees.

The new translation was intended to be a unifying factor, not between Scotland and England, but between the warring factions of the Church of England. In the oversight of the project, James favored the establishment bishops, but a third or more of the 48 “Translators” (as they were known) had Puritan beliefs. Most were connected with Cambridge University, a hot-bed of Puritan theology.

The most popular Bible among English Christians at the time was the Geneva Bible, which Puritan scholars had composed in Geneva during their exile from the persecution of Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”) in the 1550s. Its popularity had soared at the end of the sixteenth century because the Bishops Bible of 1568, the Church’s official Bible, had met with derision, As Adam Nicholson observes, it was “pompous, obscure and often laughable.” Instead of the well-known phrase “Caste thy bread upon the waters,” for instance, it gave “Lay thy bread upon wet faces.”

But James could not simply follow the people’s choice, for the Geneva Bible contained extensive interpretive footnotes, many of which were anti-monarchical, denying that kings and queens had the right to rule. Given that in 1598 James had written a ringing defense of the “divine right of kings” to govern in his “True Law of Free Monarchies,” this was an anathema.

The new Bible translation would draw upon the best of these two works, while going back to the best Hebrew and Greek manuscripts then available. It would undergo several stages of review to ensure both accuracy and understandability. It would be both a pulpit Bible and a people’s Bible: pleasant to read aloud and to oneself.

The new translation did not immediately gain acceptance when it was published in 1611. Like the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate and many modern translations, people preferred the versions with which they were familiar. But within a few decades it had replaced the Bishops Bible and surpassed the Geneva Bible. It was brought across the Atlantic and became America’s Bible, both for English churches that came here and the churches that originated here, such as the Mormons.

The King James Version was the dominant English-language Bible for 350 years and had no significant rivals until the Revised Standard Version appeared in the 1950s. Since then, many new translations have been published, but the KJV remains the most popular book in the English language.

In celebration of the 400th anniversary of the KJV, the University of Wyoming is hosting an exhibit and series of six lectures during October. It will open on Sunday afternoon, October 7th, with a talk by Dr. Philip Stine, a former translator and executive of the United Bible Societies, who will discuss the origins and impact of the KJV.

The exhibit is called “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible,” and is located in Coe Library. It was created by the Folger Shakespeare Library , in partnership with the University of Oxford and the Harry Ransom Center, and with support from the National Endowment of the Humanities and the American Library Association.

To accompany this, the Toppan Library of the American Heritage Center is exhibiting Bibles from its rare books collection, and the Albany Country Public Library is hosting a display of Bible translations through the ages. For more information, go to https://uwlibblogs.uwyo.edu/dustyshelves/manifold-greatness-the-creation-and-afterlife-of-the-king-james-bible/.

Note: This post drew from Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, and Philip C. Stine, Four Hundred Years on the Best Seller List.

Paul V.M. Flesher, Ph.D. is the Director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Wyoming. The Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition is on view at UW from October 7-31, 2012.


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