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.

A New Bible Translation is Born

Hampton Court Palace, Middlesex, UK/ The Bridgeman Art Library

Hampton Court Palace, Middlesex, UK/ The Bridgeman Art Library

Less than a year after becoming king of England, James I met with clergy from the Church of England on January 14,  16, and 18, 1604 at Hampton Court Palace. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the state of the Church itself. While the Church of England was the established church, initiated by Henry VIII in 1533 after he broke from the Roman Catholic Church, religious practice was not uniform throughout James’ kingdom. James believed that getting all of his subjects on the same page, religiously speaking, would support his own authority.

Although some of the clergymen present at the conference hoped to succeed in further reforming aspects of the Church of England, such as removing the Book of Common Prayer and arguing against church hierarchy that privileged bishops over lower-ranking clergy. To their disappointment, King James had no desire to support a reformist agenda. He did enjoy theological debate, however, and vigorously participated in discussions with the conference attendees. In this regard, James was very unlike his predecessor Queen Elizabeth I, who famously declared, “There is only one Christ, Jesus, one faith. All else is a dispute over trifles,” and generally avoided prolonged discussion of religious issues.

On the second day of the conference, John Rainolds, a leading theologian and President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, directly addressed the king. Unlike the majority of clergy present at the conference, Rainolds had Puritan sympathies. He hoped to convince King James to reform what the Puritans perceived as abuses within the Church of England. James did not grant these requests. In fact, at one point, the king grew so angry with Rainolds that he left the room. It was from these less than auspicious beginnings that the King James Bible translation was conceived.

Although King James rejected many of the requests made by John Rainolds and the other Puritans, he did agree to one of Rainold’s suggestions; specifically, a new translation of the Bible in English. James believed that the project would unite the various factions of clergymen by giving them a common project to work on. He was also convinced that a new Bible translation, free from commentary that supported either Catholic or Puritan dogma, would bolster the authority of the monarchy and create greater religious harmony among his subjects.

While King James did not play a personal role in creating the translation that bears his name, John Rainolds did. A group of translators met in Rainold’s rooms in Oxford, and Rainolds remained deeply involved in the project until his death in 1607. After years of work by dozen of men in three different locations, the King James Bible was printed in 1611. The rest, as they say, is history.

Click here to watch a short video about the process of creating the King James Bible.

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.

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