Washington, DC, the home of the Folger Shakespeare Library, is reveling in the National Cherry Blossom Festival (March 20 to April 14) as the Japanese cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and elsewhere are now approaching their glorious but short-lived “peak bloom.”
We thought we’d revisit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, first discussed in this blog post by Manifold Greatness curator Hannibal Hamlin around the time of the memorial’s original (but storm-delayed) dedication in August 2011.
Martin Luther King often quoted from the Bible, including the King James Bible, in his speeches, including a line from Amos evoking a time when justice runs down “like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” You can see that quotation in the inscription here from a 1955 speech in Montgomery, Alabama. And yes, those are cherry blossoms at the top of the picture!
Over the past year and a half of the Manifold Greatness exhibit’s continuing travels, some of the Manifold Greatness host sites have included special events that touched on King’s use of the King James Bible as well as the connection between the King James Bible and the black church tradition. For more examples of the role of the King James Bible in American public life, you may want to explore the Modern Life image gallery on our Manifold Greatness website.
The King Memorial is located directly on the Tidal Basin, which is encircled by those blossoming Japanese cherry trees. King’s statue looks across the water at the Jefferson Memorial, which has its own historic associations with the King James Bible. One of Thomas Jefferson’s post-presidential projects was to assemble, from scripture, an account of Jesus’ teachings that excluded supernatural elements, producing what he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. You can see one passage in the Historic American Bibles image gallery on the Manifold Greatness website, or learn much more about it at the Smithsonian’s Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, which includes a complete online facsimile.
In between the Jefferson and King memorials along the edge of the Tidal Basin is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Unlike many American presidents, however, Roosevelt does not offer us a simple King James Bible connection through his inauguration ceremonies. Franklin Roosevelt followed the tradition of being sworn in on a Bible, and he used the same one for all four inaugurations (he had also used it when he was sworn in as governor of New York in 1928 and 1930). But it was not the King James Bible. Roosevelt was sworn in on his family’s 1686 Dutch Bible (scroll down to see photos), the oldest Bible used at any presidential inauguration to date, and the only inaugural Bible in a modern foreign language, Dutch.
The traveling exhibit Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife appears next in mid-April at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky; the Tifton Museum of Arts and Heritage in coordination with the Tifton-Tift County Public Library in Tifton, Georgia; and the Hays-Heighe House at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland.
Last week, a new adaptation of the King James Bible titled the Queen James Bible attracted considerable media attention. A statement on the Bible’s website notes “The Queen James Bible seeks to resolve interpretive ambiguity in the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality.” Its editors have changed 8 verses: Genesis 19:5, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude 1:7, amending each to remove anti-gay language.
One of the claims made on the Queen James Bible website is that James I, the royal sponsor of the King James Bible, was called “Queen James” during his lifetime due to his public affection for other men. While James did have many male favorites, including Robert Carr and George Villiers, his sexual preferences remain ambiguous. There is no historical evidence that James was referred to as “Queen James” by contemporaries, although one epigram noted “Rex fuit Elizabeth, nunc est regina Jacobus” (Elizabeth was King, now James is Queen). However, the epigram is apocryphal. Furthermore, whether the epigram is a comment on his sexuality, or the difference in governing style between James and his forceful cousin, remains unclear. James and his wife, Anne of Denmark, had 7 children, although only 3 of them reached adulthood. In addition, Anne suffered several miscarriages. Within a few years of his marriage, James also became romantically linked to Lady Anne Murray, a Scottish noblewoman.
Whatever James’ sexual orientation may have been, the King James Bible is one of the definitive achievements of his reign, and its legacy continues to inspire Bible translation and interpretation today.
It will be tough to say goodbye to the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition after this Monday (in the words of Juliet, “Parting is such sweet sorrow”)… but we hope to see you before it goes!
The Folger exhibition is open today (Saturday), Sunday, and Monday; admission is free. And we’re delighted to have started the last weekend of the exhibition with brilliant sunshine.
Some of the many “don’t miss” items now on display in the Folger exhibition include:
• An Anglo-Saxon manuscript from about the year 1000 that retells biblical stories in epic verse
• A rare Wycliffite Bible from the 1380s
• A 1530 fragment from William Tyndale’s contraband biblical translations, discussed by Hannibal Hamlin in this post: Tyndale was executed in 1536
• Queen Elizabeth’s 1568 Bishops’ Bible
• A Bodleian copy of a 1602 Bishops’ Bible annotated with translators’ changes
• The Folger first edition of the King James Bible
• The Prince Henry Bible, an elaborately bound copy of the King James Bible owned by James I’s older son, Prince Henry, who died in 1612
• A “Wicked” Bible (1631) in which the printer omits a key word from the commandment on adultery
• A King James Bible that came over on the Mayflower
• King James Bibles owned by Frederick Douglass and Elvis Presley
• Early family Bibles, with century-old handwritten records of births, christenings, and other events, including the Hamlin Family Bible
And what story does it all tell? In the words of the Washington Post from last September:
The exhibition includes fascinating mysteries, epic battles, stake burnings and other enthralling episodes in the lives of the men involved in Bible translation. It covers the events that led to the birth of the King James, as well as the book’s influence on art, literature, popular culture, music and history—from Handel’s “Messiah” to the reading of Genesis by the astronauts aboard Apollo 8, a broadcast heard by a quarter of the people on Earth at the time, making the Bible’s reach literally astronomical.
The New York Times (also in September) put it this way:
Pay close attention to the major new exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library here, “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible,” and you will see not only manuscripts going back to the year 1000, an early translation from the 14th century, Queen Elizabeth I’s copy of the Bible, and imposingly bound versions of the King James; you will also sense the gradual birth of the modern English language and the subtle framing of a culture’s patterns of thought… you cannot survey the riches at the Folger without realizing that you are being given a glimpse of a culture’s birth.
In his recent blog post about an American Civil War POW’s King James Bible, curator Steve Galbraith noted “the long reach of the King James Bible and how much history was covered by our one exhibition.” Another reminder of those historical KJB associations comes this weekend, with the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday on Monday and Dr. King’s actual birthday on Sunday. Curator Hannibal Hamlin wrote about Martin Luther King and the King James Bible last August, and King is recognized in the Folger exhibition as well. On Monday, the exhibition’s last day, the Folger Shakespeare Library also offers a free, family-friendly event for the King holiday on the theme of protest. And once again, the King James Bible of 1611 traces its connections to the present day.
The Bodleian’s Manifold Greatness exhibition closed its doors on Sunday 4 September, with visitors still savouring their chance to encounter its exhibits right up to the last moment. The final attendance figure was 58,024 – a record for a Bodleian exhibition – and the whole team here is delighted at the response the exhibition has drawn. Many local people have enjoyed the chance to learn more about Oxford’s connections with Bible translation – from Wyclif, to Tyndale, the KJB translators, and beyond – and early in the exhibition’s run this connection was given a slot on the prime-time local TV news. The exhibition has also been covered in the Oxford Times and on BBC Radio Oxford. Visitors have been drawn from all over the globe, and comments have been left in the visitors’ book in many different languages. The meeting of different cultures and languages through the act of Bible translation was one of the themes of the exhibition, and so it is very apt that the exhibition itself should have become a place of so many local, national and international encounters with the story of the KJB.
Helen Moore is Fellow and Tutor in English at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. She chaired the Oxford ‘Manifold Greatness’ curatorial committee.
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.
Over the weekend, British media announced that Prince Charles contributed two verses (Genesis 1:1-2) to The People’s Bible, a handwritten Bible being produced in the UK in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.
Although the KJB translators probably had little idea that their text would still be used by members of the royal family centuries later, they did choose their words carefully. In some cases, the translators made adjustments to previous English versions of the Bible. For example, William Tyndale, one of the first people to translate portions of the Bible into modern English, rendered the first verses of Genesis like this:
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water.
In the King James version, the verses appear like this:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
In fact, for many readers, the version of the verse as it appears in the King James Bible has become the standard and other translations sound odd. In the Bishops’ Bible, produced in 1568, Isaiah 60:1 reads: “Get thee up betimes, and be bright, for thy light cometh, and the glory of the Lord is risen up upon thee.”
While it may be a stretch to imagine such language resounding from a pulpit today, the Bishops’ Bible remained a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and her personal copy is in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. With the “Compare Translations” feature, it is easy to note differences in the language of the King James Bible and earlier translations and see how much has changed-or not-over the years.
Amy Arden is a Communications Associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library and assisted in content development for the Manifold Greatness website.