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 June, 2011

Gregory Peck Moby Dick Released Today – 1956

On June 27, 1956, the film of Moby Dick was released. Directed by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart as Ahab and Ishmael, the film was released by Warner Brothers Studios. The screenplay, more faithful to Melville’s novel than other early film versions, was co-written by Huston and sci-fi author Ray Bradbury. At around the same time, Orson Welles had been thinking of making his own film of Moby Dick, but he gave up the plan on hearing about his friend John Huston’s project. In recompense, Huston gave Welles the memorable part of Father Mapple. From his ship-shaped Nantuckett pulpit, Mapple gives a powerful sermon on Jonah, the biblical book so important to the story of Moby Dick.

“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters–four yarns–is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a poignant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-handed lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God.”

For more on the influence of the King James Bible on Moby Dick, see “Literary Influences” on the Manifold Greatness website.

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

Words, Words, Words

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.

Happy Birthday King James I!!

James I. Miniature, ca. 1620. Folger.

Happy Birthday King James! James I of England, whose birthday is this Sunday, June 19, is the “King James” of the King James Bible. He became King James VI of Scotland at the age of one in 1567, after his mother, Mary (Queen of Scots) was forced to abdicate. Mary was implicated in the death of her second husband (and cousin), Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, James’s father. As retold in novels, plays, opera, and films, Mary herself was imprisoned, and eventually beheaded, by her cousin (once removed), Elizabeth I of England. When Elizabeth died in 1603, James inherited her throne. One weirdness in this succession is that James inherited the crown from the queen who executed his mother, but since Mary was likely involved in the murder of his father, he probably had mixed feelings about her death.

When James came down from Scotland, his new English subjects were naturally concerned about their new king’s religious views and the future of church organization and worship in England. To settle matters, James convened a conference in January of 1604 at the palace of Hampton Court. Though it was not on the agenda, the project for a new translation of the Bible originated in these discussions.

Despite popular misconceptions, James himself had little to do with the translation, apart from setting it in motion,and providing it with royal sanction. (The translators prominently dedicated it to him, too.) He was a learned monarch, deeply engaged with theological questions, and he wrote a number of metrical versions of Psalms. But his learning was not up to the level of the translators.

Map of Christian's journey from Pilgrim's Progress

His one area of contribution to the translation was in shaping the guiding principles for the translators (written by Archbishop Richard Bancroft), especially in the decision to avoid marginal interpretative notes. Such notes had been a popular feature of the Geneva Bible, but a number of these, written by Protestant exiles during the reign of Queen Mary, were sharply critical of monarchs. The King James Bible, as it came to be known, was to be free of such a radical taint. Little did James know that the Bible he sponsored would become the Bible of the radicals John Milton, John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress, right), and William Blake, as well as of America, the British colonies that threw off their king to become a democratic republic.

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

Shakespeare and the KJB on the American Frontier

American tragedian Edwin Booth as Iago in Othello, 1869 (detail). Folger.

I continue to find it astonishing that the two books often said to be found in American log cabins were the King James Bible and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In so many ways both books—the quintessential literary expression of a small island kingdom at the beginning of the seventeenth century—seem out of place on the American frontier with its rough and tumble values and its hardscrabble life. Yet perhaps it is just in such challenging circumstances that these two books would offer the powerful imaginative stoking that otherwise bleak lives require.

Shakespeare doesn’t offer a direct view of the beginnings and ends of Creation, yet his works are replete with versions of heaven and hell and with characters who imagine themselves under the eye of God. Think of King Lear on the heath, calling on the all-shaking thunder to “strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world!” or Iago comparing himself to devils who “will the blackest sins put on” or the guilt-ridden Macbeth recognizing that the “taking-off” of the good King Duncan is a “deep damnation.”

The gorgeousness of Shakespeare’s figurative language differs greatly from the magisterial plainness that the King James Bible translators aimed for, yet we often forget that some of the most striking effects in the plays come from the plainest of locutions—Hamlet’s despairing words to Ophelia, “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” or the hunch-backed Richard’s bitter self-description, “I have no brother, I am like no brother” or Prospero’s enigmatic, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

So, let me take back my astonishment: if I were in a log cabin, I would be happy to have a warm fire, a bubbling pot of stew on the stove, and these two books to keep me company. A person could do much, much worse.

Gail Kern Paster is the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The recently opened Folger summer exhibition, Fame, Fortune, & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio, continues through September 3; it will be followed by the Folger exhibition of Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, opening September 23. For more about Shakespeare in American culture, see the Folger website Shakespeare in American Life.

Of Presidents and King James Bibles: Ronald Reagan

Ronald and Nancy Reagan with Jane Weinberger, chair of Folger trustees, at the Folger 50th anniversary. Photo: Bruce Wodder

Ronald Wilson Reagan, who died on June 5 in 2004, was one of numerous American presidents sworn in on a King James Bible, a tradition begun (as noted in an earlier post) by none other than George Washington. In Reagan’s case, as in many others, the Bible in question offers us something of a snapshot of American social history and family life, or at least the life of a particular family.

The Bible Reagan used, plainly visible in an inauguration photograph in the Historic American Bibles feature of the Manifold Greatness website, was his mother’s Bible. A relatively slender, much worn copy, it is known today as the Wilson Bible after the maiden name of his mother, Nelle Wilson Reagan. President Reagan used the same Bible for both of his inaugurations, and also spoke about it in a Mother’s Day radio address in 1983.

To make sure it was a King James Bible, rather than another English Bible translation, we checked with the curators at the Reagan Presidential Library. We were delighted when they quickly e-mailed us a scan of the title page, which confirms its use of the “Text of the Authorized Version,” another term for the King James Bible, and provides other interesting details as well.

Clearly meant as a family Bible (“for every home,” as stated on the title page), this King James Bible was published by John Dickson Publishing Company of Chicago under the title The New Indexed Bible. Like many family Bibles sold for the purpose, it included numerous additional educational features, including not only the promised indexes—biographical, geographic, historical, and “teaching”—but pronunciation guides and photographs of biblical locations. (For more on the phenomenon of family Bible publishing in the 1800s and early 1900s, see our feature on Family Bibles.)

As with many family Bibles, however, what was apparently most treasured were not those extra features included by the publisher, but rather the handwritten notes added over time. Of this Bible, President Reagan said in his radio comments, “it has its flyleaf filled with important events, its margins are scrawled with insights and passages underlined for emphasis. My mother, Nelle, made all those marks in that book.”