The King James Bible, a New Nation, and Noah Webster
A post about the Folger Institute’s recent King James Bible conference by Adrienne Shevchuk, program assistant to the Folger Institute, recently appeared on the Folger Shakespeare Library blog, “The Collation,” and we wanted to share some excerpts here. Adrienne has a master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies, with particular interest in film adaptation. You can read her full Collation blog post here—including a fascinating anecdote about Ben Franklin’s playful ways with the King James Bible.
As part of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, the Folger Institute hosted a conference bringing together scholars from across the United States and the United Kingdom to discuss the effect of this Bible on social, cultural and political societies of early Stuart England and colonial America.
The breadth of discussion in the conference, entitled An Anglo-American History of the KJV, took us far beyond the king’s castle and our New England and Virginia roots, however, demonstrating how the language of the KJV was disseminated throughout the various regions and cultures of the United States, including its translation for the native Cherokee nation as well as its role in the lives of slaves and later emancipated African Americans.
The keynote speaker to kick off the conference was Jill Lepore, novelist, professor of American history at Harvard University, and a contributing writer for The New Yorker. Professing, humbly, to know more about psittacosis, or parrot fever, than the KJV, Professor Lepore nonetheless presented a packed theater with an early American reception of the KJV that was quite different from the one it received on its home turf.
That is, while it could be argued (and was throughout the first day of the conference) that James himself wasn’t zealous about the distribution and use of the 1611 version over all others, allowing for a lukewarm dispersal and reception in Britain, colonial and postcolonial America grappled with the KJV, either accepting it into religious life or expelling it completely. Forbidden by decree to print Bibles, colonists had to bring their Bibles with them, or order them from England. However, in 1775, when British imports were banned, Americans began printing Bibles on their own.
Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, preferred that some of the wording of the KJV be expelled not just from his house, but from all of America. A religious man, Webster would provide America with its very own dictionary—a distinctly Christian dictionary at that. He also felt that America needed its own language (we can thank him for saving us from the likes of the anglicized “favour,” “theatre,” and “mimick”). Webster described some aspects of the language of the KJV as “ungrammatical,” “filthy,” and interestingly enough, “obsolete.”
His edit of the KJV turned out to be a failed endeavor. In spite of that, however, Professor Lepore’s witty and informative lecture described a patriotic man and a young country, desperate to step onto the world’s stage away from the shelter of the British colonial umbrella, on its own terms and with its own language.
Professor Lepore’s talk is now available as a Folger podcast.
For more about the 1782 Aitken Bible (also called “The Bible of the Revolution”), Noah Webster’s edit of the King James Bible, and more, see the Historic American Bibles image gallery in our Manifold Greatness website.
Adrienne Shevchuk is the program assistant to the Folger Institute.