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.
As the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition gets ready to open to the public this Friday, a host of related Folger programs and events are on the way—right away—from this Saturday’s family program to concerts and plays, a major conference, lectures and conversations, and much more!
First out of the gate, this Saturday morning at 10 am, is a Folger family program in the Folger’s “Shake Up Your Saturdays!” series, tailored specifically to the King James Bible. Registration is required, but admission is free. To quote the organizers: “During the reign of King James I, Shakespeare wrote some of his best known work, including the witchy Macbeth. Join us to learn about the translation of the most famous book in the world, and how it still affects us today!”
But that Saturday wake-up call is just the beginning. Next week, the Folger Consort, the resident early music ensemble of the Folger Shakespeare Library, is holding an early music seminar on September 28 that considers its upcoming concert, A New Song: Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible.Concerts take place September 30 through October 2.
And at just about the same time, the Folger Institute—a consortium of 41 colleges and universities and the Folger Shakespeare Library—hosts a major academic conference on An Anglo-American History of the KJV, September 29 through October 1. Jill Lepore, a noted scholar and staff writer for The New Yorker, kicks off the conference with her keynote address, “KJV in the USA: The King’s Bible in a Country Without a King.”
And that’s just next week! Looking ahead:
On October 4, Folger director Michael Witmore introduces and moderates a conversation with former three-time US poet laureate Robert Pinsky inspired in part by the Manifold Greatness exhibition (the event is part of Folger Poetry’s prestigious O.B. Hardison Poetry Series, named after a former Folger director.)
On October 18, it’s the premiere of the Folger production of William Shakespeare’s Othello, written and performed about the time that King James came to the throne—more about that closer to opening night! We could go on (and there are already more events scheduled for November and December…) but you get the idea.
We’d love to have your family join us for Shake Up Your Saturdays! this Saturday morning. Just don’t think for a moment that there isn’t much more to come, for every audience and age.