On April 6 & 7, 1862, opposing Confederate and Union forces met in the woods and fields of rural Tennessee. The ensuing battle would become the bloodiest to date in the United States. Casualties totaled over 23,000 dead and wounded—more than the number killed during all 8 years of the Revolutionary War. Even today, the Battle of Shiloh conjures up images of intense suffering.
For soldiers facing injury, illness, and possible death, the Bible could be a source of comfort. Bibles were distributed with items such as food and blankets by the Sanitary Commission, a relief organization organized to aid Union soldiers. One prisoner of war, Thomas P. Meyer, received a King James Bible while he was held captive at Belle Island prison in Richmond, Va. Other soldiers inscribed their names or listed battles in which they had fought inside their copies of the Bible, as this short video from the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum shows. The Museum of Biblical Art is currently featuring an exhibition on soldiers’ Bibles from the Civil War to the present day.
While armies fought on the field, orators waged a war of words for public opinion. Two of the most famous abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, both have connections to the King James Bible. A personal copy owned by Douglass is the subject of an earlier post, and Lincoln (and later, President Obama) were sworn in to office on a King James Bible.
Amy Arden assisted in the development and production of the Manifold Greatness website. She is a communications associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
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.
Succumbing to an irresistible urge, we’ve put together this list of the most-viewed posts from our Manifold Greatness blog to date this year. Seasoned online observers may not be surprised that mentions of Elvis Presley, debunked myths, and Bible printing errors earned high viewing statistics.
1) Manifold Greatness at Rhodes College. Folger exhibition curator Hannibal Hamlin reports in this blog post on the recent 1611 Symposium at Rhodes College in Memphis, which also hosted the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition. As he notes, the trip included a keynote address by scholar and Bible translator Robert Alter—and a tour of Graceland, which lent Elvis Presley’s King James Bible to the current Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition.
2) Taking the Stage at Shakespeare’s Glove (and beyond!). The 400th anniversary year of 2011 included countless full-length readings of the 1611 King James Bible, most famously for a full week on stage at Shakespeare’s Globe, described here. We later shared a great eyewitness report from Folger Education festivals project coordinator Carol Kelly, who was there on Easter Sunday.
3) Shakespeare Did Not Write the King James Bible, No Way, No How. Curator Hannibal Hamlin debunks the common, but mistaken, belief that Shakespeare contributed to the King James Bible. In other posts, he’s taken on the idea that the King James Bible influenced Shakespeare’s plays (earlier English Bibles did, the KJB didn’t), and the notion that May 2 is the KJB’s publication date (it isn’t).
4) The King and the King James Bible. Folger exhibition curator Steve Galbraith writes on the King James Bible owned by Elvis Presley (and now displayed at the Folger Manifold Greatness exhibition, as noted above) and Presley’s love of gospel music. Other “association copies” on view include a King James Bible owned by Frederick Douglass and one made for King James’s older son Prince Henry, as well as Bibles linked to Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Anne.
5) The Wicked Bible. The commandment “thou shalt not commit adultery” just isn’t the same without the word “not”! This famous printing error is the subject of another post by curator Steve Galbraith on what may have caused it, the consequences for the Bible printer, and the “wicked” challenge of locating this rare edition.
6) Hallelujah! Handel’s Messiah and the King James Bible. The words of the King James Bible may well be most familiar to audiences today from performances of this familiar oratorio, first noted in this blog post from the April 13 anniversary of its Dublin premiere. Folger Consort artistic director Bob Eisenstein recently shared this fascinating, fresh look at the Messiah, which one early admirer said was worth riding “40 miles in the wind and rain” to hear.
7) Gregory Peck Moby Dick Released Today — 1956. One of many literary works (and subsequent movies) deeply influenced by the King James Bible is Melville’s Moby-Dick, represented in this blog post by the classic film.
8) The First King James Bible in America? This Thanksgiving week post considers the King James Bible that came over on the Mayflower (this Bible, on loan from Pilgrim Hall,is in the Folger exhibition, too!)… and the open question of Bibles in Jamestown.
9) The Bible and Othello. This fall, Folger Theatre produced Othello, first performed in 1604, the year that work began on the King James Bible; scholars believe Shakespeare wrote Othello in 1603 or 1604. Curator Hannibal Hamlin writes about biblical (though not KJB-specific) connections to the play.
10) Discovering a “Judas Bible.” Curator Steve Galbraith writes on about another classic early King James Bible printing mistake—and on making a discovery within the Folger collection as the current exhibition was prepared.
Our thanks to everyone who contributed to the Manifold Greatness blog this year (see this full list of blog consultants and contributors) and to all of you who read our blog and created these rankings, one view at a time! Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible will be open to the public, free of charge, at the Folger Shakespeare Library through January 16. (Holiday hours: The Folger exhibition will be closed on December 24 through 26, but will be open as usual on December 31, January 1, and January 2.)
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.