While the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition was at Oklahoma State University, local scholars presented on topics related to the King James Bible and its impact on American culture. Dr. Cristina Cruz Gonzales, OSU assistant professor of art history, provided the opening lecture. After her talk, “King James Bible: Towards a Visual and Transatlantic History,” she shared her insights about the KJB and America. Here’s a recap of the interview.
Why were you interested in joining us to talk on this topic?
Because I’m not an English Bible expert, but I am an expert in 17th century religious material in America, not the United States, but rather Spanish America. The topic seemed strangely familiar. I didn’t know much about it, but I wanted to know more. It seemed that I should know more, and I thought I could approach it in a comparative way that I found fruitful for both myself and the audience.
Did you learn anything surprising as you researched this talk?
Absolutely. I had no idea the author of our American dictionary, that’s Noah Webster, was also an author of an American Bible, and he really pushed his Bible project on an America that was just starting to get into a sort of Bible mania.
You told us about a number of different versions of the Bible. Which one did you find most interesting?
I really enjoy the 19th century versions, these large, lavish, family Bibles mostly because you realize it’s not just about text, but about the materiality and the object-ness of these items. They were kept in American homes on tables as showpieces, so they are not just informing American piety or serving American piety at that time, but also reflecting American taste and what that implies in a secular and non-secular way.
You mentioned a number of Bibles that are arguably more American than the King James. Why does KJB remain the most popular in the US?
The King James Bible was by far the most popular Bible in the late 17th century, and I think that longevity means a lot. If Noah Webster had been born a century earlier and had this wonderful idea and the American Revolution had broken out and it was time to publish an American Bible, maybe his Bible would have taken off. But, by the time Webster comes around, the King James Version is too engrained in early American culture, and Americans aren’t going to give it up.
Misty D. Smith is an Assisstant Professor and Catalog Librarian at the Edmon Low Library, Oklahoma State University.
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.