You may have noticed that Hannibal Hamlin’s recent post on Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, and the King James Bible began “Happy Birthday Walter!” And with good reason. As we look back on the Manifold Greatness blog since its own birth announcement on March 15, 2011, birthdays and other anniversaries have been an enormous help to us in tracing the origins and cultural influences of the 1611 King James Bible, from its time to the present day. Many of our posts have been quite different, of course, with no anniversary connotation. But again and again, we’ve found that anniversary dates are a welcome and frequent part of the mix.
A special date, like Whitman’s birthday, not only gives a blog post an easy-to-understand reason for appearing when it does; it often means that there will be other links and resources elsewhere for readers to explore on the same day on the same topic. For our blog, paying attention to such dates has also created, in effect, a real-world immersion in the width and breadth of the King James Bible’s influence, so that we find ourselves noting the anniversary of the first Battle of Manassas (Bull Run) one day, the death date of reggae superstar Bob Marley another day, and the death of King James Bible translator John Rainolds on yet another. Others in an almost endless list of examples include the anniversaries of the reading from Genesis from Apollo 8 in lunar orbit, the death of William Blake, and the death of Elvis Presley.
Anniversary dates can be tough deadlines, too. Behind the scenes, we’ve occasionally found ourselves scrambling to create a post on or near belatedly discovered date. Steve Galbraith produced that post on the anniversary of Bob Marley’s death in a matter of hours; Helen Moore, at the Bodleian, wrote the Rainolds tribute in very short order; and, quite recently, Hannibal Hamlin marked the rarely noted anniversary of the death of Casiodoro de Reina, a crucial early Spanish Bible translator, with just a few hours’ notice. For all of which and more, many thanks to all three!
King James Bible-influenced poems, songs, movies, television shows, and other creative works have anniversaries to celebrate, too, from the release of the 1956 film version of Moby Dick to the debut of the Byrds’ Turn, Turn, Turn. Handel’s Messiah has given rise on this blog to posts on Handel’s birthday, the anniversary of the oratorio’s original Dublin premiere, and the modern custom of performing it in the days before Christmas rather than during Lent, the period before Easter. Christmas and Easter, of course, are among the annual holidays—religious and secular, fixed-date like Christmas and moveable feast like Easter—that we have marked on the blog, too, which has also included posts tied to Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving, among others.
Ultimately, the impulse to celebrate anniversaries led to the entire Manifold Greatness project, inspired by the 400th anniversary of the 1611 King James Bible, and to countless other projects around the globe in the anniversary year of 2011. But the same impulse has also inspired a modern King James Bible myth. The natural desire to link the King James Bible to a specific date, as well as to the year 1611, has led to the widespread, but false, idea that the King James Bible was first published on May 2, one of several King James Bible myths debunked on this blog over time.
King James himself, of course, is inevitably linked to several anniversary dates, including the date of his coronation. On June 19, 2011, we first wished him “Happy Birthday, King James!” You can wish him the same next Wednesday, as June 19 rolls around once more.
As we approach Thanksgiving, perhaps thinking of those Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower and feasted with the Indians, we might think about the English Bibles they brought with them. (We ought to note, though, that despite the popular myth about the Pilgrims founding Thanksgiving, it was actually Abraham Lincoln who fixed the official November date after the Civil War. The Pilgrims had a feast of “thanksgiving” in 1621, but it was hardly the state holiday we know today.)
As the hotter, more godly variety of Protestants, the Pilgrims used the Geneva Bible. It was far the most popular English Bible until the mid-seventeenth century, but especially so among those termed Puritans, given its associations with Calvinist Geneva. John Alden, however, brought a copy of the King James Bible printed in 1620. Though Alden became a prominent member of the Plymouth Colony, he wasn’t originally a member of the Pilgrims, but rather the ship’s carpenter on the Mayflower. This may explain why he carried the KJV.
Alden’s 1620 KJV may be the first copy of this translation on American soil, but it’s impossible to be certain. The Roanoke Colony was settled long before the KJV and the colonists had disappeared by 1590. Jamestown was founded in 1607, again too early for the KJV. The first colonists probably brought Geneva or Bishops’ Bibles.
The question is, were copies of the KJV brought to Jamestown between its first printing in 1611 and the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620? Alden Vaughan, professor emeritus at Columbia University, informs me that there was considerable traffic across the Atlantic in those years, and it might yet be possible to determine whether Bibles were part of the cargo.
On the other hand, as Kenneth Fincham pointed out at the Folger Institute conference in September, English churches did not immediately purchase that KJV when it was hot off the presses. Within a few years most London churches acquired copies, but in other dioceses churches were using the Bishops’ Bible, the Geneva, or even the Great Bible, well into the 1630s and 40s. It all depended on whether presiding bishops were keen on the idea.
So who knows what happened in Jamestown? That’s a story waiting to be told, if we can ever find out enough to tell it! For now, we’ll remember the King James Bible John Alden brought over on the Mayflower, which is now on display in the Great Hall at the Folger, and which after January will return to its permanent home at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth.
Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.