When God Spoke English: A review of Adam Nicolson’s in depth history of the King James’ Bible. By M. Michael Brady
Of all the great books of the English language, the King James Bible stands out. Not even the collected works of William Shakespeare, who was alive when the King James Bible was published in 1611, can match its influence on the growth and scope of the language. Through the centuries, this book speaks to the mind as no other.
How this came about is the theme of English historian Adam Nicolson’s in-depth account, first published in 2003 by Harper Collins in England under the title Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible. The political background is historical record. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England as King James I. At the time, religion and politics were entwined, and strife between religious factions was commonplace throughout Europe. James immediately set out to stem the strife and thereby unite England.
He was the right man for the task. Baptized Catholic but raised by Scottish Presbyterians, he had been trained from birth to deal with rival political factions. He was an accomplished scholar and the author of works such as Daemonologie, published in 1597. One of his first initiatives as the King of England was to initiate a project to make a new translation of the Bible. His structuring of the project is the first known example of rhetorical teamwork. It assembled a task force from across a quarreling clergy, from the established Church of England to the Puritans.
The goal was not merely the book, as there had been two previous translations into the vernacular, that of 1382 by Oxford scholar John Wycliffe and his followers and that of 1525-1535 by cleric William Tyndale, who had been inspired to the task after visiting Martin Luther at Wittenberg in 1524. This new translation was to uplift and unite. That it did, with phrasings of beauty and godliness that had never before been heard in the street.
The newness was a result of the teamwork that James had initiated. The translators worked in six translation companies, two each at Cambridge, Oxford and Westminster. Their editorial routine comprised working in ledgers, in which drafts were written on the left and comments and revisions on the right. A draft would be read aloud, and a team would listen and comment. That was another first and perhaps the key to the enduring power of the book that still reads like no other.
Aside from the work itself, the translator-writers left few records of their doings. Yet the remnant records might ring true if written today. One translation company quarreled incessantly about language. Samuel Ward, a fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge and a member of the Second Cambridge Company that translated the Apocrypha, left a 95-page, 5 by 6 inch diary, written not about his work, but rather of his penchant for earthly delights. Others left tidbits that have been reconstructed to depict the era and the monumental scope of the task.
This account of the seven-year-long efforts of a group of 47 nearly anonymous, pedantic, self-serving, often drunk divines in creating the King James Bible, Adam Nicolsen has provided a clue as to why English, the vernacular of tribes of quarrelsome peasants living on islands off the west coast of Europe, became a world language.
When God Spoke English by Adam Nicolson, London, Harper Press 2011, 282 page paperback, ISBN 978-0-00-743100-7