King James Version celebrates 400 years
Thursday’s exhibit at the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library was biblical in scope. In celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, the library hosted a tour of USC’s collection of rare historical Bibles, the centerpiece of which was a King James Bible version dated 1611, its first year in print. The King James is the most well-known and reprinted of English translations.
When Queen Elizabeth I died heirless in 1603, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. The next year, James met with Puritan religious leaders at Hampton Court Palace, where he ordered a new English translation to promote stability.
“The Puritans were very anxious when they got a Scottish king in, and they thought they could push the [Protestant] Reformation a bit further,” said Patrick Scott, director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections for University Libraries. “The impetus for it was political rather than religious, though it had this great religious and cultural effect.”
At least 50 scholars worked for seven years on the monumental translation, which in half a century became the dominant English translation. Today, Christians in the “King James Only” movement accept no substitute.
Thursday’s exhibit also traced the evolution of the holy work before and after the King James version, from the medieval Latin Bible in manuscript, to the medieval Bible in English, to William Tyndale’s earliest printed English Bible, to Renaissance translations by Erasmus, to the Geneva Bible translated by Protestant exiles, to the first complete English Bible printed in America.
Standouts of the gallery included leaves from the Coverdale Bible, the first complete Bible in modern English, a copy of the first American edition of the King James Bible, a 1608 Bible believed to have been brought to America by a pilgrim father, a first edition of the Rheims New Testament and a 1685 edition of John Eliot’s Indian Bible.
John R. de Witt, pastor emeritus of Columbia’s First Presbyterian Church, spoke at the event about John Wycliffe and William Tyndale’s earlier struggles to produce an English translation of the Bible against intense Catholic opposition. And, of course, he extolled the King James Version.
“If you were to ask me — but I’m terribly prejudiced, I’m an unashamed snob in some areas — if you were to ask me what Bible is the best one to read, I would say the King James Bible,” de Witt said. “Now I’m not a ‘King James Bible Only’ person — that’s an ignorant position to adopt — but it is so magnificent and so faithful at almost every point that I would not want to do without it. I’ve had to make do with other versions sometimes. When I was minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, I had to use the New International Version, except when I couldn’t stomach it.”
De Witt read and compared several passages of the Bible in different translations to convey the King James Version’s superiority.
“It just is possible that the King James Version is the influential book in all the history of the English-speaking peoples,” de Witt said. “It taught them all, it instructed them all, it enriched them all.”