In 1611, English explorer Henry Hudson, his son John, and six members of the crew faced a mutiny and were set adrift around what is known today as Hudson Bay and were never heard from again. William Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, was performed for the first time at Whitehall Palace in London. Denmark attacked neighboring Sweden. Two scientists discovered sunspots.
But probably the most significant event of the year, and perhaps in the last half-millennium, has nothing to do with science, exploration, international relations, or theater—though it has much to do with English literature. It is the May 2, 1611, publication by printer Robert Barker of a new Bible translation. Hardly anyone except a few specialists remembers Barker's name in connection with the project, however. The name that has come to be inextricably linked with it is that of its royal patron, James, addressed by the translators as the "most dread Sovereign."
In their dedication to the King James Bible, the translators declared their purpose: "the blessed continuance of the preaching of God's sacred Word among us; which is that inestimable treasure, which excelleth all the riches of the earth; because the fruit thereof extendeth itself, not only to the time spent in this transitory world, but directeth and disposeth men unto that eternal happiness which is above in heaven."
Called the Authorized Version because it had received the royal imprimatur, what we call the King James Version, or KJV, had a reach that extended down from heaven and did much to transform the earth, touching both prince and pauper. "No other book of any kind ever written in English, perhaps no other book ever written in any other tongue, has ever so affected the whole life of a whole people has this authorized version of the Scriptures has affected the life of the English-speaking peoples." Thus said Teddy Roosevelt, and the president with his visage carved on Mount Rushmore can be forgiven if he understated the matter just a bit.
In his fascinating survey, The Legacy of the King James Bible, Wheaton College's Leland Ryken quotes George Lindbeck of Yale as saying, "… most people in traditionally Christian countries lived in the imaginative world of the Bible." The only Bible most of them knew was the KJV. "The text above all texts was the [King James] Bible. Its stories, images, conceptual patterns, and turns of phrase permeated the culture from top to bottom." The "bottom line," Lindbeck noted, was that "Christendom dwelt imaginatively in the biblical world."
In the centuries since 1611, the King James Bible profoundly shaped Western culture. While other translations came to the fore and gained a following—such as the American Standard Version—the KJV remained the ultimate standard. Ryken notes, for example, how its melodic and peculiar cadences continued to find their way into the speeches of presidents and other world leaders. One scholar analyzed Lincoln's moving Gettysburg Address and said that 269 of its 272 words appeared in some form in the King James. The address, this scholar noted, is "overwhelmingly biblical." Churchill, responding to Chamberlain's acquiescence to the Nazis, declared in perfect King James style in the House of Commons, "Thou art weighted in the balance and found wanting."
When I was a new Christian back in the 1970s, the KJV's dominance, though slipping, remained in place. Uncertain about which translation to select to nurture my nascent faith, I stepped inside a now long-gone Christian bookstore in Boca Raton, Florida. I asked the lady behind the cash register for help. We looked at the several versions available on her shelves. One had this feature to commend it, another that. There was no clear leader in my mind, and so I fell back on the King James, which had stood the test of time.
I plunked my money down on the counter and carried away my copy, a red-letter edition clad in aromatic burgundy bonded leather, with a matching ribbon marker, a handy thumb index, and with explanatory articles, color maps, and a concordance in the back. It was published by Eyre and Spottiswoode Limited, London, and Zondervan.
While eventually I moved on to easier and more accurate modern English translations (such as the NASB, the NIV, and, now, the ESV), I still have that first Bible and in fact am reading through it this year (I'm currently in 1 Kings), in honor of the KJV's quadricentennial. While some of the archaic terms (such as caul, kine, and matrix) have sent me scrambling for a concordance or dictionary, others find a special resonance in my heart, such as Joshua 1:7: "Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it [to] the right hand or [to] the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest."
All in all, reading the King James has not only given me a refreshing (albeit challenging) perspective on God's Word. It has also reminded me that I am part of a movement that spans centuries and cultures—in short, that I belong to something much bigger than myself.
And it's clear that a lot of Christians agree with me. According to the CBA trade group, the King James remains enormously popular. Despite the proliferation of translations and all the recent momentum of the ESV and the refurbished NIV, the KJV is the No. 2 Bible in terms of dollar sales, and No. 3 based on the number of copies sold.
While evangelicals generally conform to David Bebbington's description of the essentials of the faith, in the main our movement is fragmented. What do Willow Creek and a struggling rural congregation have in common? Not a lot. We are a divided lot along the lines of race, class, music, theology, social ministry—even Bible translation. This is doubly so when we include mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox.
That's why I have a modest proposal for this 400th anniversary. On an agreed upon date, perhaps May 1, let's come together for a King James Sunday. We can prepare our people ahead of time and use the KJV in our services as a tangible reminder that we are united in a tradition of having God's Word in our own language, and that we can approach God as equals. Perhaps we could start with this passage:
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us (Baker Books). Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.