In anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version: A brief review of God’s Secretaries

Frontispiece to the King James Bible, 1611, sh...

Frontispiece to the King James Bible, 1611, shows the Twelve Apostles at the top.

Sorry for the brief hiatus in blog posting—I’ve been off in Atlanta at the Society for Biblical Literature there—to be precise, at a symposium at that conference dedicated to the history of the King James Version of the Bible. Next year is the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the KJV, and scholarly and popular forces are massing to commemorate it.

A friend had written a paper on the history of the KJV (to be precise, a history of opposition to the KJV) but found himself unable to deliver it at Atlanta, and so asked me to go in his place. Among the high points of that visit was meeting Dr. David Norton, author of the forthcoming The King James Bible: A Short History from Tyndale to Today and other books on the KJV. Said a conferee: “In the field of KJV studies, Norton is #1, and there is no #2!” Norton is a gracious Brit now living in Wellington, NZ (of which he showed us a slide—LOTR country sure is beautiful).

For reasons I am not yet, as they say, “at liberty to divulge,” the King James Version of the Bible is my intensive study these days. One part of that has been to read the splendidly readable and informative book by Adam Nicolson: God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (2003). This is still deservedly an Amazon bestseller, as much for its vivid storytelling as its reliability: several scholars at the conference praised it.

So, here’s my quick preliminary review of Nicolson’s book. More later (for example, here: the first of a series of posts containing some delicious quotations from the book):

Here is the British fascination with power and admiration of those who wield it—however corrupt—that is also to be found in Southern’s Penguin volume on medieval church history. There is also a kind of lushness, even dissipation, to Nicolson’s prose at points, reflecting a similar excess in the Jacobean aristocracy, to which the translators belonged and which all the story’s players consorted with.

Nicolson delights in pulling back the curtain on backroom dealings, manipulation of power, depraved behavior and (on the other end of the scale) extreme Puritan self-castigation and self-denial, as well as the grasping, self-indulgent piling up of wealth and creature pleasures by the rich and powerful.

We learn here of the two sorts of Puritan: those tolerated by James’s regime and those not. We find the former in George Abbot (p. 156), made Archbishop of Canterbury: anti-ceremonial, fiercely Calvinist, anti-papalist, and in James’s good graces. We find the latter in various separatists (who looked seditious to James, as for example they had no truck with the “divine right of kings”) tortured, executed, or left to rot in some of England’s worst and most notorious gaols. Among these were the famous (in American history but not British!) Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock.

Another of these separatists was Henry Barrow (pp. 88ff), interrogated in jail by lead KJV translator Lancelot Andrewes and finally executed (p. 93). Nicolson shows Barrow to be a holy man, a man of principle, and Andrewes’ better in some ways (and Andrewes had his own holiness). Yet no man of Barrows’s sort “was allowed near” the most important texts of the KJV translation (154).

The book is filled with, and really finds its gravitational center in, dozens of brief pen-portraits of key players in the “game of thrones” and the serious business of Bible translation. The overall effect is of a variegated web of motives and character traits—many enough of them base—coming together to create something both of its time and transcending its time.

Nicolson tries to make modern readers understand the deep, bedrock reverence of the Jacobeans for tradition and hierarchical authority (and he may even succeed in this difficult task!). For all the Jacobeans’ faults, it is this theologically grounded conservatism–really primitivism–that Nicolson concludes made the KJV the treasure it is. The makers of the KJV saw themselves not as authors, but as secretaries, discharging their obligation to both the church and the Holy Writ that God had created.

3 responses to “In anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version: A brief review of God’s Secretaries

  1. Pingback: The KJV: now and next year « Strengthened by Grace

  2. Gave me an interest in getting a couple of books and following this up.

  3. Pingback: In anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version: A brief review of God's Secretaries | Books in Media

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