The King James Bible in African American Churches

Dr. Virgil Wood and his African American Jubilee Edition of the King James Bible

The following comes from the essay “The KJV’s Influence on African Americans and Their Churches,” by Cheryl J. Sanders, in Translation that Openeth the Window, ed. David Burke.

[On the KJV in American Churches generally, see here.]

Here is a scholarly African-American author who is also pastor of her Church of God assembly (a Pentecostal church) reflecting on when and why she chooses to use the KJV in worship services:

“When celebrating the Lord’s Supper or baptizing believers by immersion, we always tend to use the KJV language, even in paraphrase. We say, “This is my body, which is broken for you,” “This cup is the new testament in my blood,” and when we baptize, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Somehow, it seems that special dignity and grace are added to these symbolic rituals of the church when we use this language, especially for a church that does not have a book of discipline or a prescribed liturgy for these observances.” (144-145)

There is one more ritual accompanied by reading from the KJV in Sanders’s church:

“Once a year, when we observe the third ordinance of the church, the washing of feet, the ritual is always preceded by the reading of the passage from John in which Jesus explains and institutes the practice: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” ( John 13:14).”

Other situations seem to call for the KJV in Sanders’s African-American Pentecostal setting:

“Because so many people are familiar with the language and poetic elegance of the KJV Bible, I tend to use it in situations calling for pastoral comfort and consolation, such as serious illness, death and dying, and funerals. In our worship services we devote considerable time to hearing requests for prayers for the sick. We often cite James 5:14-15 for explanation and encouragement when we anoint and lay hands on the sick for healing: ‘Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.’” (145)

Note the rationale here: “Because so many people are familiar . . .” The KJV is still the Bible of choice for solemn and public occasions because its language is both solemn and stately . . . and so well known among so many people.

There is, in short, both something familiar and something special about the KJV in African-American churches that makes it the first choice for important occasions and public expressions of Christian identity. “Whenever we have special celebrations in our church, such as Women’s Day, Men’s Day, Ushers’ Day, or the church’s anniversary, we usually identify a theme and a Scripture text for the occasion to be displayed on our signs, banners, and bulletins. More often than not, the specific wording of these themes and texts reflects the distinctive language of the KJV.” (145)

More objectively, Sanders offers the following evidence: Bibles published especially for African-American use seem always to offer a KJV version:

“In recent years, several African American devotional and heritage Bibles have been published in KJV editions with the intention of providing worship resources for black Christian readers and black churches. Among these are the Original African Heritage Study Bible, edited by Cain Hope Felder; the African American Devotional Bible, developed by the Congress of National Black Churches; and the African American Jubilee Edition, King James Version, a publication of the American Bible Society. With the exception of the Original African Heritage Study Bible, these Bibles are available in one or two other translations, yet the fact that each offers the KJV signifies the ongoing importance of this translation for targeted African American audiences.” (146)

Powerful, in a section titled “KJV Bible Influences on African American Religion and Society”:

“The best-known abolitionists among the slave population, most notably Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, David Walker, and Maria Stewart, each advocated for freedom using word and thought steeped in the language and imagery of the King James Bible.” (149)

Also powerful:

“The impact of the KJV on the prayers, songs, and sermons of the African American churches is widely acknowledged. James Melvin Washington’s 1994 collection of African American prayers, Conversations with God, provides the most comprehensive and convincing evidence of the impact the KJV has had on the religious life of African American Christians. Washington gathered prayers from a broad range of primary sources spanning two centuries, including manuscripts and transcripts of actual prayers from worship settings and hymns, poems, and excerpts from sermons and other documents retrieved from public and private worship.”

“It seems that each prayer in the anthology is informed by the language and imagery of the KJV; God is typically addressed in terms of ‘Thee,’ ‘Thou,’ and ‘Thy.’

From the eighteenth to the twentieth century, the prayers of African Americans have come to voice using the distinctive lexicon of praise and supplication found in the KJV Bible. Even Washington’s own afterword, ‘A Scholar’s Benediction,’ dedicated to his friend and colleague Cornel West, manifests this biblical language, as it begins: ‘Thou who grants clarity, thank you for permitting us to have access to the archives of Thy grace and truth.’”

Sanders cites Walter F. Pitts Jr., an anthropologist and linguist, who “did extensive fieldwork in black Baptist churches of rural Texas” and concluded that “the biblical language he discerned in the expressive rituals of the Afro-Baptists is the result of the effectiveness of the plantation missionaries who instilled biblical [that is, most often KJV] English in the black vernacular of the nineteenth century.” (150)

She summarizes the abovementioned section like this: “The KJV is not merely quoted in the prayers, songs, and sermons of the African American churches—this biblical language and imagery flows from the hearts and lives of believers at prayer, in praise, and in prophetic ministry, as evidence of the impact of the Bible’s message on changed and committed lives.”(151)

And her conclusion to the chapter:

“The King James Bible has been cherished by generations of African American Christians as a source of comfort, inspiration, empowerment, and prophetic insight. Its language and imagery continue to undergird fervent prayers, inform sermons and lessons, and stimulate creative expression in art, music, drama, and other modes of cultural performance. While I predict that modern Bible translations will be increasingly appreciated by African American churches for their usefulness in teaching the content of the Christian faith and the hip-hop versions embraced by outreach-minded ministries for relevance if not accuracy, I am convinced that the KJV will hold its own as a significant spiritual landmark for people seriously seeking justice, redemption, and liberation in the twenty-first century.” (151)

3 responses to “The King James Bible in African American Churches

  1. The King James Bible has, by no means, “seen its best days.” I seriously doubt that a women of Ms. Sanders calabar and love of Gods’s Word have joined the likes of people who think like Louis.

  2. She demonstrates a great knowledge of the impact the KJV has had on African American Christians in the past. This is much the case because it was the preferred translation of the masses. When attempting evangelism and Church instruction in the 20th to 21st century the KJV has been somewhat of an hindrance. The language is foreign to most African Americans and is not helpful when an updated word would suffice. I too was raised on the KJV and cherish its history among us, but like me, the author will come to realize soon that it has seen it best days in the past. People and certainly African Americans just simply do not talk like that.

  3. Pingback: The King James Bible in African American Churches | Grateful to … | The African American Black Blog Directory

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