King James VI & I and the Bible

Chapter 1: Background

The King James Authorised Version of the Bible is the best-selling text ever written in English. The elegance of its language, the majesty of its prose when read aloud, and the influence it has had on the culture of the English speaking world is unrivalled.

But it has also been a political tool, both at the time of writing and through the ages. In the four hundred and twelve years since it was first published it has been loved, hated, revered and reviled. Today, it tends to be heard on high-days and holidays: the generation born in the 1960s was probably the last to hear it as part of everyday life in school assemblies or in church. With few Anglicans attending church regularly, and the majority of services using the Revised English Bible of 1989, it is fading from our culture, but leaving aside religious belief, the King James Bible deserves to be appreciated as a magnificent work of literature.

The genesis of the idea sprang from the Hampton Court Conference convened by James VI & I in January 1604. Its purpose was to reconcile the Puritan wing of the Anglican Church to the mainstream.

The Anglican Church, in the Book of Common Prayer of 1552, as amended in 1559 and enforced by the Acts of Uniformity and Subscription, laid down rules about matters that were described as ‘indifferent’, that is, there were no specific instructions in the Bible about them. The Church authorities wanted the rules about ‘indifferent’ matters to be observed, so that there was uniformity of worship, considered to be vitally important. The Puritans, on the other hand, objected to indifferent matters that were not specifically in the Bible. James believed that he would be able to reconcile these conflicting views. With an immense belief in his own erudition, he thought that he would be able to convince the Puritans that they should follow the rules.

The major bones of contention were over ecclesiastical dress, the use of rings in wedding ceremonies, Confirmation, the presence of the crucifix and other matters that the Puritans believed were essentially Catholic practices, from which the Church ought to be purified.

In addition, there were concerns that the Sabbath was not properly observed, that the clergy were not sufficiently educated to teach their flocks and that pluralism (the holding of more than one position or ‘benefice’ in the Church) was rife. All of these matters were to be addressed.

The majority of the English Puritans, unlike the Presbyterians in Scotland, did not want to change the structure of the Church, although there was a hard core who did. The governance of the Church in England was ‘Episcopalian’ that is, it was led by a hierarchy of bishops (ebiscopus in Latin, which is derived from Greek episkopos, which may also be translated as overseer).

Bishops had existed in the Church for centuries and it was believed that they were the direct spiritual descendants of the Apostles. When a bishop was consecrated, he underwent the ceremony of ‘laying on of hands’ – that is, other bishops laid their hands on him to transmit the link from the Apostles – ‘Apostolic Succession’. In England, Apostolic Succession was unbroken, as the first Reformation Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, had been instituted as a bishop in the traditional format, as had Matthew Parker, Elizabeth’s first archbishop.

Before the Reformation, bishops were appointed by the Pope, usually on the basis of a recommendation by the monarch, or other influential figure. After the Reformation in England, bishops were appointed by the Crown. It was thus a system of control of the Church from the top.

The Presbyterians saw this as Catholic superstition and believed that the early Church was led by ministers and elders selected by the congregation, and that that should be emulated by contemporary Christians – it was an important tenet of their belief that Church members should approve those in authority, who would represent their congregations at ‘Presbyteries’. This organisation had been implemented in Scotland by the 1560 Confession of Faith, and by the First and Second Books of Discipline.

For monarchs, such ideas were a dangerous flirtation with democracy – in the sixteenth century considered the equivalent of mob-rule. For James, the strength of the Presbyterian movement in Scotland had been a thorn in his side – so far as the Scottish Kirk was concerned, he was not more important than any other member and ought to be guided by the ministers and the General Assembly. James proclaimed his view of Presbyterianism with the words ‘it agreeth as well with monarchie as God and the devil.’

At the Hampton Court Conference, James would deal only with the moderate Puritans, refusing to involve the ‘brainsick and heady preachers’. Thus, the four divines representing the reformers, Dr Reynolds of President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford; Laurence Chaderton, Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge; Thomas Sparks and John Knewstubs, were friends and colleagues of the Archbishop, John Whitgift and his eight bishops. All of those involved were Protestant, in that they rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation and embraced the principle of justification by faith alone. No Catholics were invited to attend, as, according to the law, all Catholic priests had been banished from England (with the minor exception of those ordained before the death of Mary I in 1558, 46 years before).

After heated and acrimonious debate, in which some points were agreed (mainly regarding pluralism and the need for an educated clergy – hardly contentious), Dr Reynolds opined that he wished there were ‘one only translation of ye byble to be authenticall and read in ye churche’

Title page of a 1613 edition of the King James Bible