Timothy Larsen: When the KJV was king
The 1611 version of the Bible in English was a cultural touchstone for believers and nonbelievers for hundreds of years. What has replaced it? ‘The Brady Bunch.’
September 27, 2011 | As a teenager in the late 1980s I attended a three-day rock music festival that was held deep in farming country. Around a campfire with my peers one night someone suggested that we should try to name all the episodes of “The Brady Bunch” we could remember. This entertained us for well over an hour.
It was an exhilarating, magical moment for me. Here was a cultural resource that I shared with apparently absolutely everyone my own age without even having been aware of it. It was a kind of generational literacy.
But one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh. For most of the last four hundred years the common cultural currency of the English-speaking world was not the perky antics of a California blended family but the King James Version of the Bible. It appeared in 1611 and is therefore celebrating its 400th anniversary.
It was an unspeakably rich and paramount blessing that the central societal touchstone for generations was nothing less than the Word of God.
The KJV was the standard school textbook, and it was quite typical for children literally to learn to read with it. Catherine Booth, who would become famous as the co-founder of The Salvation Army, for example, had read the entire KJV eight times by the age of 12.
The words of the KJV therefore ran deep in the veins of every person. There was a mass culture that did indeed follow the directive: “And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deuteronomy 11:19 KJV).
It was remarkably common across the religious spectrum to have daily personal and household devotions that consisted primarily of reading the KJV.
People today might think of this as usually a marker of evangelicalism, but it is apparent to me from my historical research and life experience that a higher percentage of Unitarians, Quakers or Anglo-Catholics read the Bible daily in the 19th century than even evangelicals do today.
Moreover, even those who became so disillusioned or unorthodox as to give up on corporate worship altogether often persisted in daily Bible readings.
The first serious attempt to replace the KJV -- the Revised Version, which appeared in 1885 -- met with popular resistance, leaving the KJV to continue to dominate well into the 20th century.
As denominations began to proliferate, the KJV became even more central, with religious leaders of all stripes using it to reassure people that they were just presenting what “the Bible says” and not using a new or different translation as a way of rigging a theological issue in their favor. It was simply the received text in English -- our common Bible. Hence, the British began to refer to it as the “authorized version,” to emphasize that the text had not been tampered with.
This meant that virtually all major writers and orators -- irrespective of whether they were religious -- made allusions to the text of the KJV in the confidence that their audience would grasp them.
A rakish poet such as Lord Byron, for example, was not known for his firm doctrinal convictions or his personal piety. But one of his most famous poems, “She Walks in Beauty,” was originally published in “Hebrew Melodies,” a volume of his verse that had as its unifying theme the songs and narratives of the Old Testament.
Pick up an annotated edition of any Victorian novel and you will find notes about its biblical references that the author doubtless never anticipated would need explaining. This is no less true for the agnostic George Eliot or for Charles Dickens, who disliked dogmatic Christians, than it is for more explicitly Christian authors.