We rightly revere the Declaration and the Constitution, and study their influence on America, but we shouldn’t slight the absolutely indispensable influence of another document on our history — the King James Bible.
We take reading the Bible in English for granted, but it was something that, once upon a time, had to be fought for.
Catholic religious and secular authorities fiercely resisted vernacular translations of the Bible. Prior to the English Reformation, attempting to translate it into English involved considerable risk to life and limb. Only the incredibly brave, and thoroughly committed, would attempt it.
Someone, in short, like William Tyndale. He left England for the Continent to work essentially as an outlaw, hoping his translations would be smuggled back into England as samizdat. Tracked down by the authorities in Antwerp, he was gruesomely executed for his offenses.
Tyndale’s dying prayer was that God would open the king of England’s eyes. Henry VIII had once deemed possession of English-language Bibles a crime. After the Reformation, he approved the publication of the Great Bible — so called because of its physical heft — and enjoined parish priests to display a copy “in some convenient place within the said church that ye have cure of, whereas your parishioners may commodiously resort to the same and read it.”
The English became a Bible-soaked people. The availability of the Bible and the emphasis on it for direct access to the word of God put a premium on literacy, and England became a highly literate society by the standards of the day. The act of reading the Bible impressed on people their own dignity, a revolutionary spark that wouldn’t be extinguished. They were also exposed to the Old Testament notions of nationality and a chosen people, which came to have such a central role in English and American history.
On our shores, the Geneva Bible favored by Calvinists initially dominated (a version of it is sometimes referred to as the “breeches” Bible for its strikingly modest version of the story of Adam and Eve, who, having discovered their nakedness, “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves breeches”).
The first copy of the King James Bible may have been brought over by the ship’s carpenter on the Mayflower. This translation won out and came to occupy an unparalleled place in the culture. Families often didn’t own any other book. It would be passed down in wills.
As the historian David D. Hall writes, “no book was read more often or in so many different ways: privately in silence, aloud in households where reading may sometimes have proceeded ‘in course’ through the Old and New Testaments, and in church services as the text for Sunday sermons.”
It wasn’t until the Revolution that the Bible could be legally published in America, and the floodgates opened to an insatiable market. By around 1800, the traveling Bible salesman and author Parson Weems (he gave us the story of George Washington and the cherry tree) could boast to his publisher of all the editions he was moving: “I tell you, this is the very season and age of the Bible. Bible Dictionaries, Bible tales, Bible stories — Bibles plain or paraphrased, Carey’s Bibles, Collins’ Bibles, Clarke’s Bibles, Kimptor’s Bibles, no matter what or whose, all, all will go down, so wide is the crater of public appetite at this time.”
The English-language Bible existed to be read and was thus a spur to printing and education, especially in New England. The Puritans shipped over a printing press at the first opportunity. It arrived in 1638. John Winthrop recorded that “the first thing printed was the freemen’s oath; the next was an almanac made for New England by Mr. William Pierce, mariner; the next was the Psalms newly turned into verse” — the bestselling Bay Psalm Book.
The King James Bible suffused American oratory and literature for centuries, from Lincoln and King, to Melville and Faulkner. In 1911, upon the 300th anniversary of its printing, the journal The American Review of Reviews called it “essentially our national book.” John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon all quoted it in their inaugural addresses.
“The great influence of the King James Version in American history,” the scholar Mark Noll has said, “came precisely because it was so widely available; because precisely its words, and what the words communicated, had entered so deeply into the consciousness of so many Americans, and particularly of otherwise voiceless Americans.”
Any account of the history and formation of our nation that doesn’t include a central place for the Bible is woefully inadequate or frankly dishonest.