God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible – Those in Power Shaped the King James Version to Reflect Their Political Interests
Once, naively, I believed that the Bible existed in one form, a bound version of exactly what God said, handed to human beings. As I grew up, I learned this was not the case, that there existed several different versions of the Bible. What’s more: the people who read (and followed) the Bible felt THEIR version was the correct one. This has always seemed strange to me, as I always felt that words are words—how could someone disagree on what is in the Bible? Couldn’t they all be traced to the same ancient (non-English) source?
Once I came to understand how and why people arrived at their particular Bible version, I never spent any time thinking about how that particular Bible version came to be. Was it the product of one person working through a text, translating those ancient stories into our language?
I don’t know how every Bible version came to be, but Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries makes it clear that the King James version was not only the product of a large committee, but the members of that committee—each tasked with translating a unique Bible section—were deeply influenced (perhaps you might say coerced) into shaping their content in a particular way.
It appears then as now, what becomes the truth relies on the version those in power dictate.
King James had good intentions with this project—apparently both the Geneva Bible and Bishop’s Bible (popular editions at the time) had a number of problems. But, in undertaking this project, he had to appease so many different political (and religious) interests. How could this NOT impact the result? For example, the Puritan reformists wanted to overhaul the Church of England in order to “rid it of the last vestiges of Roman Catholicism,” thereby bringing closure to what they saw as the horrible English Reformation (34). Their target: Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, which apparently embodied “the English Compromise between Protestant language and Catholic Ceremonies” (35). Basically, they took issue with the ceremonies, which they saw as muddying God’s word (36).
And since this faction was growing louder and bolder with their wishes, they would need to be appeased in this new translation. Were they? Yes, as James was no idiot in understanding why. So compromises were reached. In general, a leader’s ability to reach compromise shows maturity and open-mindedness. However, in this case, you’re using the word of God as something that can be compromised. So herein lies my confusion. If you’ve read the Bible, you know that God said, on more than one occasion: don’t mess with my words through distortion, etc. But if you negotiate what something says—choosing an interpretation over a translation, they did just that.
I’ll discuss some specific examples of things that were changed in my next post. For now, I want to consider another way in which power was misused in this process.
Andrewes’ use of power was not limited to the Bible translation. When Andrewes finally returned from his country seclusion—avoiding the plague—he was incensed that a person would accuse him of being immoral. Specifically, Andrewes’ absence was noticed by an “angry pamphleteer” Henoch Clapman, who denounced Andrewes for abandoning his parish. Did he have something to feel guilty for? Clapman chided. But power has always seemed to win out, and Clapman was imprisoned for speaking the truth. He was only released after 18 months when he recanted, settling on a compromise. As this ridiculous announcement made clear: there were actually TWO! Forms of the plague (32).
The first was a “worldly” plague, against one should take precautions to avoid (like Andrewes) and the other was non-infectious, a “stroke of an angel’s hand” (31). Sadly, there was no mention of how one was supposed to tell them apart. I’m sure though that religious hypocrites like Andrewes, who preached about his own blemish-free virtue from the pulpit but neglected his pastoral duties if he had to get his hands dirty, would likely have claimed to know which was which—the poor, marginalized people of society clearly suffered from God’s wrath while rich, powerful people like him were mere victims.
However, the degree to which this ultimately shaped the negotiations as the translations unfolded—what really happened behind closed doors—is missing from Nicolson’s book. This was really disappointing to me, for it’s the main reason I wanted to read the book in the first place. As Nicolson mentions, though, this is not the author’s fault—any notes that detail what happened are lost to history. So, in effect, we’ll never know. All we can do is guess based on what we think of the King James version. Still, it’s hard, ultimately, to levy judgment against a particular person—or any combination of them, really—without proof. To do so otherwise would be wrong.
There’s an expression in the restaurant business that if what you can see in a restaurant is dirty—in the bathroom, on the tables, in the service area, at the hot line—then what you can’t see is worse. Why mention this here? In the case of this Bible translation, if we know of dishonest abuses of power as well as power influencing the direction of the translation, how much power was used in parts we don’t know about? After all, one of the disappointing parts of Nicolson’s book is when he mentions that the accounts of the meetings where specific Bible parts were discussed and debated have been lost to time, we’ll never know what else can shed light on this text. In light of that, how much can we trust is genuine?