(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

“I was a Translator.” So wrote Samuel Ward in 1614 in listing his qualifications for an appointment to a position in the Church of England. He did not elaborate, and he did not have to. He meant that he had worked on the King James Bible, helping to produce the new translation of the most significant book in seventeenth century England, a translation that turned out to be one of the most influential works ever produced in English.

About fifty translators worked on the King James Bible between 1604 and 1611, and the story of how they produced their translation is told in this book by Adam Nicolson. The story has been told before, for instance by Olga S. Opfell in The King James Bible Translators (1982) and in Alister E. McGrath’s In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible (2001). What distinguishes Nicolson’s account is his attempt to situate the production of the King James version in the context of its time.

Nicolson, like most other commentators, celebrates the King James version of the Bible for its mixture of richness and clarity, majesty and simplicity, divinity and solidity. He sees it as an inclusive, all-embracing work, and he attributes this quality to two factors: the nature of England at the beginning of the reign of James I and the nature of James I himself.

For Nicolson, the early seventeenth century in England was a mixed era, containing apparently contradictory qualities: for instance, the extravagance and luxury of the palaces of Robert Cecil, the king’s chief adviser, and the plainness and simplicity of the Puritan reformers in the Church of England, who called for strict attention to the word of God and even stricter morality.

There was also the Puritans’ individualistic emphasis on a direct, one-to-one interaction with God based on a clear understanding of his words, contrasting with the emphasis of church leaders on mystery and ceremony. Similar contrasts were embodied within individuals: the bishop and translator Lancelot Andrewes possessed both grandeur and humility, while the traits of another bishop and translator, George Abbot, included brutality as well as lyricism.

Into this creative mix came the new king, who ascended the throne in 1603. The king professed to being “for the medium in all things,” and according to Nicolson he pursued a policy of harmony, unity, and inclusiveness. After the Catholic Gunpowder Plot against him in 1605, James turned on the Catholics, and he also persecuted the extreme Puritans, known as Separatists, who would not recognize the authority of the Church of England. He also tried to unite moderate Puritans with the bishops’ party within the church, and one way he did so, according to Nicolson, was to encourage an inclusive, unity-inspiring new translation of the Bible.

As to the actual process of the translation, there is not much to tell. As Nicolson says, because of the lack of surviving documentary evidence, the process remains “something of a mystery.” What is known is that the idea for a new translation emerged at the 1604 Hampton Court Conference, a meeting of Puritan leaders and the church’s bishops, convened by James to try to reach an agreement between the two parties.

In the end, the Puritans got few of the reforms they sought; indeed, James became fairly insulting to them at the conference. However, when one of the Puritan leaders suggested that there be a new translation of the Bible to replace the various earlier ones, notably the Bishops Bible authorized to be used in the church and the Geneva Bible favored by the Puritans, James overrode the objections of one of the bishops and agreed.

Some have seen this as a mere sop to the Puritans from an essentially anti-Puritan king, though that would not explain the continuing interest James took in the project over the next half-dozen years. For Nicolson, who sees James as much less an anti-Puritan than a moderate, the reason the king seized on the idea was that it appealed to his desire for unity: He could encourage a coming together of the warring factions in the Church by producing a single, generally accepted translation of the Bible.

One of Nicolson’s aims in this book is to rehabilitate the reputation of James I, to show that he was not some despotic absolute monarch whose actions...

(The entire section is 1759 words.)