Bible Battles: King James vs. the Puritans
Why would a Bible translation have this effect? The answer lies in the character of the national English Church, the Anglicans, which derived from two important events in the 1530s.
First, John Calvin began preaching in Geneva. His increasingly popular ideas argued that all aspects of the Catholic Church had misled Christianity. From its theology and Bible to its hierarchy, ritual and pageantry, the Church needed to be reformed. He left the Catholic Church to form a new one following his teachings.
Second, King Henry VIII of England also broke with the Catholic Church in the 1530s. He was not interested in reform or even in theology; he just wanted a divorce. Since the Pope would not give him one, Henry declared that the English church would become independent, with himself as the Church’s head.
It was not until Queen Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter who ruled from 1558 to 1603, that the Anglican Church underwent reform. Elizabeth set a tone of compromise early in her reign. The English would adopt some of Calvin’s theological positions, but they would keep the hierarchy and much of the ritual. The end result was a church with both Protestant and Catholic characteristics.
While many liked this compromise, there was a growing number who did not. These people became known as the Puritans. They did not like the compromise but wished instead to follow Calvin’s lead in banishing all Catholic elements from the church. They wished to “purify” Anglicanism.
The Puritans had their own Bible translation, the Geneva Bible. Not only was it small, and therefore inexpensive, but it also had extensive notes that explained biblical passages using Puritan theology. Since this Bible was the only book many people owned or read, it was effective in winning people over to Puritan theological beliefs and keeping them there.
Although most of the notes were innocuous or “merely” radical Calvinist theology, other notes argued against current political and religious structures. In particular, Calvinism believed in neither the divine right of kings to rule, a belief strongly promoted by James, nor that the church should be governed by bishops, but rather by presbyters elected by congregations. The former angered the king, while the latter incensed the Anglican hierarchy.
To combat this subversive Bible, James and the bishops decided to create a new Bible translation. James authorized the new translation with a decree that included several guidelines for the translators. The most significant of these was the command to have no notes in the text (apart from short remarks about translation from Hebrew or Greek). This stricture prevented remarks linking the biblical text to unwanted theological perspectives and political positions.
After the King James Version was published in 1611, the Geneva Bible was banned in England. Indeed, James made ownership of it a felony. The King James Bible became the pulpit Bible for Anglicans and inexpensive copies were published for sale to the masses. At first, it was not very popular; several of its early publishers went broke from poor sales.
The King James Version began to gain popularity only when different publishers began to add explanatory notes to the text, in direct opposition to James’ expressed wishes. Indeed, the KJV became the most popular Bible version in twentieth-century America when a set of notes written by Cyrus I. Scofield was added in 1909 and then revised into the Scofield Reference Bible in 1917. These notes promote the theology of dispensationalism, based in part on Calvinist theology that James rejected, and have helped promote that theology’s popularity, just as the Geneva Bible promoted Puritan theology.