Religion Today

Friday, October 05, 2007

Bible Battles: King James vs. the Puritans

King James VI of Scotland was raised as a Presbyterian. Even though his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been a Catholic, he was baptized by a Calvinist figure no less prominent than John Knox, sent by John Calvin to Scotland. You would think that when James ascended to the English throne in 1603 that he would have been sympathetic to the English Puritans, for their beliefs also derived from Calvin and his teachings. Instead, within a year of becoming King James I of England, he initiated a project which would attack the Puritans. This project was a new Bible translation; he called it the Authorized Version, but in America it became known as the King James Version.

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.


  • Can you please give me documented evidence that King James banned the Geneva Bible?

    By Blogger David, at 2/22/2008  

  • Dear David,
    This is fairly common knowledge, at least among historians. UnfortunatelyI returned the books I was using for this column to the library, but you can find the information online. Several sources appear if you Google "Geneva Bible James banned". One site appears at:

    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 2/23/2008  

  • King James I of England did NOT call the 1611 Bible "The Authorized Version". That title was later applied to it be Englishmen, not because a King authorized it, but because it was authorized of God. It was not known as the AV until after King James died.

    By Blogger Luke, at 6/25/2008  

  • Dear Paul,

    I have always believed that James authorised the King James Bible and hence its name, until recently when I did a close study for the essay I recently wrote on this subject. However, in this it became clear that he did not authorize this but that he wished a new translation of the English Bible and agreed to it after the Hampton Court conference in January 1604, which he argued with both the Anglican Bishops and the Puritans as to the merits of the Church of England and a new translation. It seems on the recommendation of John Reynolds from the Puritans he did agree as a compromise and the New Bible was born.

    He also wished a new Bible as he did not like the Geneva because its notes showed that kings are not above the laws of God, and that in certain things it is alright to disobey the King and obey God first. James believed in the divine right of Kings and the Geneva showed by its notes that this is unlawful. James wanted a Bible without such notes and saw the Geneva as seditious. He only authorised it in so much as it was to be the official Bible in parish churches, but it was never popular in England as it had put James in the place of God. England was Puritan at this time and the Geneva was a Bible for the people. The King James had to make sure that the Geneva was 'banned' or made less popular for it to become the replacement.

    The King James was modified and the beauty of the language made it the most popular Bible in England. Although the Geneva was the first Bible in America, the 18th century would see the King James replace it there as well.

    A very interesting and sacred battle took place, but I am not sure that the best Bible won. I have seen the Geneva and although I admire the beauty of the King James, for its Godliness, I know which I prefer.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/01/2009  

  • Great article. I found it very helpful. Do you know why James included in his instructions to the translators the statement that they were to use standard ecclesiastical terms; e.g. "church" instead of "congregation"? I've not found the use of church instead of congregation in the Geneva Bible (eg. Ephesians Chapt. 5; only the Tyndale bible. Why did James make a point of including this in his instructions to the translators if the ecclesia was not being translated as "congregation" in the Geneva Bible? Does anyone have a theory??? Thanks. --Byron

    By Blogger Country Pastor, at 7/31/2011  

  • Hi,
    I'm wondering if anyone has an idea as to why King James included in his instructions to the translators the rule that they translated ecclesia as church rather than congregation in as much as the Geneva never used "congregation" (e.g. Ephesians 5). This was used only in the Tyndale. Was there a concern that the translators might revert to the Tyndale translation??? Thanks for any light you may be able to shed on this for me.

    By Blogger Country Pastor, at 7/31/2011  

  • Dear Country Pastor,
    Sorry, but I don't know the answer to your question.


    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 8/01/2011  

  • There is no factual account (really) as to whether King James instructed Bancroft to retain the translation of ecclesia to "church". This issue has been escalated to discredit the credibility of the KJB. The fact that the Geneva Bible also has the word "church" for ecclesia means that the word "church" has been around for usage for the English people long before the translation work for KJB began. This refute the wrong notion that the word "church" was invented and retained to favor the hidden agenda of King James and the Anglican church.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11/28/2011  

  • Hi All,
    The Geneva Bible translates "ecclesia" as congregation. It was Tyndale and the Matthews Bible which translated it as congregation. This was a big issue in terms of church polity. As King of England, James would naturally wish to preserve the polity of the "church" as did his predecessors dating back to Henry VIII. The Geneva Bible was eventually effectively "banned" but this was long after the reign of King James. The bibles were competitors because of style and tradition and because the Calvinist margin notes were preferred by "congregationalists"--because of their Calvinist and strongly anti-Catholic flavor, not because of the translation of "ecclesia" which was not an issue as both the KJV and Geneva Bible departed from Tyndale's use of "congregation" in translation.

    By Blogger Country Pastor, at 11/29/2011  

  • Thank you for the information. I just learned about the difference between Roger Williams' view of Christianity -- NO OLD TESTAMENT -- and that of the Puritans -- I assume they include Old Testament. I wonder if you know more about the history and conflict over whether or not OT is essential to Christianity.
    Another question -- it seems to me that 1847 discovery by archeologists of artifacts like Cyrus Cylinder and Epic of Gilgamesh with stories of the Flood, and the recognition that numerous other stories that are in OT are predated by stories from Sumer, Akkad, etc., must have been tremendously disturbing to Jews AND Christians. How can it still be claimed that the bible is the "revealed word of god" if its stories are iterations of much older tales from very human sources?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/07/2012  

  • Dear Anonymous,
    Actually that is incorrect. Williams did believe in the Old Testament. He certainly had views about its relationship to the New Testament, and those views often led him to view it as secondary to the New.

    The Marcionites of the 2nd and 3rd century are the main group known for denying the validity of the Old Testament for Christianity. The Council of Nicea considered their views to be heresy. I do not know of any other major Christian movement or leader who did not consider the Old Testament part of the Bible, especially after the Canon was essentially completed by the end of the fourth century.
    Prof. Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/07/2012  

  • Thank you. Care to tackle the second question?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/08/2012  

  • Well, I am definitely the wrong person to answer this question. I cannot remember if I ever thought that the Bible was the "revealed word of God" in the meaning that you impute to that phrase.

    The Bible is a collection of books (a library) that were composed at different times by different people for different reasons. Even if God dictated these books through the writers' minds and hands (which I do not believe), they would have been cast in the grammar, word choice and concepts understood by the people of the time. So the Cyrus cylinder and the Gilgamesh Epic simply indicate that the biblical books were composed in the historical and cultural context of the time. Nu? (as they say in Yiddish)
    I hope this addresses your question,
    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 3/08/2012  

    A quote:

    The only class of men who can historically explain the
    term Christiani is the great Basilian and Benedictine
    confederacy. The word is their own coinage. The
    Koran knows nothing of Christiani. A fresh and
    exact rendering of the book is sorely needed in the
    interests of literary science.

    When we come to the Koran with minds disabused
    of the Mediaeval dishonesty, we find that the book is
    nothing less than the original Bible, i.e., the source
    of those legends of Origins which have been retold
    by the Eabbins in Bible and Talmud. It is also the
    source of the Catholic legend of Mary, mother of
    Jesus, or, in their altered version, Mary, mother of
    God. As this subject is so utterly misunderstood, we
    subjoin a brief outline of the oracles of the Koran
    and the connected Chronicle.

    Pages 134-136 , Chapter THE TRADITIONS OF THE MOSQUE, in THE RISE OF CHRISTENDOM, EDWIN JOHNSON, M.A. , Professor of Classical Literature in New College, S. Hampstead
    More at:
    Islamic Foundations of European Civilization

    By Blogger Ehsan Butt, at 12/15/2014  

  • If you read the preface of the translators to the readers, they tell you flat out they changed congregation to church, washing to baptism. It is also in the King's guidelines for the translators.

    By Blogger chonodomarius, at 1/05/2016  

    • REALIZE THIS - Actually the King James Version was never authorized. Authorization was done by Parliament which was headed by the King. Although Parliament authorized the Great Bible and the Bishops Bible, it never authorized the KJV. Was it dishonest to say it was authorized when in fact it never authorized by parliament the same as the two previous authorized Bibles? Instead, King James authorized the KJV himself. Many people back then thought this Bible was the third Bible authorized by parliament when in fact it was not. Regardless, who said any government or worldly king can authorize a Bible. Oh, I almost forgot, King James appointed himself as head of the church. At least the Pope was selected. Many people today deny the power of the Pope, but blindly endorse the power of King James to authorize a Bible.

    By Blogger Haas Bible Power, at 5/17/2016  

  • 2 Timothy 3:16-17

    16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

    By Blogger Henry Lowery, at 5/15/2017  

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