The King James Bible has been called the world’s most influential version of the most influential book in the most influential language. It is the Bible that travelled with British imperialism into the various dominions, and a newer version of that same Bible can be found in hotel rooms across North America.
When George Washington was sworn into office in 1789, he made an oath on the King James Version Bible. Every American president since – with the exception of John F. Kennedy who was a Catholic – has followed suit. And its influence on the English language is undeniable – Moby Dick and Martin Luther King’s speeches were infused with the language of the KJV, and when Linus takes to the stage to tell Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about in the holiday special, he quotes from the Luke Gospel in the KJV. (“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”)
It’s been 400 years since its first publication in 1611. And even if it’s not as prevalent a part of the lives of the younger generation in an increasing secular world, the English language owes a debt to the King James Bible.
A brief history
When James I took the English throne in 1603, the Geneva Bible was the most popular version. King James liked the scholarship in the Geneva, as did the Puritans, but the Bible had a decidedly anti-royal stance. In 1604, the king commissioned a new Bible that would be driven by scholarship, accessible to the common people, and drop the anti-royal margin notes. This Bible would eventually become the only literary masterpiece written by a committee.
Even after the first copies of the KJV rolled off the press in 1611, the English stuck to the tried and tested Geneva Bible. The KJV has many errors, after all: Leaving out a rather crucial word, the famous Wicked Bible, an edition of the KJV published in 1631, suggested “Thou shalt commit adultery” to the faithful and said that God showed “His great asse” instead of his greatness. By the mid-17th century, newer editions that lacked the mistakes began winning over the hearts of Christians.
The King James Bible in Canada
The University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has several copies of the KJV, including one first edition that initially belonged to Lord George Stephen, the first president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, who was born in 1829.
This pulpit version is around 10 inches wide and weighs about 20 pounds. The university has several copies of the KJV, including a Wicked Bible, said P.J. Carefoote, a curator at the Fisher library who helped mount an exhibition on the 400th anniversary of the KJV in June.
It took more than three centuries before the KJV was first printed in Canada at Toronto’s Ryerson Press in 1943. “That always surprises people, I find,” said Mr. Carefoote, adding “but that’s because the Crown held the copyright for it.” In fact, translations of the KJV were printed in Canada phonetically with the Roman font in aboriginal languages, such as Mohawk and Ojibway, in the town of York (as Toronto was known), before the English-language version.
Not that it stopped Canadians from buying American printed editions of the KJV. William Lyon Mackenzie, who would later become the mayor of Toronto, cautioned citizens in a poster published in 1827 that the copyright was held only by the British Crown and smuggled “Yankee Bibles” were illegal in Upper Canada.
The Dort Bible
In 2002, the town of Invermere, B.C., made headlines when the Anglican-United church community decided to sell its second edition of the King James Bible for $40,000 to help the needy.
“It’s in remarkably good condition and has wonderful woodcuts,” said Very Reverend Michael Rice, who was the pastor of the Christ Trinity Church in 2002. “We used to read from it on the pulpit for special occasions and the readers would wear gloves to preserve the pages.”
This rare 1613 “Dort Bible” was named after the Dutch village where it found a home during the 1700s. It had been bought in 1681 for 25 shillings by a “non-conformist” English minister, who fled the British Isles when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritians ruled England.
After several trips around Europe, the Bible was moved to Hamilton, Ont., and eventually brought to Invermere in the hands of Harold Ernest Forster, a rancher and an MLA in B.C., between 1912 and 1916.
“When you think of the journey of this Bible, it’s really quite remarkable what all it has survived,” Very Rev. Rice said.
Eventually, bowing to the pressure of the town’s matriarchs, the town decided to not sell off the rare bible, he said.
Among the phrases now common in the English language that have been adopted from the King James Bible:
Turned the world upside down – Acts 17:6
A man after his own heart – 1 Samuel 13:14
From time to time – Ezekiel 4:10
How are the mighty fallen – 2 Samuel 1:19
Fell flat on his face – Numbers 22:31
Set thine house in order– 2 Kings 20:1
Pour out your heart– Psalms 62:8
A thorn in the flesh– 2 Corinthians 12:7
As a lamb to the slaughter – Isaiah 53:7
The blind leading the blind – Matthew 15:14
A law unto themselves – Romans 2:14
Put words in one's mouth – 2 Samuel 14:3
Set your teeth on edge – Jeremiah 31:30