The King James Bible: The King's Good Book

Four hundred years after it was first published, the Authorised Version of the Bible remains hugely influential, especially in the US. Derek Wilson examines its origins and its legacy.

The Authorised Version of the Bible was first published 400 years ago. It is one of the bestselling books of all time, but was its remarkable success due to its intrinsic merits or to the accidents of history?

For three centuries, this book has been woven into the life of all that is best and noblest in English history; it has become the national epic of Britain and is as familiar to noble and simple … as Dante and Tasso once were to the Italians … it is written in the noblest and purest English and abounds in exquisite beauties of pure literary form.

It may come as something of a surprise to learn that the above endorsement of the Authorised, or King James, Version of the Bible came from the pen of Thomas Huxley (1825-95), ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, champion of the theory of evolution and the first public figure in Britain to call himself a religious ‘agnostic’. The man who sought to debunk much of biblical ‘truth’ in the name of science was perfectly ready to acknowledge the prime place this book could claim in the development of English culture.

Huxley was far from being alone in his enthusiasm. The critic and social reformer John Ruskin (1819-1900) regarded the work as ‘the one essential part of my education’. And it was said of Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), one of the greatest orators in history, that the Authorised Version of the Bible was so fundamental to his education that he could almost be called ‘a man of one book’. The book which first saw the light of day in 1611 still has its devotees and admirers among believers and non-believers alike.

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