|The Hampton Court Conference|
The biggest impact that King James had on the Church of England—and perhaps even of English culture way beyond the Established Church—is the edition of the Bible which he commissioned and which was first printed in 1611 and which is popularly known as “The King James.”
This was not the first English language bible. Bits and fragments of the Scriptures had been put into the various vernaculars of Anglo-Saxon England as far back as Bishop Aldhelm (d. 709) and the Veneable Bede (d.735). Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (d. 899) had portions of the Pentateuch, including the Ten Commandments put in Old English. He also had about fifty of the psalms translated from the Latin Vulgate. England’s Protoprotestant, John Wycliffe, produced an English translation of the Vulgate in the late fourteenth-century. It is slavishly faithful to the Latin text even when, much like Pope Benedict’s current Missal, the borrowed syntax makes the English unintelligible. Because it was translated from the Vulgate and not the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), later Protestant authors such as Tyndale and Coverdale ignored Wycliffe’s work, but Catholic translators preparing the Rheims Douai translation (1582) however borrowed considerably from it.
The English reformer and Protestant martyr, William Tyndale, published an English version of the New Testament in 1525-26 and the Pentateuch in 1530. When Tyndale died in 1536—execution by strangling at the hands of the (Catholic) Emperor’s executioner to whom he had been betrayed by agents of Henry VIII who, though he broke from Rome, had no use for Protestants—the work was not yet complete. Tyndale’s translation betrayed several strong Protestant biases. For example the Greek εκκλεσια was translated as “congregation” rather than “Church” to de-emphasize the scriptural roots of the Church as institution. Similarly the word πρεσβγτερ (presbyter from which we get the English word “priest”) became “senior,” and the phrases “to do penance” became “repent.”
Myles Coverdale was authorized by Henry VIII (after the break with Rome) to produce an English language bible. This book was published in 1538 and is often called “The Great Bible.” Coverdale drew heavily on Tyndale’s work, but avoided the problematic vocabulary choices that did not fit Henry’s Catholic (though not Roman) biases. While in exile in Geneva under Queen Mary (Bloody Mary) Coverdale collaborated on a more Protestant translation in English, the Geneva Bible. This is the translation used by John Knox, William Shakespeare, John Bunyan and John Donne and it served the Church of England well for over fifty years. It would continue to be used by the Puritan party—because of its Calvinist bias in translation—and would be the first English language bible brought to America first to Jamestown and later to Massachusetts Bay on the Mayflower.
The Geneva Bible pleased the Puritans, but the High-Church party was not overly happy with its Reformed bias and neither was King James. Remember James did not like the Puritan approach to the Church as James saw the link between episcopacy and kingship: “No Bishops, no King.” Within six months of his coronation, James summoned a conference at Hampton Court where it was agreed that a new translation, freed of the Puritan bias against “The Church” and its bishops, be prepared.
This decision marks a very important development in the Church of England. In Elizabeth’s day Calvinism and the Puritan faction within the Church of England that held rigidly to Puritan doctrines were allowed pretty free rein in determining the direction of the Church of England. A “High-Church” party, more minded towards both Armenianism and a more Sacramental worship had smoldered beneath the surface of the Church of England but could not make much progress in balancing the rabidly Protestant direction of the Puritan controlled Church. (Armenianism taught the doctrine of free will as opposed to Calvinism’s double pre-destination by which a person had been determined by God from all eternity either to salvation in heaven or damnation in hell.) Elizabeth was no Calvinist but to achieve her political goals she needed the support of the House of Commons in which the Puritan faction long held power. James set on a different course than Elizabeth’s religion-by-political-convenience. Under James the Crown would take the theological lead. This policy would, in the long run, be disastrous but we will get to that story in time.
At James’ invitation, forty-seven scholars—all but one, clergy—divided into six committees (two each for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and one for Westminster) divided up the work. The committees included members of both the Puritan and the High Church parties, though the King made his wish clear that the Bible not be slanted towards the Presbyterian/Puritan ecclesiology. The scholars were commissioned to work from the ancient languages (Hebrew for the Old Testament, Greek for the New and for the Apocrypha), though they drew on existing English Translations (Tyndale, Coverdale, the Bishop’s Bible, and even the Rheims-Douai) for guidance. In 1611 they finished their work and printed their Bible.
The King James has served well not only the Church of England or the Anglican Communion, but most Protestant denominations. Only the mid-twentieth century did other translations become popular among Protestant groups and even today there are various religious groups that will not accept any other translation as the revealed Word of God. But in the King James were planted the seeds of a religious division that would eventually bring down the monarchy and tear England—and its Church—apart.