The King James Version of the Bible is also called the Authorized Version, because the translation was authorized by King James I of England. The preface of the KJV dedicates the work “To the most High and Mighty Prince James, by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, & c.” Prior to ruling England, James was King James VI of Scotland. It was not until 1603, upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I, that the kingdoms of Scotland and England were united and James became King James I of England, the first of the Stuart line.
Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son James in 1566 in Scotland. In June 1567 the Protestant lords rebelled against their queen. They arrested and imprisoned Mary in Loch Leven Castle, where she was forced to abdicate the throne of Scotland. James was only a year old when he became James VI, King of Scotland, in 1567. In spite of his mother’s Catholic faith, James was brought up in the Protestant religion. He was educated by men who had empathy for the Presbyterian Church. King Henry IV of France called James “the wisest fool in Christendom.” Although intelligent and well educated, James was unpopular, and he made many enemies, especially in Parliament. James was seen as uncouth, and there is evidence that he was bisexual. He often wrote against the power of the pope and against Catholicism’s meddling in affairs of state. In his opposition to the pope’s power, James promoted the divine right of kings—the idea that kings are accountable to God and no one else. In 1605, a group of Catholics attempted to assassinate James and his wife and son and to blow up Parliament; however, the Gunpowder Plot was foiled. That incident is remembered today as Guy Fawkes Day.
James had his successes, too. He approved the design for the flag of Great Britain; he was a patron of the arts, and William Shakespeare was a sponsored playwright (Macbeth was written in James’s honor). Trade with India was expanded during James’s reign, and in 1607 England’s first permanent colony in the New World was established in Virginia—a colony named Jamestown, in the king’s honor. James was married to Anne of Denmark, and their son Charles later ruled England as King Charles I. James died in 1625 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
The Scottish Reformation was completed before the English Reformation. The Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians wanted a new Bible that would get as far away as possible from the structure of the Bishops’ Bible of the Anglican Church, and the idea of a new translation of the Bible was first proposed at a religious conference in Aberdour, Fife. King James was in favor of a new translation. He didn’t care for Tyndale’s translation of Matthew 16:18, which said Christ would build His “congregation” on Peter (James much preferred “church” from ekklesia). The only other alternative at the time was the 1560s Geneva Bible, but King James objected to a “treasonable annotation” on Matthew 2:20 that suggested that kings are tyrants.
In 1604 King James convened the Hampton Court Conference and authorized the start of a new translation of the Bible into English. The objective was to have one standard version of the Bible to be used across all English-speaking parishes. The task of translation was undertaken by 47 scholars, taken from a cross-section of Jacobean England. Many of them were highly skilled in ancient languages. This work completed in 1611, just 85 years after the first translation of the New Testament into English appeared (Tyndale, 1526). In the preface to the 1611 edition, the translators of the Authorized Version, or King James Version, state that is was not their purpose “to make a new translation . . . but to make a good one better.” The King James Version quickly became the standard for English-speaking Protestants. Its language and prose rhythms have had a profound influence on the literature of the past 400 years.