Emily's Reviews > God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible

God's Secretaries by Adam Nicolson
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Oct 26, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction, meridian, religion
Read from May 22 to 30, 2011

Mr. Nicolson opens God's Secretaries with a contemporary Jacobethan perspective of the transition between Queen Elizabeth I and King James VI, quite different than the generally accepted one today. James was, in many ways, the exact opposite of Elizabeth, who had ruled for forty-four years with a motto of “Semper Eadem” – “Always the Same.” During Elizabeth's reign, many problems were not resolved. They were ignored, suppressed, or buried in the interests of not upsetting the fragile status quo, allowing them instead to fester. The war with Spain was reaching the end of its second decade. Religious differences between staunch Catholics, those adhering to the Church of England, and the more extreme Puritan Protestants were at a boiling point. Where Elizabeth was famously known as the “Virgin Queen” and had repeatedly avoided naming the next-in-line for the throne, James already had a large family of five living children, including an heir. Later historians would write of a “dimming of the brilliance” of “Renaissance freshness” that accompanied Elizabeth's death, but at the time James Stuart was seen as a breath of fresh air after the stagnation of Elizabeth's reign.

Growing up in a brutal, hostile court in Scotland, crowned king at the ripe old age of thirteen months, James was drawn to peace and adopted “Beati Pacifici” as his motto – “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” He imagined a world where Scotland and England joined as one, the English Church would be unified, peace would reign throughout Europe and prosperity would follow. A new translation of the Bible would be an important part of this unifying effort, taking the best from the several translations in use at the time, solidifying the crown's authority over the church and creating a single “authorized” version for all to use. James's utopian vision quickly met its demise against the hard political and religious realities of the day until “almost the only remnant of that dream, a piece of flotsam after the tide has passed, is the King James Bible.”

Relatively little is known about most of the fifty or so men who were tapped by their king to contribute to the creation of the King James Bible. Called Translators (with a capital “T”), they were formed into six sub-committees, each responsible for a certain section of the manuscript. They met in small groups at infrequent intervals over a span of about six years to fulfill the royal mandate. Mr. Nicholson points out that while the idea of a committee producing anything approaching a work of art is antithetical to the “modern frame of mind” that so highly values individuality, it was a given during Jacobean times that on a project of such importance many people would be involved. “Jointness was the acknowledged virtue of the age...Lack of jointness...was considered an overriding error and a sin.”

God's Secretaries is filled with fascinating nuggets of information about the Bible we read from almost every Sunday. First of all, King James wasn't looking for a new Bible for personal individual or family study. The purpose of this new translation was to take the place of the Bishops' Bible, which was read aloud from the pulpit on Sundays. Consequently, the focus of the Translators was more on the way the words sounded when spoken than how they flowed when read silently. Over and over when faced with decisions between slightly different phrasings from previous translations, the Translators chose the phrase that was most pleasing to the ear. Also, the elegantly archaic form of English with which the King James Version was composed (and with which we sometimes struggle mightily four hundred years later) was actually considered antiquated and odd even at the time it was published. Back in 1611, “some critics thought its dependence on a kind of English which seemed sixty or seventy years out of date...made it ridiculous and bogus.”

Mr. Nicholson also touches on early American history, describing the actions and beliefs of the small group of Puritan Separatists who, finding the religious climate in England too unwelcoming and intolerant, would later sail to the New World on the Mayflower. Interestingly, these Puritans initially objected strenuously to the King James Bible as too steeped in monarchy and the ceremonial formality of the Church of England. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, they too had come to adopt the KJV in place of the Geneva Bible they had previously favored.

God's Secretaries not only elucidates the initial reasons behind the undertaking of this enormous task, it immerses the reader in the climate of Jacobethan times. This backdrop helps us better understand the cultural, social, and political influences upon those practically-anonymous men whose efforts have affected untold millions over the past four hundred years.

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