In 1604, King James I of England authorized that a new translation of the Bible into English be started. It was finished in 1611, just 85 years after the first translation of the New Testament into English appeared (Tyndale, 1526). The Authorized Version, or King James Version, quickly became the standard for English-speaking Protestants. Its flowing language and prose rhythm has had a profound influence on the literature of the past 400 years. The King James Version present on the Bible Gateway matches the 1987 printing. The KJV is public domain in the United States.
The KJV was commissioned for more political than spiritual reasons. The KJV owes its birth to the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, the meeting of the newly crowned James I of England with the authorities of the Church of England and the Puritan dissidents. James desired to have a unified church in England and was distressed at the polarity he entered. The Geneva Bible was by far the most popular Bible in England in 1604, and while the translation was excellent the notes in it were fiercely Calvinist and anti-monarchical. The Bibles sanctioned by the Anglican authorities left much to be desired, but they at least did not contain seditious notes. One of the Puritans suggested to the King that he should establish one Bible for use throughout the land; James took this idea and from it came the decision to make a new translation (McGrath, 161-162). We can see, therefore, that there was no burning spiritual desire to have a new translation, but only the need for a political compromise between the seditious Geneva Bible and the inadequate Anglican versions.
The KJV was instrumental in the development of the English language and learning the English language. In our attempt to understand the influence of the KJV, especially in America, we have to realize that English as a written, intelligent language only really began with Shakespeare and the KJV. For hundreds of years before this period, English was the vulgar language of the people, Latin was the language of the intelligensia, and French was the language of court. Only in the Tudor period in the sixteenth century do we see a desire to cultivate the English language, and its vocabulary was so limited that Shakespeare and the KJV have combined to essentially make the language for us!
After this period we find that the English language revolved partly around Shakespeare but mostly around the KJV. Throughout the English speaking world, and especially in the less-sophisticated America, both men and women learned to read with the KJV. The words of the KJV shaped their religion, their beliefs, and their language; the overall religious unity of the English world of the pre-colonial era allowed for the English language to change little from 1611 to 1880. Throughout the period of 1660 to 1880, the KJV was one of the few, if not only, books that English speaking people read and meditated upon.
The KJV became the Bible. This statement may seem odd on the surface, but it explains the ideology of KJV onlyism well. There was not felt a need to adapt or revise the Bible after the KJV until the discovery of more ancient and superior texts in the 1880s and then with the major changes in the English language that occurred in the colonial and post-colonial periods in the twentieth century. The KJV was the Bible to so many people that many soon forgot that the KJV was only a translation of original Hebrew and Greek texts. The KJV took on a form of inspiration in and of itself, and many, many people could not disassociate in their minds the original Hebrew and Greek texts that represent the inspired Word of God and the KJV that was the translation of those works. We may joke today that "the KJV was good enough for Paul, so it should be good enough for me," but behind this statement is the belief of many.
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