As was the case in 1911, this 400th anniversary year for the King James Version (KJV) has brought forth a flood of positive commentary on the style, affect, and influence of this greatest of English-language Bibles. Although I agree wholeheartedly with most of what has been claimed about the beneficent legacy of the Authorized Version, as both a historian and a Christian it has seemed to me that other sides of the King James Version story deserve a hearing. What follows, therefore, is not an attempt to negate positive assessments, but rather an effort to add sober realism to what sometimes becomes runaway triumphalism.

For a surprisingly numerous cloud of American witnesses, the recent ascension of new translations at the expense of the KJV was long overdue. James H. Hutson, chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress, has published a splendid little book providing well-authenticated quotations from the American Founders on religious matters. In this great wealth of fascinating commentary are several surprisingly negative opinions about the KJV. John Adams, for example, once wrote to his son, John Quincy, to attack the notion that any one version of Scripture could count as a true “Rule of Faith.” He began his argument by denouncing “the translation by King James the first” as being carried out by someone who was “more than half a Catholick,” which in 1816 was for Adams anything but a compliment.

Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician who helped heal the breach between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, once warned parents away from the KJV by calling it, in effect, R-rated: “there are, I grant, several chapters, and many verses in the old testament, which in their present unfortunate translation, should be passed over by children.” For his part, Benjamin Franklin once tried his hand at translating a passage from the book of Job afresh because he held that “the language” since the time of the KJV “is much changed”; as a consequence, that translation’s “style, being obsolete, and thence less agreeable, is perhaps one reason why the reading of that excellent book is of late so much neglected.” Needless to say, no one at all abandoned the KJV to take up this New Bible by Ben (James H. Hutson, ed., The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations [Princeton University Press, 2005], pp. 26, 25, 36).

Continue Reading on