“To the most high and mighty Prince James by the Grace of God.” So begins the dedication in the most popular English Bible of all time, the Authorized Version, widely known as the King James Version. The much-loved KJV, as it is often abbreviated, may have fallen out of favor in recent years as more readable translations have been published for twentieth-century readers. But generation after generation of readers has absorbed its phrases. We can safely say that no other translation will ever have such an effect on the English language.

King James

Who was the “mighty Prince James” whose name has been stamped on millions of Bibles? He was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, executed by her half-sister, England’s Queen Elizabeth I. When the childless Elizabeth died, James, next male in the royal line, and already king in his native Scotland, marched south to London to be crowned king of England too. He is known to history as James I of England and James VI of Scotland.

Under Elizabeth, the Church of England had assumed an episcopal form of Protestantism. The growing number of Puritans felt Elizabeth had created a “compromise” church that wasn’t Protestant enough. They wanted to “purify” the church of anything that resembled Catholicism, including bishops, clerical garb, and high ritual. Before James had even reached London, the Puritans presented him with the Millenary Petition (so called because it had a thousand signatures), asking for moderate changes in the Church of England.

But James liked the Church of England’s episcopal structure and its title for the king, “Defender of the Faith.” James was, in fact, rather pretentious and committed to the idea that kings ruled by divine decree. (His contemporaries called him “the wisest ...

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