Before Henry VIII decided to cut his ties to the Catholic Church, that church, according to Bragg, exercised “a degree of centralized regulation . . . which had a great deal in common with Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and with much of Hitler’s Germany.” The church monitored people’s private lives in most intrusive ways. Orthodoxy was enforced through recourse to punishments including torture and death. The church was the most powerful institution in European life, it was extremely wealthy and corrupt, and the clergy aimed to maintain their wealth and power by keeping the common people ignorant. When they came to worship, the priests whispered the unintelligible Latin words of the service behind screens, lest some peasant hear the words and steal their power. This was a church that made its own rules. And they got away with it because few people could read the Latin in which the Bible was written. The masses were told what to believe and they were not welcome to question what they were told. The initiates, the priesthood told the people how they ought to behave and what they ought to believe. If fear of eternal fire did not cow the peasants into obedience, then secular authority would step in. In such ways were the people exploited and controlled.
Those circumstances began to change in 1534. In that year Henry VIII declared it was he, not the Pope, who headed what would eventually become the Church of England. Before breaking with Rome, Henry had persecuted William Tyndale for his “illegal” translations of the Bible into English, translations that would later be used as the basis for the King James Version. But during Henry’s reign, Tyndale, who had fled to the Continent, was captured by English agents and executed. His Bible, beloved by the English, continued to circulate.
Henry died in 1547, and his only surviving son, Edward, succeeded him. On Edward’s death, his daughter Mary succeeded to the throne, but she was Catholic in an England increasingly hostile to Rome. Eventually Elizabeth triumphed over other claimants to the throne, reigning from 1558 until her death in 1603. During those years, she re-established the English Church’s independence from Rome. Her reign was marked by fierce conflict between the persecuted Catholics and the increasingly vociferous Protestants.
When Elizabeth, who never married, died without a successor, the English called upon the Scottish King James, son of the Catholic Mary but a Protestant king and estimable Biblical scholar. James gratefully accepted the summons, assuming the crown in 1603
It was this James, a staunch believer in the divine right of kings, who ordered the King James Version of the Bible, largely because he found the Geneva Bible, the version most popular at the time, irritating. According to Bragg, his “chief objection to the Geneva Bible was not the translation of the Scriptures but the marginal notes, which he saw as ‘untrue, seditious, and savouring (sic) too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits.” James wanted a Bible that “would serve the state . . . .”
To that end, he commissioned England’s greatest scholars, demanding they create a new version of the Bible. He wanted an accurate translation, and none of those troublesome marginal notes. To speed the work, the scholars were divided into six committees, each of which worked on a different portion of the Bible. They did not actually do entirely new translations, but compared the various older translations to the originals and adapted and corrected them. Their results, approved ultimately by James himself, were mostly Tyndale’s work. Roughly 80% of both the New and Old Testament in the King James Version is Tyndale’s work.
And Tyndale’s work was beautiful, his language was memorable and sonorous, language meant to be heard, not read.
And this became the King James Version of the Bible, possibly the most influential book in the history of the English language, its images and phrases, its themes and beliefs, its metaphors and stories used by writers and speakers consciously or unconsciously throughout the 400 years since its creation.
Bragg believes that this book, along with the Puritan belief in the importance of each Christian reading the Bible and deciding for him or herself what it means, brought about the English Civil War, sent the Separatist Puritans to the New World, led the English to justify the execution of Charles I, led to the Great Awakenings in America, led to democracy in the English speaking nations, led to the outlawing of slavery in both England and America, and led to the practice of universal education.
Bragg is a fine writer who perhaps over-reaches with some of his claims for the influences of the King James Version, but perhaps he can be forgiven his enthusiasm. The King James Version of the Bible is a great book, and its power over English speakers and writers has been nearly incalculable, though such a calculation is precisely what Bragg attempts.