The King James Version

We look at the background of the King James Version as well John Wesley's specific use and updating of the translation.

Episode 11

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: The King James Version.

The Bible that John Wesley read and studied for most of his career was not the King James Version or KJV that most of us would recognize today. Different editions had different typesetting errors, like the so-called “Wicked Bible” of 1629 which misprinted one of the Ten Commandments to read “Thou shalt commit adultery,” or the “Unrighteous Bible” which misprinted the Gospel of Mark to read “The unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.” Originally printed in 1611, there was no uniform version of the KJV until 1769, when Benjamin Blayney produced his corrected text for Oxford University Press. But the story of the King James Version does not start in 1769 nor in 1611 but back at the roots of the Reformation. Thus, in order to tell the story of the King James Version, we must go back even further to the years before Martin Luther hammered his 95 Thesis on the Wittenberg Church door.

Translations of the Bible into English began with the development of the language of English itself. The followers of John Wycliff translated the Latin Vulgate into English, and it was spread around, but the heart of the matter for us begins with Erasmus’s new edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516, known historically as the Textus Receptus. Suddenly, scholars across Europe were able to use their skills in Greek (honed in the study of classical texts) in order to look at the best collation of the original Greek, and even more radically, begin to imagine the Bible more fully in their local vernacular. One of the first to do this was William Tyndale.

Born in 1494 in the village of Dursley in Gloucestershire, Tyndale went to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1506 and then later to the University of Cambridge in 1517. Tyndale was gifted in languages, fluent in French, Greek, German, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, and Spanish, and his time in Cambridge occurred soon after Erasmus’s own stay there as well as after the publication of the Textus Receptus. In 1523, Tyndale sought permission from his bishop to translate the Bible into English from the original languages. The Bishop declined. Tyndale eventually travelled to the continent and was most likely in Wittenberg, the home of Martin Luther, when he completed his translation of the New testament in 1525. England was still very Catholic, and most bishops and authorities disapproved of Tyndale’s translation. He may have survived the reigns of Henry and Edward and Mary if he had not written a pamphlet against Henry VIII’s divorce to Catherine of Aragon, which offended Henry so much that from then on, Henry sought to have Tyndale killed. In 1536, Tyndale was seized in Antwerp and executed. Tyndale had not finished his Old Testament translation, but the task was quickly taken up by Miles Coverdale and John Rogers, and was soon published under the pseudonym of Thomas Matthew in order to protect the translators.

Henry VIII, the head of a church now fully separate from Rome, knew that he needed a Bible in English that would support his authority, and his Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, who had been a financial supporter of the Matthew Bible, commissioned Coverdale to edit a new version with any objectionable content removed. This was known as the Great Bible, in large part because it was large (11 inches wide by 16 1/2 inches long).

But then, as we know, Henry dies and Edward rules for only a few years. When Mary took the thrown, many English scholars fled (including Coverdale) and ended up in Geneva. They felt the need for a new edition and soon the Geneva Bible was born. The Geneva Bible included explanatory notes that were heavily influenced by the Calvinist theology of its translators. It was printed widely and was also printed in a smaller Octavo edition with Roman type (like most fonts today) rather than the Gothic type of the Great Bible and the Matthew Bible that was difficult to read. The Geneva Bible was designed for private study. As well, the anti-episcopal leanings of many of the translators was hard to miss. The translation avoided describing anyone in language that could be used to describe a bishop.

As a response, the Church of England produced their own rival to the Geneva Bible called the Bishop’s Bible, but this work did not achieve the popularity of the Geneva Bible and had size and printing costs that made it difficult for the general public to acquire it. However, the Bishop’s Bible was the book of the land when James Stuart became King James I of England after the death of Queen Elizabeth.

On the new King’s way to London, a group of 1,000 ministers signed a petition to question the current position of the Church of England and how James would rule the church has king. James was an exceedingly learned man and had published two important works of political theology while he was king of Scotland, and so the ministers felt that they had a true dialogue partner. This led to the calling of the Hampton Court Conference in 1604.

John Wesley describes the Conference in the following way:

(James) pretended indeed to hold a conference at Hampton Court, between several bishops on one side, and seventeen ministers on the other. And he appeared in person there, not as a judge, but a furious partizan.He brow-beat and reviled the ministers, and severely threatened them , if they did not conform to the church discipline.

And yet, something momentous happened at that conference. On the 2nd day, John Reynolds proposed that there be a new translation of the Bible because other versions were corrupt. James liked the idea. There were a number of specific passages in the Geneva Bible that James felt were against the monarchy and how he understood the divine rights of kings. James, as well, saw a historical parallel between the six translation companies for the new bible and the translators of the Septuagint. Richard Bancroft, the Bishop of London, wrote 15 rules for translation, which were approved by King James in 1604. Here are the first few:

  1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the original will permit.
  2. The names of the Prophets, and the Holy Writers, with the other Names of the Text, to be retained, as nigh as may be, accordingly as they were vulgarly used.
  3. The Old Ecclesiastical Words to be kept, viz. the Word Church not to be translated Congregation &c.

The members of the six companies were exceedingly educated and erudite individuals, including Lancelot Andrewes, the Dean of Westminster.. In the Miles Smith’s preface to the King James Version, he refers to some of the vernacular bibles that have existed for centuries, including “the Syrian translation of the New Testament that is in most learned men's libraries,” For those few who were educated at Oxford and Cambridge, a spattering of what we now call Aramaic was understood.

Smith also gives thanks to King James as “the principal Mover and Author of the work,” a clear allusion to Thomas Aquinas’s argument for the existence of God.

One of the unique aspects of the KJV was the exclusion of notes. The purpose of which was to make sure the Authorized version offended neither High Church folks or staunch Puritans. This is in contrast to the Geneva Bible and other English Bibles like the Catholic Douey-Rheims, which had been produced a few years before. The exclusion of notes was one of the features that led to its longevity in that no side within the Church of England could claim it fully or exclude the other fully.

The different versions printed throughout the 17th century were not uniform and had various corrections and errors. One of the first major changes with the text was actually by John Wesley in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament published in 1755. His edition was published in paragraph form as opposed to the paraph’s, where every verse functions as its own paragraph, of the original version. I will include Wesley’s preface to the New Testament in a bonus episode, but the gist of it is that once Wesley discovered the German scholar, Johan Albrecht Bengal’s new edition of the Greek New Testament as well as his notes, Wesley decided to publish his own version. Bengal’s Greek text improved greatly on the Textus Receptus of Erasmus and the Translation Companies of the KJV so Wesley was able to update the translation in almost 12,000 places. Bengal’s edition was also influential on Count Zinzendorff and the Pietist movement, a name we will get to soon.

Intellectual property in the 18th century was very different from what it is today. Wesley cited Bengal but did not pay him any fee. Ten years later, in 1765, Wesley published his Notes upon the Old and New Testaments, which included an explicit abridgment of Matthew Henry’s 6-volume commentary, writing

He is allowed by all competent judges, to have been a person of strong understanding, of various learning, of solid piety, and much experience in the ways of God. And his exposition is generally clear and intelligible, the thoughts being expressed in plain words.

What we must understand is that the influence of the KJV on England was far greater than its influence on Wesley. In his four-volume History of England, Wesley never mentions the translation. To Wesley, the Bible was the Word of God. It was originally in Greek and Hebrew, so those were the principal languages, but every believer should have a chance to meet God in the Scriptures and so translations were vital for that. Wesley did not wish every Christian to be a Greek scholar, but wanted them to be a holy person. Wesley saw the Bible as integral to that. But without the KJV, the only English Bible would have been the heavily Reformed Geneva edition.

And so we must see the King James Version as a monumental feet of translation, but not as a special object beyond the scriptures it contains. For the Scriptural Christianity that Wesley preached about, the Scriptures went beyond translation to the heart of God’s message for us.

The centrality of Scripture for Wesley has been especially understood over the last 50 years with Albert Outler’s articulation of what he termed the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Outler borrowed some language of this from the Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888 (which was well-known among Church ecumenists) and from Richard Hooker’s threefold source of authority: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

It is to Hooker and his theological contemporaries that we turn, next time on the History of Methodism.


John Wesley, Notes on the Old and New testament

Johan Albrecht Bengal, Greek New Testament

John Wesley, Concise History of England

Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version (Oxford: OUP, 2010).

Adam Nicholson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: Harper Collins, 2005).

Preface to the King James Version

Richard Bancroft, Instruction to the Translators