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Torchbearers of the Truth: Quatercentenary of the King James Bible (1)

J Brown, Peterhead


Thus reads the address of the Epistle Dedicatory penned on behalf of his fellow translators by Thomas Bilson. The King’s Majesty was humbly acknowledged in fulsome terms that James must have often enjoyed reading! But how did it come about that the translation received "approbation and patronage from so learned and judicious a Prince", so that the name of King James remains well known wherever the English tongue is spoken and read? To answer that question one must consider events that led to the Union of the Crowns in 1603 when James VI of Scotland became James I of England, as well as the influence of James’ childhood and training upon his attitude to religious questions.

The House of Stuart originated in the late mediaeval period, from the marriage of Marjorie, daughter of King Robert Bruce (hero of Bannockburn) to Robert Stewart. In 1503 James IV married Margaret Tudor, daughter of the English King Henry VII, forging the dynastic union which led, one hundred years later, to the Union of the Crowns.

The tragic history of Mary, granddaughter of James IV, is well known. She was sent for safety to France where she grew up and married Francis, heir to the French throne, who died after a brief reign. Mary returned to Scotland in 1561, arriving at Leith to the welcome of large crowds. She was a beautiful and courageous young woman but impulsive and injudicious. After a belated start Reformation had made great strides in Scotland, but Mary was a staunch Catholic. Her determination to celebrate Mass in the chapel at Holyrood on her first Sunday outraged the Lords of the Congregation and John Knox, who denounced the Mass in forthright terms as "a blasphemous idolatry". Her marriage to a cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, was rash and ill considered. He was a grandson (by her second marriage) of Margaret Tudor, Queen consort of James IV, and closer to the English throne than Mary. The marriage was brief and unhappy, but they had a son James born in June 1566. Darnley, a weak and petulant character, had made enemies, and in those violent times it was not long before he was murdered at Kirk o’ Field close by Edinburgh. Events swiftly followed leading to the forced abdication of Mary in favour of her infant son, and ultimately, after escape from imprisonment on an island in Loch Leven, her flight to England.

Mary’s presence in England was a perplexity to Queen Elizabeth and her advisors. Elizabeth, now in her mid thirties, remained unmarried and Mary was her presumptive heir. There was therefore a risk that Mary would become the focus of intrigue and rebellion for disaffected English Catholics desiring a Catholic monarch. The fear of plotting was heightened by the threat of invasion by Spain, and ultimately led to Mary’s execution in 1587 after she was found to be implicated in a plot against Elizabeth. In twenty years of imprisonment she had never seen the Queen’s face!

Meanwhile Mary’s son James was growing up in Scotland where he had to tread a rough road, learning how to survive midst the violence and unruly ambitions of the Scottish nobility. Later he wrote of his youth, "I was alane, without fader or moder, brither or sister, king of this realme, and heir apperand of England". He was brought up in Stirling Castle in the care of the Countess of Mar who showed some tenderness for him, but he also experienced the stern discipline of his tutor George Buchanan, a disciple of John Knox and a scholar of great repute. Buchanan’s regime was rigorous, but provided the boy king with a remarkable education in classical and modern languages with the result that no contemporary monarch was his intellectual equal. He was described, when eighteen years of age, as "an old young man". The task of ruling Scotland must have seemed a daunting prospect, but James was subtle as well as intelligent, and began to advance his exercise of sovereignty in political and religious affairs. The Scottish Reformation had produced a sternly Presbyterian Kirk whose leaders were not shy to tell the king exactly where he stood. In 1596 Andrew Melville had bluntly stated, "I mon tell yow, thair is twa Kings and twa Kingdomes in Scotland. Thair is Christ Jesus the King, and His Kingdome the Kirk, whase subject King James the Saxt is, and of whase Kingdome nocht a king nor a lord nor a heid, bot a member". Melville’s theology was confused but his message was clear. He would brook no interference from the king in the government of the Kirk. This did not suit James who was developing his views on the Divine rights of Kings and the authority of the Crown over the General Assembly. He believed that an episcopal form of church government (as in England) provided a proper hierarchal structure at the head of which should be the Crown. James’ theology too was flawed!

James had of course a strong interest in cultivating the friendship of Elizabeth and was careful to do nothing to jeopardise his hopes of succession. Though James was the strongest claimant, Elizabeth remained vague on the vital subject, and as she grew older it must have become a weary wait for him. At last, however, the old Queen died, and the news reached James in the Palace of Holyroodhouse on the evening of 26th March, 1603. His succession to the English throne was now assured and before him lay the security, wealth and power of that throne.

James received a warm welcome in England and a great deal of flattery from parties anxious to promote their interests. There were many who regarded the Reformation in England as incomplete, and saw the new reign as an opportunity to rid the English Church of all vestiges of popery. A wide spectrum of views existed, from those who believed that each congregation should be independent and free from State authority, through supporters of a Presbyterian form of government, and Puritans who objected to wearing surplices, bishops’ laying on of hands at confirmations, the use of a ring in the wedding service, and other matters of ceremonial, to the bishops, who resisted any change. To the bishops’ horror, the Puritan suggestion for a conference to settle variances appealed to James, who considered himself a latter day Solomon and expert in theological and ecclesiastical matters.

The Conference commenced on 12th January, 1604, at Hampton Court. The King aimed for inclusiveness and harmony. His motto was Beati Pacifico – Blessed are the Peacemakers. He presided over discussions rather cannily as one above party, and desiring unity. The bishops argued that the Elizabethan church had been as near the state of the primitive church as any in the world, and that there was no need of change. James disagreed, rebuking complacency - everything on earth was subject to decay and decline – nothing was perfect! The bishops were alarmed but they need not have worried. At heart James had no appetite for radical change. Only four representatives of the Puritans had been selected to attend and they quickly discovered, when raising matters relating to church government, that anything with a Presbyterian flavour was inimical to the King. The Puritans however achieved a notable success when John Reynolds, Master of Corpus Christi, Oxford, proposed a new English translation of the Bible. The official version used for public reading was the Bishop’s Bible of 1568-72. It had many faults and was greatly disliked by the Puritans. Reynolds hoped for an English version much closer to the text of the Geneva Bible of 1560, translated by Calvinist Englishmen in Geneva. A defining feature of that Bible was its numerous and detailed marginal notes and references to which James objected, believing that "some notes were very partial, untrue, seditious, and savouring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits". This revealed the King’s obsessive fear of any challenge to royal authority, but he agreed with Reynolds that a "new" Bible was needed. The new version would not have Geneva style notes and interpretations alongside the text, and this probably disappointed Reynolds, but its value would far exceed all that he could have imagined. The decision to authorise the Translation which would bear the King’s name was the major result of the Hampton Court Conference, and produced its lasting legacy.

James was an enigmatic character, but perhaps he had "come to the Kingdom for such a time as this". In retrospect, we trace the providence of God behind the debates of a monarch, of prelates, of scholars, ensuring that His inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word would be available in an English version of such dignity and beauty that for four hundred years it has remained a worthy text for preaching and teaching.

To be continued.


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