“Let It Go Among Our People”

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[dropcap3]T[/dropcap3]his year marks the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the King James Version. It set a high standard, both in its fidelity to the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts available at the time, and for the way in which it translated those manuscripts into functional, even beautiful, English. This combination of faithfulness and style remains unmatched; even if other translations sell better or are used more, none can take its place.

In January of 1604, the newly crowned King James I of England finally succumbed to pressures that had been building for some time. In April of the previous year he had been presented with a series of requests, most of which were aimed at reforming public worship within the churches of the land. The Scottish-born king convened a conference at Hampton Court, held over three days in January, to address the concerns. The conference was not without incident, as James dismissed the four Puritans he had hand-picked on the first day, only to readmit them on the second day. It was a tumultuous scene throughout, but the end result was the appointment, in a letter written on July 22 of that same year, of six teams of scholars totaling 54 men, to undertake an officially authorized translation of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures into English. This was essentially the only substantive conclusion reached at the conference and it was provoked by John Rainolds, who proposed, “that there might be a new translation of the Bible, because those that were allowed in the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI were corrupt, and not answerable to the truth of the original.” At the Hampton Court Conference in January, King James summarized what was to become the substance of this undertaking when he declared, “Let it go among our people.”  The final product was not to be published until seven years after this declaration: in 1611, exactly 400 years ago.

The Authorized or King James Version did not arise out of thin air; many had labored for decades laying the foundation for this masterpiece of scholarship and learning. And just as the seeds were sown for the translation long before Hampton Court, so the full flowering of its influence extended well beyond its own time. The King James Version sounded forth with phrases, cadences, and theological emphases that echo and reverberate to this day, affecting our understanding and worship of God, our literature, and our English language. If ever there was a book that shaped a culture, this was it. It is hard to imagine committee work that has ever produced so much, with so much grace, before or since.

But while the committees deserve credit for the final product, they stood on the shoulders of giants who had preceded them. One giant in particular stands out. His name was William Tyndale. Nearly 70 years before the Hampton Court Conference, Tyndale had illegally translated most of the Bible at great personal risk to himself, devoting his whole adult life to the task.  In his last surviving letter, written from prison, Tyndale’s mind was still on the work of translating God’s Word:

I suffer greatly from cold in the head, and am afflicted by a perpetual catarrh [inflammation of the mucus membrane], which is much increased in this cell…My overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out…And I ask to be allowed to have a lamp in the evening: it is indeed wearisome sitting alone in the dark. But most of all I beg and beseech our clemency to be urgent with the commissary, that he will kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may pass the time in that study.

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