James Banks is a doctoral student studying Renaissance and Restoration English literature at the University of Rochester. He also contributes to the American Interest Online. He has been a Fellow with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute Honors Program; in addition to The Literary Lawyer, he has written for the Intercollegiate Review, First Principles and The Heritage Foundation’s blog The Foundry. A native of Idaho’s panhandle, he lives in upstate New York and serves in the New York Army National Guard.
A politician calls for his country’s ecclesiastical leaders to “stand up and defend” the moral codes of the King James Bible and says that promoting “Christian values” is not a snub to other religions. This is just the kind of thing that America’s “Christianist” watchdogs have been waiting for Michelle Bachmann to say. But she didn’t say it. David Cameron did.
The fact that Cameron can say this in a country where less than 40% of the population believes in God suggests the cultural significance of the King James Version in Great Britain. (The King James Version, that is, not the Bible itself so much.) This is not wholly surprising. It would be impolite to say anything against the King James Bible on its 400th birthday. Still, this is the first time in recent memory that the King James Version has been glorified in the mainstream media by a popular political figure.
I should note that the King James Bible is—in my non-expert opinion—the best translation available in English. Whereas there have been numerous translations that have, no doubt, captured the literal meaning of the words better, there is none that captures the sublimity more perfectly than the old text of 1611. The King James Bible is not only in English, it is also very much of English. Translating scriptures into Britannia’s native tongue had been enough to endanger Wycliffe and Tyndale. Nonetheless, by the time that the King James was printed, its heavily Tyndale-influenced Old and New Testaments were typical symbols of British conservative moderation.
Yes, it would be in English, offensive to Roman Catholicism’s preferred Latin Vulgate. But it would lack the marginal notes of the radical Calvinists: Popery and Puritans! A pox on both your houses! It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate text for the Church of England. Auberon Waugh once wrote that the modern Church of England managed to take such broad positions in public discourse that no one, from Mau Zedong to the pope, could say with any level of certainty that he was not an Anglican.
It is in this historical context of moderation that David Cameron’s comments should be read: The prime minister did not mean that he expected the Church to speak out on moral issues more commonly found in American discourse: abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools. Rather, he feels that the traditional Anglo paradigm of tolerance and temperateness is threatened by radicals (on the left), nativists (on the right) and youth run wild (in the contact zone in between). He wants the Church to take a more activist role in reasserting the moral virtues which made Britain strong—presumably by saying that looting, pillaging and burning are bad things.
One can debate the political significance of the King James Version to Britain’s current public sphere; but no one can doubt its literary significance. To understand why, one might pluck, from a string of its beautifully curved passages, Galatians 1:6-10 and set it beside its contemporary Douay-Rheims translation:
 I wonder that you are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ, unto another gospel.  Which is not another, only there are some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.  But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema.  As we said before, so now I say again: If any one preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema.  For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.
Superficially, these passages seem similar. Semantically, there is no difference in meaning. The only significant difference that calls out from the page is that single variant word: “accursed” replacing anathema. But sometimes the detail is the place in which the devil resides and in this case the history and intent of both translations is revealed by a single variation.
The Douay-Rheims was one of the earliest Catholic translations available to English readers. By the time that it was printed, it had become clear to English Catholics that not even their own flock would be content to read in the original Latin. The Douay-Rheims is, therefore, a translation direct from Latin and as Latin as an English text can be while remaining comprehensible to the English reader. Douay-Rheims’s word anathema made a long journey to reach its English readers, traveling through the Ecclesiastical Latin anathema from its Greek root anatithenai meaning (according to the New Oxford American Dictionary) “a thing devoted to evil.”
Douay-Rheims intended to translate to the English but not to lose the sense of the text being a translation. Latin was still the “proper” language and should only minimally inconvenience itself to the rudiments of the English tongue. If a Latinate word would serve the semantic requirements of the sentence, that word would stay.
The King James Version will have none of it, defiantly putting forth its modern English “accursed,” derived from the Middle English and Old English and during that time adding only one or two letters. The word may be old, but by the time of the original printing, it had never been far from home and insists on making the content of the scriptures at home in the native language as well. It was as provincial then as it is cosmopolitan now, when the King James Bible has been read in the heavens as well as on the earth.
On the printing of the King James Bible in 1611, it was perhaps obvious that the newly formed Great Britain was a candidate for great achievements: The Act of Union would not come for another hundred years, but Scotland and England had been politically united under one monarch; with Jamestown, the British government had established a permanent settlement in the New World; and Shakespeare was either in or near a retirement which left for posterity Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear and The Tempest. Even so, it was in no way obvious that England—as opposed to the rising France of Louis XIII or the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands—would come to rule the waves.
The King James Version has, perhaps, become the new Vulgate, as English has become the language of Western Civilization as Latin once was: the most read translation of the most spoken language in the world. But even within the Protestant tradition, the King James Version is becoming Mark Twain’s definition of “a classic”: a book that everyone praises and no one reads. The New International Version and the New American Version are easier to lap up during liturgical scripture readings or student Bible studies. But David Cameron’s words should not be taken lightly. Unlike any other book, the King James Version has managed to light the world and, unlike the rioters in the streets of London last year, it did so with something other than fire.