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British Author Scores With God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible
Review of the 2003 Adam Nicolson best seller "God Secretaries." The book examines the scenario that led to the creation of the King James Bible. An excellent primer for those both inside and outside the church.
Nicolson is an accomplished British author of more than a dozen English period histories, notably the recently released "Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty and the Battle of Trafalgar," and nonfiction works on the culture of England's coast and the sea-going people who live along it. While God's Secretaries focuses on the political power structure that was in place leading up to and during the creation of the King James Bible, his 2004 book, "Power and Glory : Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible" focuses more on the overall culture in England at the time of the Bible's creation.
It is worth noting that Nicolson has something of a vested interest in English nobility. He lives in a post-medieval castle on an island off the British mainland and is the heir presumptive to a barony in England, first awarded by the crown to his great-great grandfather in 1916.
Nicolson did not write his "God's Secretary's" book because he wanted to spread the Gospel or take issue with a particular point of translation, rather the book was written to examine an interesting point in English history. One could imagine that his approach would not be much different if he was writing about the times, people and events that surrounded the writing of the William Shakespeare plays and sonnets. Indeed, his approach to writing about the creation of the KJV is similar to his approach to the Battle of Trafalgar in his other works. He is scholarly without being overly weighty. His book provides academic insight but is meant for the general reading public. Quite simply, then, this book, despite the subject matter, is no heavyweight theological tome.
Commenting on the book in a question and answer exchange issued by HarperCollins in 2003, Nicolson comments, "It is (a) shared belief in order, and a highly efficient management system devised by Richard Bancroft, the Archbishop of Canterbury, which allows the unwieldy instrument of 50-odd diverse scholars to work so cleanly and neatly together. â€¦ You could see it as the culture itself writing this book; the individuals involved were in a sense merely the carriers of the cultural genes. They did what the historical moment allowed them to do."
While Nicolson is certainly not denigrating the KJV Bible in anyway, it is clear from his statement that, at least in the context of this book, he's more interested in the times, in the process and in the context in which the translation was completed, rather than in any specific theological message. That is not necessarily a bad thing, however. The KJV is such an important part of not only English history but also world history, that knowing the context in which it was created is a worthwhile academic endeavor in its own right.
Nicolson spends at least as much time in the book examining the "why" of the creation of this translation as he does on the "how." Nicolson suggests that King James, the former ruler of Scotland who became king of England upon Queen Elizabeth I's death in 1603, was anxious to develop a way to unite all of England with at least one thing in common. He was hoping that this new Bible, created by translators from all of the major factions of Christianity in the kingdom, could be that one thing, that unifying force. The KJV was specifically created, Nicolson says, so that it could be placed in every church in the kingdom, be it Catholic or Puritan. While the Nicolson book does not attempt to answer the question if the KJV was able to accomplish the objectives King James had in mind, namely to unite the people, the author does note that in 1620, a mere nine years after the publishing of the KJV, a group of Puritans would set sail for the new world. Clearly, the arrival of the KJV on the scene was not enough to prevent a group of Pilgrims from setting out on the Mayflower.
Nicolson's story opens with the events leading up to the coronation of King James in 1603. In 1604, James commissioned the translation of the Bible that would eventually be issued in 1611 and bear his name. The author himself laments that primary sources for the creation of the KJV are few. Nicolson notes that the academicians, theologians and others of the time were far more concerned with final product than they were with the process by which that product was created. Perhaps because of this reason, while we get several chapters explaining the battles between Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Puritans during the years surrounding the creation of the Bible translation, we hear little from the 50 or so actual translators themselves. Sadly, Nicolson says, the translators simply did not leave many notes behind. A fire in the royal court in 1610 likely compounded this problem, the author opines.
While one can lament that the author did not or was unable to provide details on the discussions and debates of the translators, there is some academic meat on the bone here, primarily in the book's three appendices. The first appendix offers a three-page review of what other English language translations existed in the decades immediately prior to and contemporary with the King James Version. Appendix Two offers a short, two-three-line biography on each of the 50 men who worked on the translation. Some of this information is rather thin, but the reader is left with the impression that Nicolson provides as much information as he himself was able to gather on each one. Several of the more notable leaders of the translation project are, naturally, discussed at length in the actual text of the book. The third and final appendix provides an excellent two-part chronology that covers the years from 1603 to 1611. The first chronology lists key events in England during the years in question, the second highlights events connected with the translation process and with some of the individual translators involved in the work. These appendixes alone would make for interesting reading.
"God's Secretaries" was a 2003 bestseller in the United States and was labeled a "Book of Note" in that year by the New York Times. While it is not meant for scholarly, academic work, it is a book that clearly had an appeal with a popular audience. It is a relatively quick read for so serious a topic and a worthwhile introduction of the story behind the creation of the most popular version of the world's most popular book.