God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible

by Adam Nicolson
ISBN: 0060959754

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A Review of: GodĘs Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible
by Clara Thomas

Adam Nicolson's story of the making of the King James Bible is a resounding success. However, there is a certain generational element to the reception of his work: if you are not a devotee of the majestic rhythms and the seventeenth century language of this version of the Bible, you are unlikely to be captivated by the complex story of its making. If, on the contrary, you find every other translation to be a pale shadow of this one and cling stubbornly to its archaisms, this book will confirm satisfactorily your good taste and satisfy your discerning eye and ear.
When Queen Elizabeth died, a tired old woman, in the spring of 1603, England was ripe and eager for a change. Her motto, "always the same," had persisted far beyond its usefulness or her initiative; in its later years her reign had been characterized by an "indecisive rigidity" that affected the whole kingdom. Its people were ready to welcome James I with enthusiasm and hope for a renewal of the glorious successes of the early Elizabethan age.
As for James, from the Scottish throne, a sadly insecure, faction-ridden, and dangerous eminence for the son of the executed Mary, Queen of Scots, the powerful and seemingly impregnable kingdom to the south, was the fulfilment of his every hope and dream. He set out from Edinburgh to London on a triumphant month-long journey designed to impress the crowds en route with the pomp, glory and power of their new King. He was a clever, intellectually curious, deeply insecure man who saw himself as his people's Solomon and a bringer of peace within and beyond his borders. Though he relished every last fragment of the riches his new crown had brought him, he also longed for the acceptance and love of his people, "a society in which all conflicting demands were reconciled and all factions felt at home." His dreams of a friendly union of England and Scotland were doomed, of course, but his past experience had given him plenty of training in manipulating conniving factions and this he continued to do with considerable skill.
Nicolson is especially good at calling up the social and physical context of London as the new King entered to take up his throne. In early May when the King's procession entered the city it was bedecked with all the natural beauties of an English spring and crowded with 40,000 extra visitors added to its usual population of about 140,000. En route the climax of his progression had come when he visited Theobalds, the enormous and splendid palace of his chief advisor, Robert Cecil, the most powerful of his nobles throughout his reign. In gratitude for Cecil's secret conspiratorial advice during his long wait for the throne, James immediately made him a peer and the next year Earl of Salisbury. James was generous with his honours, unlike Elizabeth who had been stingy; in response his people were ready to cheer him and applaud his initiatives.
Unfortunately the new reign was accompanied by a crippling outbreak of the plague, the worst that England had known; by midsummer London was like a besieged fortresses whose defences were steadily crumbling. The slum areas-where, at the best of times, people were herded together and living in unspeakable misery-were the most afflicted; their open graves, where scores were buried together, their streets, where dogs lay dead, were simply the most visible signs of the terrible pestilence, exaggerating and making visible the radical social distinctions of everyday life.
It was generally accepted that the appearance of the plague was a manifestation of the wrath of God against a sinful population, and that the best chance of staying alive was to escape to the country. Lancelot Andrewes, a godly man of prayer and humility, one of the country's leading churchmen, Dean of Westminster Abbey and one of the future leading figures of the Bible's translating teams was one such. In spite of his parish's desperate need of his care and concern, he left for the country, where he spent the summer in safety and relative seclusion. Nicolson uses Andrewes as a prime example of the strange split which he calls the "key to the age. It is because people like Lancelot Andrewes flourished in the first decade of the seventeenth century-and do not now-that the greatest translation of the Bible could be made then, and cannot now. The age's lifeblood was the bridging of contradictory qualities. Andrewes embodies it and so does the King James Bible."
The warring factions within and without the Church of England were an immediate danger to the peace of James's reign. Brought up in Scotland, the strict Calvinistic Puritans of England were nothing new to him. Their particular targets, the signs of Romish wickedness, were the ceremonies and symbols of the English Church: bishops and all their accoutrements they abhorred as they did the decoration and ornamentation of churches and, above all, the use of the sign of the cross. Their pamphleteers waged war unceasingly against such aberrations. The plain faith of their religion meant, to them, that there was no intermediary between a man and his God and the individual conscience was the key to salvation. While one of James's dearest wishes was a peaceable kingdom, his twin position as both secular ruler and Head of the Church was the cornerstone of his power; he had no intention of giving over one iota of his authority in either position. To both factions the Bible held the answer to every theological question, its ultimate authority unquestionable. Consequently, as the two groups clamoured unceasingly for their respective beliefs and proclaimed unceasingly the superiority of their respective translations, the Geneva Bible for the Puritans and the Bishops' Bible for the Church of England, James announced a conference in January of 1604 at Hampton Court palace. It was there that the idea of a new translation of the Bible came into being.
It began with some days of tedious disputation, a process that James, a learned man who fancied himself as a scriptural authority, enjoyed thoroughly. Then John Reynolds, one of the influential Puritans present, violently anti-Bishop and the panoplies of the church, petitioned the King for a new translation of the Bible that would be the only one to be read in churches thoughout the land, the one authoritative holy book. Seeming to be agreeable and with a practiced deviousness, the King agreed to a new translation to be based on the so-called Bishops' Bible, in that period the favourite of churchmen. It had been commissioned from a committee of about seventeen translators in 1568 and cast no shadow of seditious doubt on the supremacy of royal authority, unlike the Geneva Bible, beloved of the Puritans and the version that the Pilgrim Fathers took with them to America.
The sixteenth century had been famously active in other translations into English:Tyndale's, Coverdale's, Matthew's and Whitchurch's, as well as the English Catholics' so-called Douai Bible, completed in 1609-10 after they had fled to the continent to escape bitter persecution. As it turned out, the translators used portions of all of these in their work. Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, was James's chief lieutenant in organizing the huge project and it was he who devised and set forth the rules which were to guide the translators.
The reporting of the amazingly efficient and uncomplicated organization of the enterprise is the most remarkable feature of Nicolson's work. When in the summer of 1604 Bancroft wrote the rules, he presented the assembled men with a clearly defined organizational chart which could well serve as a model today for its orderliness, and coherence, both managerial and modern. The sixteen separate instructions on two sheets, preserved today in the University Library in Cambridge, are the record of an extremely efficient administrator. The translating committee was to be divided into six sub-committees called Companies, each to be headed by a Director each supervising nine members. The First Westminster Company was to be supervised by Lancelot Andrewes, the First Cambridge Company by Edward Lively, The First Oxford Company by John Harding, the Second Cambridge Company by John Dupont, the Second Oxford Company by Thomas Ravis, and the Second Westminster Company by William Barlow. These men, who were to supervise the entire effort were cannily chosen men of the middle way whom the King, who was extremely careful of his authority but also committed to moderation as long as it did not threaten him, believed to be trustworthy. Further rules laid out the methods of procedure, supervision and the portioning out of the books of the Bible among the Companies for translation.
As one reads Bancroft's rules, the excellence of the finished work becomes steadily more astonishing. The translators worked within a constant supervisory system, though each one of them worked on his portion, chapter by chapter, alone. The total Company met to confer on each individual's work as it was finished, and then all the other Companies were likewise charged with commenting on the work. This constant supervisory method was bound to result in a healthy urge amongst all the translators to keep to their schedules and to be aware of the speed achieved by their peers. Finally, there was to be a general meeting at which the entire finished work would be considered by the chief persons of each company. Bancroft's rules must be credited with a good deal of the success of the timetable James had set. Despite the inevitable and constant political manoeuvering among high churchmen of the day and sometimes acrimonious disputation among themselves, the translators did keep to their schedule and did finish the immense job at the appointed time.
In spite of King James's chronic spendthrift ways and Robert Cecil, his financial chief's consequent difficulties in financing the work of all the translators, the final General Meeting of twelve members of the Companies assembled in 1610. They sat in the newly built Stationers' Hall and listened as chapter after chapter, book after book, was read to them. If all agreed, the reader continued; if some one objected there was discussion, suggestion and alteration. Nicolson stresses a point of prime importance here: what these men were doing was giving their approval to a text that was meant first of all to be heard. "The listening divines in the Stationers' Hall were, in one sense, the new book's first audience, not its readers, but its hearers, participating in, and shaping, the ceremony of the word." In notes taken by John Bois, one of them, it is clear that constant deference was paid to the Latin and Greek words that came before their translation into English and that "the English, in other words, was itself subservient to the original Greek."
Nicolson is a powerful advocate for the unique glory of the King James Version. After its fulsome dedication to King James and its wonderful summary Preface were written, its first printing in 1611 was an anti-climactic disaster-poorly printed, poorly bound and filled with errors. Furthermore the public didn't desert easily the two translations that they were most accustomed to-The Bishops' Bible and the Geneva Bible. The final pages of God's Secretaries are Nicolson's impassioned analysis and defense of work that he sees as the culmination of a civilization and sensibility that have passed away: "It is impossible now to experience in an English church the enveloping amalgam of tradition, intelligence, beauty and clarity of purpose, intensity of conviction and plangent, heart-gripping godliness which is the experience of page after page of the King James Bible. Nothing in our culture can match its breadth, depth and universality, unless, curiously enough, it is something that was written at exactly the same time and in almost exactly the same place: the great tragedies of Shakespeare."

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