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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive "A far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory": the KJV and American culture

The King James Version was, as Adam Nicolson has noted, "England's equivalent of the great baroque cathedral it never built, an enormous and magnificent verbal artifice" (God's Secretaries, p. 70). Like those great cathedrals, the KJV conveyed the mystery and power of an almost unknowable God. Its language melded the word order of Hebrew with the richness and indeterminacy of Jacobean English. At times, the KJV rendered the text with stark clarity; at others, the poetry soared to the heights. Sometimes, the text was merely incomprehensible. Biblical scholars balked at the KJV';s moments of utter confusion, and new translations were born. Most other people read quickly past such moments and focused on the literary majesty.

The words of the KJV are, for many in America, the very words of God. Were God to speak in the English language, they imagine, it would be in the phrases and rhythms of the KJV. Since the early Puritan exiles made their home in New England, the language of the KJV has infused Protestant churches as well as public discourse. Puritan writings are liberally sprinkled with allusions to and quotations from the KJV. And the KJV's acceptance of governmental authority was helpful to Puritan separatists who suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being the state church, far away from the King and his bishops in their own "city on a hill."

The KJV continued to influence the culture of the colonies. Hawthorne's characters exhibited the Puritans' biblical language and ideas. Franklin's "wise" Poor Richard was so like the KJV that people still insist on giving him canonical status. "Early to bed; early to rise; makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" and "God helps those who help themselves" are but two examples of this wisdom. Even the founding documents of the country partake of the weighty and serious tone of the KJV's Jacobean English, as does this initial sentence from the Declaration of Independence: "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

Territorial expansion and immigration from countries other than England brought less formal and less "English" common discourse. People moved west, and the "center" of American culture moved with them. But the KJV was the book that many settlers took with them. We hear its echo in the frontier President's words on the battlefield: "four-score and seven years ago," "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal," and "last full measure" are but a few examples of Lincoln's adoption of the KJV's style.

The KJV's influence is just as evident in Twain's stories. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are masterful—often mocking—portraits of mid-nineteenth century American culture. The words of scripture occur in everyday conversation in Tom Sawyer (Aunt Polly quotes proverbs like "spare the rod and spoil the child)" and their use characterizes one as having a socially acceptable level of piety. The Bible and church coexist quite nicely with common superstitions; perhaps the residents of Hannibal have ceased to connect their Bible with anything more than a comfortable morality. For Huck, the questions are much more ethical, and he can't square the answers that he receives from religious people and their reading of scripture with his own innate morality. The language of the Bible still permeated public rhetoric, and it was still important to public piety in the American "village," but it took an outsider like Huck to remind the reader that the Bible's weight was only surface deep. The God of the great American "cathedral" had become commonplace.

Industrial expansion and modernity continued that trend. Fundamentalists termed it "modernism," and they clung to the KJV as a symbol of solid "old-time" religion. Public piety and political rhetoric remained wedded to the rhythm and weight of the KJV's prosody (note Roosevelt's "we have nothing to fear but fear itself)" but the continued influence of the KJV was most evident across the American South. Here, in communities still relatively small and close-knit, the culture of church still held sway; the worship of God gave order to life. And many southern writers found in the KJV inspiration for their prose. Eudora Welty opined that southern writers of her generation "were blessed in one way or another, if not blessed alike, in not having gone deprived of the King James Version of the Bible. Its cadence entered our ears and our memories for good. The evidence, or the ghost of it, lingers in all our books." Faulkner's writing is replete with sentences like the following from Absalom, Absalom!:

"There would be the dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and over-sweet with the twice-bloomed wisteria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September sun impacted distilled and hyperdistilled, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of the sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity while the wan haggard face watched him above the faint triangle of lace at wrists and throat from the too tall chair in which she resembled a crucified child; and the voice not ceasing by vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running from patch to patch of dried sand, and the ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house" (p. 8).

The sentence has more than one ghost; the translators of the KJV would have been very comfortable with its style. Here is the structure of a Pauline sentence combined with the concrete imagery of the Hebrew mind. The reader needs no further illustration than Faulkner's description. But the theme is not religious in nature. The rhythm and description have become paramount; the culture is comfortable with the KJV.

The KJV remained important for religious rhetoric in twentieth-century America, and anyone who heard Martin Luther King, Jr., could not deny the continued power of the KJV's language to stir and excite. Church stood at the center of African-American culture, and public Bible reading played a central role in that worship. Like the white settlers of a century before, these former slaves and their descendants took the language and rhythm of the KJV with them as they moved from the rural South to more urban America. It was familiar, and it provided them with a language of liberation. As Taylor Branch noted:

"The distinctly molded personality of the Negro preacher, as recognized by W.E.B. Du Bois and memorialized by James Weldon Johnson in God's Trombones, was a cousin to the blazing psychic originals such as Jeremiah and Daniel—marked by passion, vivid images of slavery and deliverance, and arresting combinations of the earthy and sublime" (p. 31).

The KJV's influence wanes. Pockets of resistance remain, but the translation has been attacked from all directions over the last fifty years. The acceptance of modern constructs—on both the theological left and right—made the "ancient" nature of the KJV an easy target. Americans became aware of new manuscript evidence, and most became disenchanted with a translation whose language was too inaccessible. The Revised Standard Version issued the first real challenge to the KJV's hegemony, but the Living Bible and the New International Version administered more telling blows to the cultural power of the KJV.

A growing emphasis on story and picture may prove more damaging to the KJV's long-term influence on American culture. The printing press inaugurated a cultural revolution, and the cathedrals of modernity were built with words and paper rather than wood and stone. Computers give us ubiquitous pictures and icons, and we can only imagine how that will affect the future of American Christianity and culture. The KJV has lost its place of privilege. We can still hear its rhythms and expressions, but unless we are standing by a graveside, their echo is faint indeed.

Steven Sheeley is an SBL member and is Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Religion at Shorter College in Rome, GA

Citation: Steven Sheeley, " "A far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory": the KJV and American culture," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2003]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=181

 
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