Even more than the Book of Common Prayer, no other book in the Anglican tradition has shaped the faith and culture of England and the rest of the Anglophone world more than the King James Version of the Bible. It remains to this day, even with dozens of new competing versions, the most popular translation of the scriptures in the United States. During some parts of our liturgies, we read from the KJV. And for those of us who read different translations for everyday study, the diction of the 1611 Authorized Version remains familiar.
The King James Bible is often simply called that–the “Authorized Version.” “Authorized” because it was authorized by the Church and state of England in the early seventeenth century. It continues to this day to be the commissioned translation of the Scriptures for the Church of England. But it was not the first authorized version.
Over at The Gospel Coalition website, Ryan Reaves has an interesting post explaining the first authorized version, what has been otherwise known as the “Great Bible.” He sheds some light on the commissioning of this English translation and along the way gives insight into how it was a product of the unique legacy of King Henry VIII:
The Great Bible (1539) was authorized by Henry VIII and was supervised by leading Protestant luminaries such as Miles Coverdale. It also rested its translation in large part on those books translated by William Tyndale. It’s legacy was to shape future English bibles, including the KJV itself. Also its legacy will be largely forgotten due to the quirky way Henry VIII viewed the Reformation, as well as the enormous success of the KJV a century later.
Henry VIII is one of the oddest characters in the story of the Reformation. A man of conservative instincts when Luther’s reformation began, he nevertheless overthrew papal influence in England and built a church of his own. This puts Henry in the awkward position as both persecutor and supporter of the English Protestant church—the king who had Tyndale killed and later himself hired Protestants to translate the Bible into English. He’s a man of enormous contradictions, which is why the early Reformation in England appears to hesitant and piecemeal.
Still Henry did quarrel with the pope over his annulment to Catherine of Aragorn and so launched England in a Protestant direction (try as he might to stop it from becoming fully Protestant). Henry at least liked certain types of Protestants who were both opposed to the pope and yet still supportive of Henry VIII’s claims to be head of the church in England. These men included Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, and Miles Coverdale, each instrumental in the approval of the Great Bible.
One of the interesting things about Henry is that even though he was originally an opponent of the Reformation and although he subsequently possessed, shall we say, mixed motives with regard to theological and ecclesiastical reformation, his reign saw the introduction of a wide, ecumenical range of reformation churchmen and theologians to the shores of England.
Reaves gives more:
What both Henry and Protestants agreed on at least was that the papacy needed to be removed and that the Bible supported their reformation. The option to release an English translation of the Bible appears, then, to have been a natural idea to both sides.
The book that was produced would be known as The Great Bible. It was created principally by Miles Coverdale, who used almost the entirety of the Tyndale New Testament and the books of the Old Testament he had translated before his death. Coverdale filled in the rest by translating from the Latin or German translations into English. The incorporation of the Tyndale Bible is perhaps its most incredible feature, as Tyndale was killed in part for his rogue translation, and now it was being foisted on the English people by the will of Henry VIII!
Although The Great Bible has largely been forgotten, the Coverdale translation of the Psalms remains the standard text for the Prayer Book within the Anglican tradition. We regularly use Coverdale’s Psalter at Trinity Church and it was published in the American prayer books up to the 1928 version.
Kyle Williams is a graduate student and a member of Trinity Church.