Bible: the Story of the King James Version (1611-2011)

Next year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. This landmark of the most loved book ever published in English will be marked in numerous ways. Understandably, the festivities, led by the King James Bible Trust, will concentrate attention on the Bible now inseparable from the king's name. However, they will also offer an opportunity for the country to appreciate the statecraft of the monarch whose actions set in train this great gift to the English-speaking world.

How different might the world now look if, for instance, one of the world's leaders on 11 September 2001 had displayed the political abilities James showed when the Gunpowder Plot against him failed in 1605. The king did not use that event to launch a war against terror, as a lesser leader might have done. Instead, he called together both houses of parliament to drive a wedge between a group of assassins and the rest of the country. He reminded his audience that the least important characteristic of the plotters was that they were Catholics: they were separated from the rest of the nation only by the treachery they held in their hearts and had attempted to put into action. Parliament was told that the majority of Catholics in this country were loyal citizens and that politicians must never forget that fact.

Indeed, James's reign can be seen as an example of how to keep a nation of many cultures from tearing apart. A new translation of the Bible offered him a means of achieving this goal.

As Gordon Campbell reminds us in this beautifully crafted book, James's Bible belongs in a long line of translations. There is a good deal of useful information on the earlier English renderings. For instance, despite what I had thought, John Wycliffe never undertook a translation in person. William Tyndale was the single most gifted translator and is rightly seen as the father of the English Bible. James's translators recognised this, making Tyndale's version the ribcage for much of their work. Myles Coverdale's work, also in the 16th century, gave the English phrases such as "lovingkindness" and "tender mercies" and his work remained in regular use until 1980, through the psalms in The Book of Common Prayer.
James, king of Scotland, invited to succeed Elizabeth I, came from a country that was no stranger to strife, judicial murder and general mayhem to a kingdom that similarly had been torn asunder by the Reformation. James saw his Bible as a unifying force at a time when religion determined the politics of the day.

Six groups of scholars were entrusted to undertake the task: two teams at Westminster, two at Cambridge and two at Oxford. These appointments were made on strictly pre-Nolan committee terms - the old boy network, and raw political power, decided the composition. Campbell notes that the population from which the members of the teams were drawn was only one-fifteenth of the size it is today. Yet it would be difficult now to bring together a group of more than 50 scholars with the range of languages and knowledge of other disciplines that the translators of the King James Bible had. Michael Gove might just have a point about the amount of dross that disguises itself as learning these days.

The one disappointment with Campbell's book is its failure to present a clear picture of how the King James Bible shaped the establishment of the British empire. This was the text taken around the world by the armies of settlers who followed the British flag (there is, however, a good chapter on the Bible in America). But as that empire fell away, as do all earthly powers, the King James Version acted as midwife to an intellectual commonwealth where a common language still reigns supreme - and to such advantage to its mother country, if only that country had eyes to see.
But let the last words go to Campbell. Although the King James Bible was followed by other translations during the subsequent four centuries, it has been the most enduring embodiment of the text in English. Even the best of the later revisions are admired, but never cherished: "It is the King James Version that has been loved by generations of those who have listened to it or read it to themselves or to others; other translations may engage the mind, but the King James Version is the Bible of the heart."

Bible: the Story of the King James Version (1611-2011)
Gordon Campbell
Oxford University Press, 354pp, £16.99

Frank Field is MP for Birkenhead.

Frank Field has been Labour MP for Birkenhead since 1979. From 1997 to 1998 he was Minister for Welfare Reform

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.