The atmosphere in Jacobean England was bright with opulence. Whereas many people tend to think that the death of Elizabeth I brought a richly creative era to an end and heralded a cultural slough, those who witnessed the ascension of King James were elated. His reign brought the promise of a united Britain, since he hailed from the Scottish north, and he underscored the joyful mood by throwing money around. He wanted to be loved, did James, a rather dour looking little man with a sharp mind and a sharp nose. And he was willing to pay for the privilege.
The conception of a new Bible was one of the ways he chose to unite and galvanize his followers. The Catholics had sealed their wretched fate with the failed Gunpowder Plot, and the Puritans were little more than an annoying blip on the screen. “A Puritan is such a one who loves God with all his soul,” it was said, “but hates his neighbor with all his heart.” But the worst of Puritanism was its implied threat to the sovereignty of earthly kings.
In Jacobean times there were ways of dealing with those who eschewed the King’s religion. Eliminating most of the opposition and gathering to him a group of brilliant scholars, James had the groundwork for a smashing new Bible, one that would read nicely from the pulpit and promulgate the true faith, his faith, the one that allowed that “kings are by God appointed.”
The result is of course the world-famous and most often quoted version of Christian sacred texts, the King James Bible. A product, remarkably, of six committees working in tandem, each with rights of objection to the work of the others, “the” Bible stands out as a masterpiece of English prose.
Nicolson, an historical writer, has a number of errands to fulfill in this far-reaching account. He contrasts the luxurious life of court and king with the spare strictness of the Puritans and draws with a swift brush the portraits of the main players: the king himself and his major translators - Richard Bancroft, a rabid anti-Puritan; Lancelot Andrewes, who prayed for hours every day for his miserable soul; Henry Savile, who was outstanding because he was not a cleric; a host of bishops and archbishops; and a handful of moderate Puritans who could be relied on the toe the party line. Nicholson sets the scene against the backdrop of a country just entering something like a civilized time after many years in a dark, dangerous and downright unsanitary dream.
The King James Bible was not so different, doctrinally, from its predecessors, but its use of the English language is majestic and set the standard for elegance in religious expression.
Ironically, the book King James commissioned gained ascendancy as “the” Bible only when it was adopted by the Puritans – after they had been forced to flee their native land and resettle in a wild and unknown place called America.