By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
For preaching and teaching purposes, the Rev. Forrest Sheffield considers a modern-language translation, like the New International Version, just fine, perhaps even preferable, but when the occasion calls for poetry, he likes the King James Bible.
“Especially if I’m preaching a wedding, or a funeral, there’s just nothing like it,” said the pastor of Harrisburg Baptist Church in Tupelo.
He cited the Twenty-Third Psalm, a piece that sings with a love of poetry evocative of early, modern English and is perhaps the most recognizable passage in the literature of Western civilization: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
It’s not surprising that Sheffield and others find the King James the prettiest biblical translation. Four hundred years ago, when it was being written, English citizens were being treated to the first stage productions of William Shakespeare’s plays “Othello” and “King Lear.”
Although pretty language might be the first thing folks say when asked why they love the King James Bible, for Southerners, their appreciation of poetry is woven together with tradition, with memories of sweltering summer afternoons spent memorizing Bible verses in churches without air-conditioning, or the last words spoken over the grave of a relative before dirt was shoveled on top.
For many Southerners, there simply is no other Bible than the original King James. The book turns 400 this year, and even though it doesn’t hold the supremacy it once did, it remains as much a part of life in the South as sweet tea and high school football.
Peruse the shelves of a Christian bookstore today and you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the variety of biblical translations, most of them aimed at making the language of scripture more contemporary. For Protestants there’s the New American Standard, the English Standard, the New Revised Standard, the Holaman Christian Standard and the New Living Translation, just to name a few, and for Catholics there’s the New Jerusalem and the New American bibles.
Then there’s the slew of recent adaptations, which are essentially paraphrases of the Bible, like the sparkly, pink-colored “iShine Bible,” designed for teenage girls, or “The Message,” which reads like a conversation one might hear on television.
The first Bible to outsell the King James was the New International Version in 1986. That means that for nearly four centuries the King James Bible held complete dominance.
For many older Southerners, the King James Bible represents the way church used to be, formal and proper. Its poetry takes them back to when folks dressed up for Sunday meeting, and when the “Thees” and “Thous” helped them memorize long passages.
“It’s a different feeling. It’s reverent. It’s uplifting,” said 78-year-old Jane Burns, a member of Harrisburg Baptist Church.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” said 92-year-old Johnnie Sue Sullivan, smiling as she recalled one of the first verses she memorized from the King James during “sword drills” as a child.
“That language,” Sullivan added, “it just sounds like the Bible is supposed to sound.”
Older Baptists, like Sullivan and Burns, are perhaps the most likely to retain a strong allegience to the King James Bible. Some Baptist congregations, including a number of Independent Baptist churches, go so far as to identify as “King James only.”
But Baptists aren’t the only ones who appreciate the beauty of the King James Bible. It’s a popular choice for funerals and weddings across denominations.
According to Dr. Norman Jones, the reason the King James Bible sounds so pretty and unusual is partly because it’s a word-for-word translation, unlike some modern Bibles, like the New Living Translation, which is considered a thought-for-thought translation.
Speaking at The Eighteenth Oxford Conference for the Book last Saturday, Jones, co-editor of “The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years,” said the King James doesn’t use a lot of abstract terms. It’s largely monosyllabic and includes what he called “unusual Hebraicisms,” or evocative phrases that jolt the reader into a deep consideration of what the passage is saying.
“It doesn’t try to elide ambiguity,” Jones told an audience at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics on the Ole Miss campus.
For example, in I Kings 19, the New International Version says God spoke to the prophet Elijah in “a gentle whisper,” a phrase cleary understandable to contemporary sensibilities. The King James, on the other hand, has it that God spoke in a “still, small voice,” a seemingly paradoxical phrase that doesn’t yield as easily to a literal interpretation.
“By the skin of my teeth,” found in Job 19: 20, is another example, Jones said, of an unusual and rather poetic Hebraicism that originated with the King James.
When King James I convened some 50 men to translate the Bible that now bears his name, about a century into the Protestant Reformation, he wanted something accessible to common people, a book that would serve as a formative, binding presence in English culture.
James probably didn’t imagine that the Bible would eventually make its way to the shores of a new world. Or that, generations later, scores of Protestant Christians in the southeastern U.S. would consider the book as common an item in their homes as a chair or a stove.
For many older Christians, the poetry of the King James Bible takes them back, to a time before political correctness, when the Bible was a part of everyday life.
“The King James Bible was all we knew coming up,” said Bill Rieves, 85, a member of Harrisburg Baptist Church. When Rieves was baptized in the Tombigbee River, it was the King James the preacher read from. Rieves also learned passages from the King James in public school.
William Faulkner once said it didn’t matter whether he believed the religious message of the Bible or not, it was just there. Like the poet T.S. Eliot, Faulkner had great regard for the King James as a literary masterpiece, a ubiquitous presence in Western cutlure the influence of which could hardly be measured.
At the Conference for the Book, Dr. Charles Reagan Wilson, professor of Southern studies at Ole Miss, pointed out that as much as 90 percent of the King James was probably taken from an earlier English translation, one that drew from the original Greek and Hebrew texts.
As Jones pointed out, the King James translators didn’t celebrate a specific date for the publication because they didn’t really consider it a new creation.
In a culture like the South, in which Christians regularly bear public witness to their faith, Wilson said, and where the literal meaning of the Bible is considered very important, it’s interesting that many evangelicals consider the King James authoritative, even though it was mostly a translation from a translation.
Another major translation didn’t come along for quite some time, Wilson said, and in a culture where tradition is king, like the South, that fact helped solidify the King James’ primacy.
But for common folks who grew up with the King James Bible, the technicalities of translation don’t matter nearly as much as the comfort the book has given them over the years.
Eighty-three-year-old Juanita Lowry lost her husband, Basil, 35 years ago. The King James Bible was read at their wedding, and it was read at Basil’s funeral. Today, Lowry’s Bible is threadbare and tattered, and she’s underlined or highlighted half the words in it.
Monday afternoon she flipped open the front cover, where long ago she jotted down “Psalm 68: 5, and 146: 9”
“The Lord preserveth the strangers,” she read with a bright smile. “He relieveth the fatherless and the widow.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org