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The King James Version—How It Became Popular

The King James Version—How It Became Popular

The King James Version​—How It Became Popular

MANY celebrations were held in England this year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James version of the Bible, otherwise known as the Authorized Version. These included special TV and radio documentaries, as well as conferences, lectures, and seminars.

Prince Charles took a lead in celebrating the national treasure that bears the name of King James I of England. How, though, did the King James Version, published in May 1611, attain a unique place in the hearts of English-speaking people?

Translation Gains Momentum

By the middle of the 16th century, a longing for knowledge of the teachings of the Bible had begun to sweep across Europe. Nearly two centuries earlier, about 1380, John Wycliffe had whetted the appetite of English-speaking people with a translation of the Bible from Latin. In the following two centuries, his followers, the Lollards, circulated handwritten Bible texts countrywide.

Bible scholar William Tyndale’s New Testament was another milestone. It was translated from the original Greek into English by 1525. Shortly afterward, in 1535, Miles Coverdale produced his complete English Bible. A year before that, Henry VIII broke relations with Rome and also made a strategic move. To strengthen his position as head of the Church of England, Henry VIII authorized a translation of the Bible into English. It is known as the Great Bible. Printed in 1539, it was a large volume in heavy Gothic type.

Puritans and other Protestant exiles from all over Europe settled in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1560 the Geneva Bible, the first English Bible in easy-to-read type, was produced, with chapters divided into verses. It was imported to England from continental Europe and quickly became popular. Eventually, in 1576, the Geneva Bible was also printed in England. Maps and marginal notes helped clarify its text. But some of its readers were irritated by its notes because these spoke against the papacy.

Meeting a Challenge

Because the Great Bible failed to gain general acceptance and the Geneva Bible contained contentious footnotes, a revised Bible was decided upon. The Great Bible was chosen as its basis. The task was entrusted to Church of England bishops, and in 1568 the Bishops’ Bible was published. This was a large volume, replete with many engravings. But Calvinists, who repudiated religious titles, took exception to the word “bishops.” So the Bishops’ Bible was not generally accepted in England.

King James I, after ascending the English throne in 1603, * endorsed the making of a fresh Bible translation. He stipulated that it should commend itself to all by omitting any offensive notes or comments.

King James promoted the project. Eventually, 47 scholars in six separate groups across the country prepared sections of the text. Making use of the work of both Tyndale and Coverdale, these Bible scholars basically revised the Bishops’ Bible. However, they also drew from the Geneva Bible and the Roman Catholic Rheims New Testament of 1582.

James himself was a respected Bible scholar, and the translation’s dedication to “the most high and mighty prince, James” acknowledged his initiative. As head of the Church of England, James was seen to be exerting his authority to bring the nation together.

A Literary Masterpiece

The clergy were pleased to receive from the hand of their king a Bible “appointed to be read in Churches.” However, the question remained, How would the nation receive this new Bible translation?

The translators, in their original extended preface, revealed their apprehensions as to whether this new translation would be accepted. However, the King James Version fared well, even though it took some 30 years for it to supplant the Geneva Bible in the affections of the people.

“By that time,” says The Bible and the Anglo-Saxon People, “it was the Authorized Version, though its only authorization had been its own excellence.” The Cambridge History of the Bible concludes: “Its text acquired a sanctity properly ascribable only to the unmediated voice of God; to multitudes of English-speaking Christians it has seemed little less than blasphemy to tamper with the words of the King James Version.”

To the Ends of the Earth

The early settlers from England who landed in North America brought with them the Geneva Bible. Later, however, the King James Version gained greater acceptance in America. As the British Empire expanded throughout the world, Protestant missionaries spread its use. Since many who translated the Bible into local languages were unfamiliar with Biblical Hebrew and Greek, the King James Version in English became the basis for these local translations.

Today, according to the British Library, “The King James, or Authorised, Version of the Bible remains the most widely published text in the English language.” Some estimates put the number of copies of the King James Version produced in print worldwide at over one billion!

Time for Change

Over the centuries, many have believed that the King James Version is the only “true” Bible. In 1870, work on a full revision of it started in England. Later a minor American revision of the resulting English Revised Version was published as the American Standard Version. * In a more recent revision, in 1982, the preface to the Revised Authorised Version says that effort was made “to maintain that lyrical quality which is so highly regarded in the Authorised Version” of 1611.

Although the Bible remains the world’s best seller​—and the King James Version is the most popular one—​Professor Richard G. Moulton observed: “We have done almost everything that is possible with these Hebrew and Greek writings. . . . We have translated them [and] revised the translations . . . There is yet one thing left to do with the Bible: simply to read it.”

Without question, the King James Version is a literary masterpiece, appreciated and valued for its unparalleled beauty of expression. But what about the importance of its message? The Bible’s inspired writings reveal the lasting remedy for the problems of our critical times. No matter which version or translation you choose to use, Jehovah’s Witnesses will be happy to help you in your study of the Bible.


^ par. 10 James was born in 1566 and was crowned in 1567 as James VI of Scotland. When he was crowned King James I of England in 1603, he became the ruler of both countries. In 1604, he took the title “King of Great Britain.”

^ par. 21 See the accompanying box “The American Standard Version.”

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In 1901 the American Standard Version was published. It was based on the text of the King James Version. Its preface states: “We are not insensible to the justly lauded beauty and vigor of the style of the Authorized [King James] Version.” Yet, the American Standard Version made a significant adjustment.

The preface explains this: “The American Revisers, after a careful consideration, were brought to the unanimous conviction that a Jewish superstition, which regarded the Divine Name as too sacred to be uttered, ought no longer to dominate in the English or any other version of the Old Testament, as it fortunately does not in the numerous versions made by modern missionaries.”

It is not that the divine name, Jehovah, does not appear at all in the King James Version. It does appear in four places, namely Exodus 6:3; Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 12:2; and Isaiah 26:4. The American Standard Version of 1901, however, restored the name to some 7,000 of its rightful places in the Bible.



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In 1907 a Bible Students Edition of the King James Version was published in the United States of America for the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. It included an extensive appendix called the “Berean Bible Teachers’ Manual.” Later, Jehovah’s Witnesses printed the King James Version on their own presses. By 1992 the Witnesses had produced 1,858,368 copies.



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In the past half century, many Bible translations (some of them printed in numerous languages) have been provided. Considered especially valuable by many is the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. More than 170 million copies have been distributed, in whole or in part, in 100 languages. The maps, alphabetical index, and appendix in its Reference Edition have helped readers to understand more clearly the Bible’s message for our day.



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[Picture Credit Line on page 22]

Art Resource, NY