When James I. came to the throne of England he found the Established Church in a sadly divided state. There were Conformists, who were satisfied with things as then found, and were willing to conform to existing usages; and there were Puritans, who longed for a better state of things, and were determined to have it. These parties appealed to the king, and the Puritans had great hopes that he would favor their side. In October, 1603, James therefore called a conference, to meet in Hampton Court Palace, in the coming January, "for hearing and for the determining things pretended to be amiss in the Church." So far as the objects chiefly sought were concerned, this Conference was a failure, but there began the movement for the version of the English Bible, now so widely accepted.
There were present on that occasion the leading divines, lawyers and laymen of the Church of England. Among them was Dr. John Reynolds, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. On the second day of the conference, this gentleman, in the course of discussion, suggested to the king, that a new version was exceedingly desirable, because of the many errors in the version then in use. That suggestion led to the action which, after some little delay, inaugurated measures for King James' version.
The Churchly party resisted the movement for a time, because they suspected some Puritan mischief to be behind it. On the other hand, the Puritan party pressed immediate action; and the king so managed affairs as to please both sides, and finally to secure their hearty cooperation. He very decidedly favored the proposition of the Puritans, but at the same time he pronounced the Genevan version to be the worst of all in the English language, and thereby pleased the Conformist party.
Arrangements for this version were completed by the appointment of fifty-four learned men, who were also to secure the suggestions of all competent persons, that, as the king put it, "our said translation may have the help and furtherance of all our principal learned men within this our kingdom." This attitude of the king, the removal of their first suspicions, and the undoubted merits of the case, brought about a hearty acquiescence on the part of those who had at first opposed the movement. His Majesty's instructions to the translators were these:
1. The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops' Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the original will permit.
2. The names of the prophets and the holy writers, with the other names in the text, to be retained, as near as may be, accordingly as they are vulgarly used.
3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept, as the word church, not to be translated congregation.
4. When any word hath divers significations, that to be kept which hath been most commonly used by the most eminent fathers, being agreeable to the propriety of the place and the analogies of faith.
5. The division of chapters to be altered either not at all, or as little as may be, if necessity so require.
6. No marginal notes at all to be affixed, but only for the explanation of the Hebrew or Greek words, which cannot, without some circumlocution, so briefly and fitly be expressed, in the text.
7. Such quotations of places to be marginally set down as shall serve for the fit reference of one Scripture to another.
8. Every particular man of each company to take the same chapter or chapters; and, having translated or amended them severally by himself where he thinks good, all to meet together to confirm what they have done, and agree for their part what shall stand.
9. As any one company hath dispatched any one book in this manner, they shall send it to the rest, to be considered of seriously and judiciously; for his Majesty is very careful on this point.
10. If any company, upon the review of the book so sent, shall doubt or differ upon any places, to send them word thereof, to note the places, and therewithal to send their reasons; to which if they consent not, the difference to be compounded at the general meeting, which is to be of the chief persons of each company, at the end of the work.
11. When any place of special obscurity is doubted of, letters to be directed by authority to send to any learned man in the land for his judgment of such a place.
12. Letters to be sent from every bishop to the rest of his clergy, admonishing them of this translation in hand, and to move and charge as many as, being skillful in the tongues, have taken pains in that kind, to send their particular observations to the company, either at Westminster, Cambridge, or Oxford, according as it was directed before in the king's letter to the archbishop.
13. The directors in each company to be the Deans of Westminster and Chester, for Westminster, and the king's professors in Hebrew and Greek in the two universities.
14. These translations to be used, when they agree better with the text than the Bishops' Bible: Tyndale's, Coverdale's, Matthew's [Rogers'], Whitchurch's [Cranmer's], Geneva."
15. By a later rule, "three or four of the most ancient and grave divines, in either of the universities, not employed in translating, to be assigned to be overseers of the translation, for the better observation of the fourth rule."
King James made great promises concerning his new version. He said at the outset that it "should be ratified by royal authority, and adopted for exclusive use in all the churches." The title-page set forth that the work was by "His Maiesties special Commandement;" also that it is "appointed to be read in churches;" and finally, that it comes from the press of "Robert Barker, printer to the King's most excellent Maiestie." All this parade seems to guarantee some civil force to urge the new version into general use, but so far as can be learned from history, the book was left to win its way upon its merits alone. Indeed it was not until 1661, that the Epistles and the Gospels in the Prayer Book, were changed, the authorized text superseding that of the Bishops' Bible. The Psalms in the Prayer Book, from the "Bible of largest volume in English," have not been superseded to this day.