Last year 2011 marks the 400 anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible (KJV) otherwise known as the “Authorised Version” (AV). The King James Bible has become part of the fabric of the British society that today the language of King James is still spoken in daily conversations such as ‘the salt of the Earth’ (Matthew 5:13), ‘land of Nod’ (Genesis 4:16), ‘Money is the root of all evil’, ‘turn the other cheek’ (Matthew 5:39). As we celebrate the historical achievement of this version and its popularity as one of the most influential Bibles ever, I cannot but help reflect on the history of this version of the Bible and its connotations on Black history. This history is located within the reformation movements that emerged in the sixteenth century to purify the Church hence one of the movements’ names ‘Puritans’. In 1604, King James the 6th of Scotland, although the 1st of England in trying to assert and enforce his divine rights as King over his subjects, coupled with the fact that he did not accept the Geneva Bible (published in 1560) because of its Calvinistic roots and with the addition that the puritans were pushing for more purging of Catholic dogma from the Church of England all led to King James to assemble 54 scholars (the finest minds of their time) who worked tirelessly between 1607-1611 to produce the KJV Bible. The scholars worked in companies of 6 referring to the original texts in Hebrew and Greek and from earlier translations such as the Tyndale Bible. The Bible being commissioned by the King has this opening, “To the most high and mighty Prince James by the Grace of God…..” The style of the English reflects the Shakespearean English of that era and that has been one of the beauties of the KJV Bible. As the KJV was being used in the English Churches, European nations began to carve their way into America, West Indies and Africa. The result was the slave trade which started ca 1441 and went on till around 1850s. The trade became successful for many European nations including England. It was during the period of the slave trade that the Hamitic theology (curse of Ham theory) was used to legitimise the slavery of Black people and it seemed that The Church of England with its KJV was silent about it until the Clapham Sect rose as an Abolitionist group to fight the slave trade in the eighteenth century.
KJV became so popular during the slave trade that African slaves and abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) and Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (1757-1791) in their books quoted freely from the KJV in their defence against slavery. The slave trade ended ca 1850s but was soon replaced with colonialism in the Caribbean and Africa. Colonialism (ca 1860s-1950s), which was conceived as an alternative legitimate trade to the slave trade went hand in hand with the missionary movement of the eighteenth century. One factor for the missionary movement in these lands was the birth of the Evangelical revival of the eighteenth century. Christian missionaries from Europe and America went to these lands. The Church of England with mission agencies such as Church Missionary Society (CMS) and Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) went to the Caribbean and Africa. Other Protestant organisations were also involved in sending missionaries to the Caribbean and Africa. This led to the use and popularity of the KJV among Caribbeans and Africans. The use of the KJV became so popular that today many Churches in Africa and Caribbean view KJV as probably the best authentic translation of the Bible. Some even think not using KJV is similar to having a low view of Scripture, that is, not believing the Bible is God’s Word. Black preachers bask in the euphoria of quoting the Scriptures from KJV in their sermons. Even in his struggle against racial segregation in the States, the late Dr Martin Lurther King in his famous I have a dream speech at Washington DC quoted Psalm 30:5, Isaiah 40:4 and Amos 5:24 all from the KJV. In many of the motivational or inspirational books written by Black preachers today in Britain, KJV is often the Bible translation used. Black Christians are also very good at Bible quotations from the KJV particularly confessing it at every situation and circumstances. The KJV through Western Protestant transmission has become the emblem of Black Christianity, but the ignorance attached to it by referring to it as the only or best translation needs addressing. While it is sufficient and right for Black Christians to celebrate the influence and achievements of this Bible, we must also reflect on the colonial legacy it has had on our history. This is important if we must purge the Black Christian community of the problematic history and use of the KJV in view of other credible translations of the Bible. On the positive, one thing that is certain and cannot be taken away is the love and passion Black Christians have for God’s Word. “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and the rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O Lord God of hosts” (Jeremiah 15:16 KJV). “Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12 KJV). These verses of Scripture describe very well African and Caribbean Christians’ love for God’s Word and this is worth celebrating! It is also worth celebrating because the likes of Olaudah Equiano, Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, Dr Martin Lurther King and many more have used KJV in their fight against slavery and oppression.
Chike, Chigor, African Christianity in Britain, Milton Keynes, Author House, 2007.
Cugoano, Quobna Ottobah, Thoughts and Sentiments on Evil of Slavery, London, Penguine Books, 1999.
Curtis, Kenneth, Lang, Stephen and Petersen, Randy, The 100 most Important Events in Christian History, Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Publishing Group, 1998.
Equiano, Olaudah, The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Mineola, NY, Dover Publications Inc, 1999.
Kalu, Ogbu (eds), African Christianity An African Story, Trenton, NJ, African World Press, 2007.
King, Martin Luther, Strength to Love, Great Britain, Hodder and Stoughton, 1964.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid, A History of Christianity, London, Penguin Books, 2009.
Ositelu, G.A., Expansion of Christianity in West Africa, Abeokuta, Nigeria, Visual Resources Publishers, 2002.
Sancho, Ignatius, Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African, London, Penguin Books, 1998.
Sanneh, Lamin, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2009.
Sugirtharajah, R.S, Exploring Postcolonial Biblical Criticism, Chichester, West Sussex, Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2011.
West. O. Gerald and Dube W. Musa, The Bible in Africa, Transactions, Trajectories and Trends, Leiden, The Netherlands, Brill Academic Publishers Inc, 2001.