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Anchor Point: The King James Bible and English Literature

Robert L. Doty

Lecture, 400th Anniversary Celebration of the King James Bible
Campbellsville University
October 6, 2011

A note on the English language may be useful as we begin. Geoffrey Chaucer, who was writing in 1400, used East Midland dialect of Middle English. An uninitiated person who looked at his works would need to hear someone read it aloud in order to understand much of the text. We all remember our high school experience of The Canterbury Tales. But Chaucer‟s genius did much to select that dialect as the true parent of modern English. During the next hundred years many scholars were embarrassed at the weakness of English as a proper language for the Bible. But there were to be inroads. During the 16th Century progress in the English language was astounding. We need to remember that two major reasons for the efforts to translate the Bible were the Protestant insistence that the sacred text be in the hands of ordinary people and the need to put some distance between the Protestant community in Britain and the Catholic Bible based on the Latin Vulgate, which Erasmus had argued had been used to support a long standing misreading of some key passages.1

Bible translations, including John Wycliffe‟s and especially William Tyndale‟s, along with The Book of Common Prayer, reflect the blossoming of the English language.2 Then, during the latter part of Elizabeth‟s reign, literature reveals a remarkable development of style, vocabulary, and form.  By the
time of the selection in 1604 of the six-part team for the translation of the King James Bible we had a language so near 21st-Century English that most people still can read it easily, despite the use of the familiar pronouns. Why did the 16th century exert so much influence in the future development of English? We might consider Christopher Marlowe, Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, and, not least, the King James Bible. This brief survey illustrates powerful influence of the late 16th century on the development of our language.

The new King James Bible (KJB) was by no means an instant public success. It would take fifty years before the Geneva Bible and the Bishops‟ Bible are superseded in popular usage. The restrained eloquence of the KJB was gradually recognized, especially when the Commonwealth Government came to power.3

In the 17th Century the metaphysical poets, notably George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and John Donne, built elaborate ironic imagery based on the Bible. John Milton created a whole spiritual universe in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained in a creative and extensive use of the Bible. John Bunyan„s two books of The Pilgrim‟s Progress treat the allegory of Christian‟s and later his family‟s  journey to heaven. Bunyan‟s spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding, is composed largely of direct quotations from the KJB as applied to his own life. Both Milton and Bunyan used creative genius and a thorough saturation with the Bible to write inimitable works that stand alone and endure as mileposts in literature.

In the 18th Century the King James Bible appears as inspiration in satires, novels, poems, essays, and sermons by leading literary figures, including Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Samuel Johnson, John and Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, Robert Burns, and William Blake.

The 19th Century literary uses of the Bible reflect a dramatic shift away from the narrowly devotional use of the Bible as basic literacy among the English people expands. During the early part of the century several movements indicate conflicted views of the impetus to provide basic literacy for the common people. Evangelicals used the emerging Sunday School movement to provide literacy to the lower classes while at the same time making the Bible available to as many people as possible. The establishment and the upper classes were fearful that the “masses” would, with their “half educated” aspirations, create a serious social upheaval that would bring to fruition the unrest expected in England ever since the French Revolution. Indeed this conflict helped to set the stage for the Chartist Movement and its demands for social, economic, and political reform from the 1830s to the 1850s.

Before the 1850s most writers made use of the Bible as a direct or indirect model for moral, ethical and inspirational background. The Romantic poets, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and John Keats, laced their works with quotations and allusions to the Bible. For example, Coleridge‟s Rime of the Ancient Mariner starts with an allusion to the wedding guest story in the Gospels on the wise and foolish virgins.

The growth of the popular novels of the 19th Century illustrates the newly developed literacy of ordinary citizens in Britain. Most poets, essayists, and novelists were able to assume that readers knew the Bible and were aware of the stories, the imagery, and the linguistic patterns of the Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, and other devotional literature.

After the 1860s the Bible is often treated with a kind of skeptical irony that reflects more cultural heritage than individual piety or traditional faith. In Dover Beach Matthew Arnold notes a great shift away from the high tide of “the sea of faith” in an age of scientific skepticism and a rising sense of uncertainty. But practicing scientists themselves did not wish to undermine the Bible; rather they argued that physical and metaphysical truths resided in different intellectual constructs.

For example, Charles Darwin, who initially studied for the ministry, did not support his friends Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley in their public debates about Darwin‟s writings as a threat to faith. In fact, Darwin was most cautious about Huxley‟s eagerness to be involved in various controversies, especially as regards science and religion.4

The  growth of biblical scholarship, especially higher criticism, exerted influence in literature.The great novelist George  Eliot, translated and wrote an analysis of Ludwig Feuerbach‟s treatise on theology, The Essence of Christianity. A liberal approach to the Bible and to faith was also advocated by the Arnolds.

The climate of the mid-Victorian era fostered a more flexible use of the Bible in literature. Novelists in the later 19th Century used the Bible and the clergy to address social or philosophical issues rather than soteriological ones. Witness George Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Hardy.

The departure from static assumptions about the order of nature and the art  of historiography in the 19th Century influenced the way serious writers used the Bible in their writing.5 The historical critical method of exegesis had wide ramifications for many readers of the Bible.6 From this time forward most readers of the Bible needed to take account of its various historical and cultural backgrounds. To be sure, many interpreters then and now have clung to a more conservative view of biblical inspiration.

Early in the 20th Century the whole Western world was shocked with the mindless human destruction of millions of the best young men in World War I. It was a war with no clear causes, and with few decisive ends. It seemed to the young poetic chroniclers of its cruelty and mindless jingoism, that instead of its being a war to end wars, it was a war that marked the end of idealism altogether. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and other poets reveal the personal anguish of the battlefield.7 They, along with Virginia Woolf in To The Lighthouse, treated the Bible as a ghostly echo of a spiritual world that no longer stood in the foreground of modern thought.8

T. Eliot astutely examines the spiritual wasteland and aridity of the 20th Century world against the biblical background in the poetry, especially in The Wasteland and Gerontian. Eliot was an American-born scholar and poet who became a British subject and a literary and cultural bridge between the two nations.

Before the 18th Century British literature was English literature. The American experience, which this essay will now examine, adds another dimension, especially with respect to the KJB. When we open the American question, we are actually stepping back two centuries to pick up the Puritan heritage on the western side of the Atlantic. Much of American culture before 1860 was pervaded with biblical allusion and overtone. The cultural and social leaders were informed by the Bible both personally and professionally. Many of them had formal theological education. The Puritan magistrates in Massachusetts, for example, were empowered to impose authority in an almost theocratic manner.9

The whole climate of the Puritan movement was infused by the King James Bible. Prominent writers and leaders used the Bible to frame their religious, ethical, and economic development. The aristocratic and staunch Calvinist magistrate, John Winthrop, laced his letters and his journal with quotations from the KJB, reminiscent of Bunyan’s style.10 In fact, he carried out his civil duties almost as in a theocracy. Similarly, William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth was heavily dependent on the KJB in his Journal and other important early Puritan writings.

Furthermore, America was often seen as a new promised land, a new Eden, or a new Albion, as Blake put it. Thus it would be hard to overstate the  influence of the KJB on the psyche of Americans and also in the minds of those who hoped to  become Americans by immigration. In fact from the beginning to this day America has been seen as the nearest to the ideal place to restart life as it should have been and may some day be again. The “Garden” and the “Wilderness” are among the most pervasive images driving the literary imagination and the connection to the Bible in James Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and  William Faulkner. St. John De Crevecoeur argues that the farther west the Puritans went, the less they could be loyal to denominations in a sparsely settled area, and less controlled by rigid local government.11

The early Puritan drive for conquest of the land was a factor in the erosion of the ideal of the wilderness as an untouched natural blessing from the creator. One of the most famous literary figures among the Puritans and also clergymen was Jonathan Edwards who is well known for fiery sermons and also for a treatise on the spiritual order of nature called Images or Shadows of Divine Things, indicating his sensitivity to the untouched world of mystical order. But the edenic ideal was conflicted with the practical tasks of carving out farmland and building an industrial based economy alongside of the agrarian one.

There is a readily available paradigm for an examination of the use of the Bible in America. That framing device is slavery and its impact on modern social life. No theological issue in American history was so pervasive or as anguishing as the issue of slavery. At least from 1820 many theologians from pro-slavery, moderate, anti-slavery, and abolitionists, conducted many debates, prominent among which are those between two Baptist leaders, Francis Wayland of Rhode Island and Richard Fuller of South Carolina.12 Surprisingly, the biblical text seems to provide most support to the pro-slavery side. Moderates tried to argue a perspective of Christian ideal and social justice, but they could not find direct condemnation of slavery in the New Testament. The conflict over the economic and social structure built on slavery brought about a loss of faith in the Bible as the perfect word of God. The militant abolitionists were ready to dismiss the Bible as a perfect guide to Christian life in the 19th century. In fact, some abolitionists declared that they could not read the Bible as God‟s whole word while it ignored the greatest social evil they could imagine.

The slaves themselves, like the British lower classes, were taught literacy with the Bible, and were deeply faithful to the hope of the Bible‟s redemptive message. They often spiritualized those ideas in coded songs of freedom and the hope for glory in heaven.  This issue threatened to destroy American union. It significantly reshaped the patterns of religious instruction.

From mid-19th Century forward a decisive shift occurs in the use of the Bible in literature. Increasingly attention is focused on an ironic critique of religious hypocrisy as words and actions diverge in the social fabric of America.

Slavery came to be a device with which writers could use the Bible in an ironic examination of race, culture, and personal dignity in fiction. For example, Mark Twain‟s masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, offers a brilliant and incisive examination of the skewed biblical text in Huck‟s mind and his tangle of loyalty, love, and sin on his trip down the Mississippi River with Jim. Huck decides he would choose to go to hell because he will not abandon Jim to continued slavery despite his “moral responsibility” to deliver Jim to his owner, Miss Watson. There can be no mistake in the use of the Bible as an ironic tool in Twain‟s social vision of freedom.

William Faulkner, in his Yoknapatawpha novels of 19th Century Mississippi, reveals the broken nature of humankind under the weight and the burden of a slave culture, especially in Go Down, Moses, and in Absalom, Absalom. Many of his most admirable characters are the simple black people and those who quietly stood with them despite great social pressure. Faulkner‟s entire body of work echoes the King James Bible, in titles, themes, and quotations. He treats the wilderness as a mystical place for humankind, and chronicles its  disappearance, along with the loss of the links with nature in almost all of his cultured characters. While The Sun Also Rises, like The Wasteland, may be said to represent those who find the Bible to be for the most part, a dead text in the modern world, Absalom and Beloved, by contrast, represent those for  whom  “the  very  non-modern strangeness of the Bible” serves as “an indication of its inexhaustible resources and even a model of art‟s own creative capabilities.”13

Toni Morrison shocked her readers with the deep anguish slavery brings to the victims in her novel, Beloved, in which a “sacrificed” baby daughter, killed to keep her from being a slave, becomes the haunting ghost conscience of her mother and other “survivors.” Beneath an epigram from Romans 9:24, Toni Morrison reaches back to tell  some and hint  at  more of the atrocities that made up the inhuman climate of slavery. No biblical defense of that institution could gloss over the horrors of slavery. No amount of proof texting could assuage the shattering of mind, body, and spirit experienced by slaves.

The ghost character, “Beloved,” was spared all that when her mother slashed the throat of the toddler rather than let her be returned to a slave state. Sethe, the mother, was barely prevented from killing all four children by the quick action of a friend. Biblical quotations and allusions permeate the story as characters appeal to God and their hope of deliverance. Morrison acknowledges being inspired by Faulkner‟s writings on slavery and racism.14

We may well note that we find the ghost image as a prominent device in the writings of Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Twain, Faulkner, and Morrison. This ghostly haunting reflects a shifting cultural role of the Bible from central guiding force to a haunting echo of a more certain time. More and more in the last century writers have treated the Bible ironically or in the context of social critique of injustice and human mistreatment. In fact, the Gospel has been treated by significant writers as a message for the world we live in rather than a world for which this life is only preparation for the next world as the Bible was seen in the Middle Ages. Indeed, theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Niebuhr in the early and mid-20th Century had to take a close look at claims of “God on our side” in a world that ignores poverty, injustice, inequality, and human brokenness.

A note on the future question. When I was a child in rural Eastern Kentucky, I read the Bible. When I left home for Detroit, I read the Bible. When I was in the army, in college, in seminary, in the classroom, I read the Bible. In graduate school I was often asked by professors to comment or to verify a statement in or that may have been in the Bible. I see little evidence that contemporary students know the Bible, even those who are emotionally committed believers. It is a question of education, culture, history, and personal maturity.

The King James Bible is not being read now as it has been historically. Many modern readers are not prepared to discover the allusions to Scripture in contemporary literature. There are many recent translations written in modern linguistic form. Furthermore, many Bibles are being issued with a narrowly focused target audience in view, both textually and visually. There is a new Bible for nearly every category of readers. But they are not being read.  A country gospel song of the 1940‟s was entitled “Dust on the Bible.” It is still important to have a Bible, but it may be little more than a talisman.

Despite its impact on English literature and culture, as with much of the canon of Western literature, the Bible is taking a back seat to electronic immediacy and to less rigorous expectations of historical and cultural foundation in educational preparation in our time.


1 Alister McGrath, In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 57-58.

2 Ibid., 74-75.

3 Ibid., 285-287.

4 Paul White, Thomas Huxley: Making the „Man of Science‟ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 48-49.

5 L. Greenslade, ed., The Cambridge History of The Bible: The West from the Restoration to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 285-86.

6 Ibid., 299-300.

7 Simon Featherstone, War Poetry (London: Routledge, 1995), 58-60.

8 Hamlin Hamlin and Norman W. Jones, eds., The King James Bible after 400 Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 264.

9 Vernon L. Parrington, The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1927), 36-45.

10 Ibid., 39-45.

11 John Crevecoeur, Letter From an American Farmer (New York City: Penguin Classics, 1981), 50-53.

12 Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 36-

13 Hamlin, op. , 279.

14 Ibid., 281-282.

For Additional Reading, See:

Baugh, Albert C. A Literary History of England, 2nd Ed. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1967.

Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1952.

Campbell, Gordon. Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611- 2011. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Doty, Robert L. “A Plumbline in his Hand: The Clergyman as Social Prophet in Victorian Fiction.” Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 1973.

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom. New York: The Modern Library, 1936, 1951.

        . Go Down, Moses. New York: The Modern Library, 1942.

Lewis, R. W. B. The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Miller, Perry and Thomas H. Johnson, eds. The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings, Vol. II. New York City: Harper and Row, 1963.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Robert L. Doty is Professor of English Emeritus, having come to Campbellsville in 1973, and has taught in London, England, for the Private College Consortium for International Studies. He continues to be active in the life of Campbellsville University and is a member of the Editorial Board of The Campbellsville Review.