King James and His Translators
By J.R. Ensey
The translators of the King James Version were probably considered to be upstanding, respectable men in their time. Today, their character and scholarship are appealed to as reason to hail that version alone as inspired and inerrant—“perfect” is a popular adjective. That bar is set too high and is unjust both to the public and to the translators themselves. They may have represented the cream of the Anglican clergy crop of that day, but they could have never reached the level to which the modern KJV partisans have elevated them.
As Mickey Carter writes: “We cannot produce 50 men in America or in the world today that God will ever use again like those he used who translated the King James Version.”1 Samuel Gipp declares: “[The KJV translators] were overall both academically qualified and spiritually qualified by their exemplary lives.”2 D. A. Waite added, “The men who translated the King James were superior in every way to any men who lived before or who live today.” 3 Still others disgorge adjectives like “godliness and spiritual power...orthodox in doctrine...sound understanding...pre-eminent in saintliness.” 4 They are elevated as the ultimate standard of truth, piety, knowledge and scholarship—all put forth in the effort to shore up their version as the epitome of Bible translations.
Norris questions this conviction: “Should we accept a Gnostic idea that a certain group, such as the KJV translators, were possessed of a special or secret knowledge (gnosis), totally beyond the understanding of other believers? ...When the product of the KJV translators is made the final authority, it would make these men who produced it the final authority.” 5 Charles Spurgeon observed, “For if you mass together a number of men, each one of whom is fallible, it is clear that you are no nearer infallibility.”6
Most are willing to acknowledge them as men of particular skills, but it is going too far to confer such adulation on them simply because of the king’s choosing, or of their personal investment of time—whatever it was—in this project. They cannot be exalted as on a par with the New Testament Bible writers and apostles, yet many do. The call to serve came from a carnal and worldly king, not from King Jesus. We should gladly and willfully submit to the apostles of Christ as authorities, but not to a 17th century coterie of Church of England clergy who embraced a bevy of false doctrines and who in some ways share the corporate guilt of severe persecution of non-Anglican believers. Also, it is difficult to grasp that it is primarily Fundamentalist Baptists and a sprinkling of Evangelical types who today hold them up as pargons of virtue and wisdom. After all, it was King James who announced that he planned to “harry them [the Baptists] out of England.” 7 Many Christians fail to remember that the stream of Pilgrims and later the deluge of Puritans coming to America began under the heavy-handed regime of this king.
Can anyone, after 400 years, vouch without question for the absolute saintliness of the KJV translators, who were leaders of the religious establishment in early seventeenth century England? Although there were a sizeable number of Baptists in Britain in 1611, there were no Baptists on the committee. King James despised them. As the ex officio head of the English state church he had little or no respect for those who were not members of “his” church.
No pleasure is taken in conveying the fact that two of the committee of translators, George Abbot and Lancelot Andrews (Andrewes) urged and approved the burning at the stake of Baptist clergyman Bartholomew Legate in March of 1611 because of his anti-Trinitarian views. Abbot even presided over the proceedings.8 Why should Church of England clergy be trusted as much as the apostle Paul when they showed no mercy toward those of other faiths, even to the point of torture and death?9 Committeeman Thomas Ravis was called “a hated scourge, harassing and persecuting those who would not submit to the Church of England.”10 Thomas Bilson, who helped edit and revise the final draft of the KJV, is said to have “carried on holy warfare” against the Puritans11 and “treated them with uncommon severity.”12
Soon after Legate was burned at the stake, Baptist clergyman Edward Wightman was also burned at the stake for similar doctrinal views concerning the Godhead,13 and for declaring that “baptism of infants was an abominable custom,” and/or “for being a Baptist.”14 Wightman had been a target of King James for months and the king was his accuser himself. He was condemned because he would not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. Did the publication of the KJV have any connection with these deaths? Indirectly, yes. The king did not want such a heretic to even see his new Bible. The presiding bishop, Dr. Richard Neile, Bishop of Lichfield and York, said, “His majesty [King James] graciously permitted [anti-Trinitiarian] Bartholomew Legate, to live in prison many months [instead of burning him immediately]; but when the new Bible was to come out, the king said he must die. ...What is the church for but to be believed? What is the king the defender of the faith for, if the king’s faith is not good enough for his subjects?” 15 In other words, whatever the church decrees, all are obligated to obey. Whatever the king’s faith is must be the faith of all his countrymen. How different is that from the Roman church, the papacy, and the Inquisition? No wonder there was an exodus from England to the New World!
No such time in the filthy jail cell would be allowed to Wightman. He was arrested on April 9 at the behest of King James, tried on April 10, 1611 and burned at the stake on April 11. When Wightman would not affirm the Trinity, the instruction by the king to burn him at the stake was carried out the next afternoon.16 “The commissions and warrants for the condemnation and burning of Edward Wightman at Lichfield, 1611, [were] signed with King James’ own hand.” 17 His and Legate’s most serious offense or crime was not affirming the doctrine of the Trinity. I found it interesting that Wightman was charged with the heresies of the Ebionites, Cerinthus, Valentinian, Arius, Macedonius, Simon Magus, Manes, Manichaeus, Photinus, and of the Anabaptists. His accuser was King James himself.18 The unreasonableness of the king and his court is seen in Wightman’s warrant: “Did ever man maintain one heresy, and but one heresy? ‘Chains of darkness,’ Jude 6, we see have their links, and errors are complicated together.”19 They were convinced if he was heretical regarding the Godhead he surely must be heretical on other issues.
Other charges were contrived to further convict Wightman. Some made the claim that he considered himself to be “the Prophet” spoken of in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. It is likely that the words came from another and not he himself. Just as those words were twisted and put into his mouth by the Bishop who convicted him, also suggesting he claimed to be the Holy Spirit, other statements were probably contrived in that manner.20
Shouldn’t such merciless and audacious persecution be overlooked and virtually condoned because of the connection of the parties involved with the publication of the KJV? One should not recoil at the pope’s atrocities and the sordid tales in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs then say that King James and his translators were a righteous, godly lot. If the translators were no more godly than their king—and probably in morality they were—they were a sad lot.21
At least one of the translators was reportedly a drunkard.22 Adam Nicolson in his book, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, describes the eccentric band of translators as a sundry mix of not only respected scholars, but also pompous clergy and plain troublemakers—calling one of the group, Richard Thomson (Thompson), a “debauched, self-serving degenerate.” 23 Others characterized him as an alcoholic “that drank his fill daily” throughout his work.24 Perhaps the KJV translators were average in morality for their times, and maybe those like Richard Thomson, Lancelot Andrews, Thomas Bilson, and George Abbot were anomalies. However, their morals and ethics, or any lack thereof, do not significantly impact my estimation of the KJV or the Textus Receptus. But it is important to counter the baseless claims of KJV superiority and the perceived transcendence of the translators.
Why condemn the Roman Catholic Church and the pope for the Inquisition and gross persecutions of Protestants when King James and some of the most prominent KJV translators were guilty of similar atrocities. Give the committee their due, but do not award them sainthood. Considering the amount of condemnation heaped upon them by their contemporary critics, it would seem that they are held in far greater esteem today by a small faction of the Christian church than they were by their 17th century peers.
1. Mickey Carter, Things that are different Are Not the Same (Haines City: Landmark Baptist Press, 1993), p. 125.
2. Samuel Gipp, The Answer Book (Bible and Literature Foundation, 1989), p. 61).
3. D. A. Waite, Defending the KJB (Collingswood, NJ: The Bible For Today Press, 1992), p. 17.
4. Quoted in Norris, p. 48.
5. Norris., p. 49.
6. Charles Spurgeon, The Infallible Word (Pensacola: Chapel Library, n.d.), p. 32.
7. This quotation appears in many books and papers, including Henry M. King, Religious Liberty: A Historical Paper (Providence: Preston, Pounds & Co, 1903), p. 63.
8. Norris, p. 53.
9. Norris, p. 53,54. Gustavus Paine, The Learned Men (New York: Thomas Crowell Co., 1959), p. 142. James Price in King James Onlyism: A New Sect (SINGAPORE: SAIK WAH PRESS, 2006), P. 77), document, along with historians H. G. Vedder and A. C. Underwood, extreme persecution by King James and his agents, including some on the KJV translation committee. That persecution was aimed at the Puritans, Separatists, Baptists and any others who dared challenge the power of the state church. James declared, “I will make them conform or I will harry them out of the land.” Harry and kill. It is interesting that Dr. John Scheel states in his book, Women In Ministry”: “I dare say that few, if any, or (sic) the translators of the King James, in 1611, had the Holy Ghost and were baptized in Jesus name. We know by the other findings and the Dead Sea Scrolls and some different things that they were experts when it came to Greek. They were God-fearing men, even in their limited intelligence, in 1611.” (p. 51). They would probably not be so revered in today’s academic society, for neither their expertise in Greek nor their Christian ethics and tolerance were outstanding.
10. Gustavus S. Paine, The Men Behind the KJV (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959), p. 93.
11. Ibid., p. 96.
12. Thomas Smith, Select Memoirs of the Lives, Labors, and Sufferings of those Pious and Learned English and Scottish Divines (Glasgow: D. Mackenzie, 1828), p. 322.
13. N.A., The Bible Christian (Belfast: Simms & M’Intyre, 1843), pp. 155-162.
14. Phil Stringer, The Faithful Baptist Witness (Haines City: Landmark Baptist Press, 1998), p. 7. Cited in Norris, p. 58.
15. The Christian Pioneer, Vol. 17, by James Hedderwick (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1843), p. 167.
16. N. A., The Bible Christian, (Belfast: Simms & M’Intyre, 1843), p. 158.
17. History of the first 14 years of King James”; quoted in The Christian Pioneer, Vol. 17, by James Hedderwick (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1843), p. 163,164.
18. Ibid., p. 163.
20. Ibid, p. 168.
21. Timothy Cohen, in his book The Antichrist and A Cup of Tea (London: Prophecy House, 1998), p. 67, states that “despite the claims of some, the KJV translation was not accomplished entirely apart from the influence of heretics and apostates.” While this particular claim lacks specificity, it is not atypical of many that can be found through research. A number of books and websites affirm the involvement of esoteric Rosicrucians in the development of the KJV. For a thorough examination of the moral record of King James, go to advanceministries.org/Articles/”The King In An Open Closet.” King James did indeed “harrow” [harry] many Pilgrims, Baptists and Puritans out of England. Thousands came to America to escape his tyrannical and harsh rule.
23. Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (Harper Perennial Publishers, 2005), p. 100.
24. Gustavus S. Paine, The Men Behind the KJV (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), pp. 40,69.