Baby Boomers can usually remember where they were and what they were doing on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated (this Boomer was in his 7th grade history class). For the Gen X generation, it was the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. For all of us, it was Sept. 11, 2001.
There’s another date from my childhood that I remember well, one month to the day after President Kennedy was killed. I was standing in Faith Lutheran Church in a suburb of New Orleans. There were 12 of us standing in front of the entire congregation – the new students in the catechism class – and we were there to receive a leather Bible from the church. Each of these blue cover Bibles was inscribed with our names, the name of the congregation and the date.
We had already been meeting since September. The catechism class was comprised of seventh and eighth graders. My class was a small one; a year-and-a-half later, when we were confirmed and made our first communion, the original 12 had dwindled to four. Moves, job transfers had taken a toll on our class. And in the group of four, I would be the only boy. The three girls were thrilled because, they predicted, I would be singled out to answer all the hard questions the pastor would ask us in front of the congregation. I thought they would be wrong. I should have known better; females predict the future better than males.
On that Dec. 22, 1963, the Bibles we were given was the King James Version (with maps). In the intervening 47 years, that Bible is still in remarkably good shape. The volume we were given was published by the American Bible Society.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of that translation of the Bible. In 1611, the group of scholars (18 from the Church of England and four Puritans) saw their work of seven years come to fruition. Its influence on the Protestant faith has been enormous – it reigned supreme for the next three centuries and even today is still one the bestselling books on any list.
It’s intriguing that the King James version was a contemporary of the other great English influence on language, culture and thought – William Shakespeare. Shakespeare and the KJV together have shaped the language we speak today and the history we share. Its words and phrases can be found in everything from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Liberty Bell to the inscription on the gates of Harvard (whether the faculty and students there realize it or not), writes Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College and author of The Legacy of the King James Bible, in an article Saturday in the Wall Street Journal.
When you consider that English is the language of global business and commerce, the impact of the KJV and Shakespeare go far beyond the countries where English is the native language.
Since 1611,there have been other translations, of course – the New American Standard, the Revised, the New KJV, the New International Version (the NIV is the one I use most often), even a politically correct NIV. But nothing surpasses the beauty of the KJV.
If you’re skeptical, simply read aloud the 23rd Psalm in the KJV version, and then do the same with any of the more contemporary versions. There is simply no comparison. Reading the KJV today is almost like reading poetry.
Its influence has been huge, but it’s also been particular, especially in the life of a 12-year-old who stood with his fellow catechumens in a church in 1963.