Scott Newstok: 400 years of the King James Bible

October 25, 2011 in Featured Rotator, Guest Blog by Scott Newstok

Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, a traveling exhibition opening at Rhodes College’s Barret Library on November 9, 2011, celebrates the 400th anniversary of the first printing of the King James Bible in 1611 and examines its fascinating and complex history.

Photo by Lloyd Wolf. Folger Shakespeare Library. P. Manifold

The story behind the King James Bible remains surprisingly little known, despite the book’s enormous fame. Translated over several years by six committees of England’s top scholars, the King James Bible became the most influential English translation of the Bible and one of the most widely read books in the world. For many years, it was the predominant English-language Bible in the United States, where it is still widely read today. Even many of those whose lives have been affected by the King James Bible may not realize that less than a century before it was produced, the very idea of the Bible translated into English was considered dangerous and even criminal.

Equally compelling is the story of the book’s afterlife — its reception in the years, decades, and centuries that followed its first printing, and how it came to be so ubiquitous. Essential to this story is the profound influence that it has had on personal lives and local communities — for example, the Bible became a place for many families to record births, deaths, marriages, and other important events in their history. The afterlife of the King James Bible is also reflected in its broad literary influence in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Many authors have demonstrated the influence of the language and style of the King James Bible on their work: among them John Milton, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Allen Ginsberg, and Marilynne Robinson. In the twentieth century, many poets and novelists — such as John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, William Faulkner in Absalom, Absalom, and Toni Morrison in The Song of Solomon — allude to the Bible in ways that enrich their narratives.

The Apollo 8 astronauts broadcast words from the King James Bible live to half a billion to a billion listeners — as they orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

The words of the King James Bible are also heard in a far broader diversity of contexts, from Handel’s Messiah and Linus’s telling of the nativity story in A Charlie Brown Christmas, to sermons, public speeches, and the words of the Apollo 8 astronauts—heard live by half a billion to a billion listeners—as they orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

“We are delighted to have been selected as the only Tennessee site for this major exhibition,” said Scott Newstok, Associate Professor of English at Rhodes College. “The captivating history and influence of the King James Bible will interest many viewers. This exhibition shows how important this book has been in history, and helps audiences to develop a new understanding of its social, cultural, literary, and religious influence over four centuries. In conjunction with this exhibit, we will be displaying our own collection of rare English bibles, including copies of the Geneva Bible as well as a later imprint of the King James Bible. The presence of Manifold Greatness at Rhodes ideally complements our international symposium on the King James Bible, which will take place on November 11, 2011.”

The traveling exhibit was organized by the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C., and the American Library Association Public Programs Office. It is based on an exhibition of the same name developed by the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Bodleian Library, University with assistance from the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas. The traveling exhibition was made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The traveling exhibit consists of high-quality reproductions of rare and historic books, manuscripts, and works of art from the Folger and Bodleian collections, combined with interpretive text and related images.

Rhodes is sponsoring free programs and other events for the public in connection with the exhibition, including the aforementioned international symposium on November 11 (1-5 p.m., Blount Auditorium) and a concert of music from 1611 on November 13 (7-9 p.m., Hardie Auditorium). Contact Scott Newstok (newstoks@rhodes.edu) or visit www.rhodes.edu/1611 for more information. Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible will be on display at Rhodes’ Barret Library from November 9 until December 21, 2011.

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