The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible, 1611-2011
By Melvyn Bragg
(Counterpoint Press, $28.00 hardback; $20.00 Kindle)
As a child, I liked and respected the King James Bible. But I hated religion. I had been born into a “Christian” demonination that tried incessantly to pound hellfire, damnation and, sadly, white supremacy, into my young head. And it used the King James Version as its grim hammer.
Some of my less-educated relatives, in fact, believed not only that the King James Version was the literal Word of God but that it had come directly from God, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, as well as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — in English.
Once I turned 18 and moved away, I abandoned that denomination quickly. But I took a King James Bible with me. And, 50 years later, I still keep one close by and sometimes refer to it — not always as a writer’s reference.
Melvyn Bragg’s The Book of Books is a magnificent work of religious and historical scholarship, adroitly timed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’s first publication in 1611. His book is eye-opening, entertaining reading and full of surprises as he pulls together startling examples of the King James Bible’s powerful and pervasive reach within English and American culture.
“You may be a Christian. You may be anti-Christian, or of any other religion, nor none. You may be an athiest fundamentalist and think the Bible is monstrous, a book to be dismissed or derided,” Bragg writes. “But whoever you are in the English-speaking world, I hope to persuade you to consider that the King James Bible has driven the making of that world over the last 400 years, often in the most unanticipated ways.”
His 370-page book smoothly covers an amazing amount of religious, historical, political and cultural ground, both in England and the United States. And he makes the compelling case that America owes much of its language, government, literature and national values to the King James Bibles that accompanied the early colonists and settlers to the New World.
“There has never been a book to match it,” Bragg states. “It has a fair claim to be the most pivotal book ever written, a claim made by poets and statesmen and supported by tens of millions of readers and congregations.” In his view, “everyone. even athiests, has benefited from many of its unexpected consequences.”
Not all of its consequences have been good, of course. “It was the consolidating voice of two world empires [Great Britain and the United States]. It unleashed and motivated philanthropic movements of a size and effectiveness which bettered the lives of ordinary people throughout the English-speaking world.” But it likewise encouraged a “ferocious sense of mission” that “transformed and sometimes destroyed native cultures.”
Also: “For centuries the King James Bible fed some of the finest thinkers and artists and men of science and politics; others it persecuted.”
For me, one intriguing aspect of Bragg’s book is its examination of the King James Bible’s strong influence on American literature all the way into the 20th century and beyond. Writers such as William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Golding,, John Steinbeck and many others composed novels and short stories with strong echoes of Bible stories no doubt heard and learned in childhood from the King James Bible.
Bragg also examines how America’s Civil War was “a war of the Bible,” for both sides. “The King James Version provided the intellectual and emotional structure for the politics” of that devastating conflict. He notes: “It would be overly simplistic to conclude that the Bible alone ’caused’ the Civil War. But: “The Bible was the gate through which the thoughts and passions of the majority were marshalled.”
Bragg’s well-honed skills as a novelist and nonfiction author help enrich The Book of Books as a reading and learning experience. He keeps his focus carefully centered on demonstrating the impact of the King James Bible and does not wander off into wider examinations of Christianity and its myriad controversies.
– Si Dunn