The KJV, Ben Franklin, and Noah Webster

As part of the library’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, the Folger Institute hosted a conference bringing together scholars from across the United States and the United Kingdom to discuss the effect of this Bible on social, cultural and political societies of early Stuart England and colonial America. The breadth of discussion in “An Anglo-American History of the KJV” took us far beyond the King’s castle and our New England roots, however, demonstrating how the language of the KJV was disseminated throughout the various regions and cultures of the United States, including its translation for the native Cherokee nation as well as its role in the lives of slaves and later emancipated African Americans.

Jill Lepore

The keynote speaker to kick off our successful conference was Jill Lepore, novelist, professor of American history at Harvard University, and a contributing writer for The New Yorker.

Professing, humbly, to know more about Psittacosis, or Parrot Fever, than the KJV, Professor Lepore nonetheless presented a packed theater with a reception of the KJV quite different from the one it received on its home turf.  That is, while it could be argued (and was throughout the first day of the conference) that James himself wasn’t zealous about the distribution and use of the 1611 version over all others, allowing for a lukewarm dispersal and reception in Britain, colonial and postcolonial America grappled with the KJV, either accepting it into their religious lives or expelling it completely. Forbidden by decree to print bibles in early settlements, colonists had to bring their bibles with them, or order them from England. However in 1775, when British imports were banned, Americans began printing bibles on their own.

Some reactions to the KJV were, like Ben Franklin’s, good-humored and with a point. Franklin often trotted out a seeming biblical passage of his own construction during dinner parties, to see who he could trick into believing it was actually culled from the pages of a bible, demanding that his guests name the book and verse from which he had just read. This passage, which we know as Franklin’s “Parable against Persecution,” was his creative rewrite and reinterpretation of an ancient parable, one that ultimately conveyed a message of religious tolerance in the newly formed America.

Of the opposite opinion, however, was Noah Webster, of  dictionary fame—an American who preferred, rather strongly, that the KJV be expelled not just from his house, but from all of America. A religious man who would, after 28 years, provide America with its very own dictionary (a distinctly Christian dictionary at that), Webster felt that America needed its own language (we can thank him for saving us from the likes of the anglicized “favour,” “theatre,” and “mimick”) and described the language of the KJV as “ungrammatical,” “filthy,” and interestingly enough, “obsolete.”

Webster’s attempt to clean up King James’s lewd and undignified bible turned out to be a failed endeavor. In spite of that, however, Professor Lepore’s witty and informative lecture described a man and a new country, desperate to step onto the world’s stage away from the shelter of the British Colonial umbrella, on its own terms and with its own language. A version of Professor Lepore’s talk can be found on the New Yorker blog, The Book Bench.

 

Author: Adrienne Shevchuk

ADRIENNE SHEVCHUK was, until July 2012, Program Assistant for the Folger Institute, a position that required many hats and necessitated comfortable shoes. Adrienne has a Master's Degree in Shakespeare Studies, with particular interest in film adaptation. She now works at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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