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The American Biblical Tradition

Mark A. Noll

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The King James Version used to be our common text.

In 1911 the English-speaking world paused to mark the 300th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, with American political leaders foremost in the chorus of exaltation. To former president Theodore Roosevelt, this Bible translation was "the Magna Carta of the poor and the oppressed ... the most democratic book in the world." Soon-to-be president Woodrow Wilson said much the same thing: "The Bible (with its individual value of the human soul) is undoubtedly the book that has made democracy and been the source of all progress."

Americans at the time mostly agreed with these sentiments, because the impact of the KJV was everywhere so obvious. It was obvious for business, with major firms like Harper & Brothers having risen to prominence on the back of its Bible publishing. It was obvious in the physical landscape and in many households because of the widespread use of Bible names for American places (95 variations on Salem) and the nation's children (John, James, Sarah, Rebecca). It was obvious in literature, as with the memorable opening of Herman Melville's Moby Dick: "Call me Ishmael." And it was obvious in politics, with no occasion more memorable than March 4, 1865, when four quotations from the KJV framed Abraham Lincoln's incomparable Second Inaugural Address: Genesis 3:19 ("wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces"); Matthew 18:7 ("woe unto the world because of offences!"); Matthew 7:1 ("judge not that we be not judged"); and Psalm 19:9 ("the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether").

Read the entire article on the Wall Street Opinion Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 10-Jul-06



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