The Legacy of the King James Bible

Philip Jenkins recently appeared on NPR to discuss the history of the King James Bible on its 400th anniversary.  Here is a snippet of the interview with Michael Martin related to Martin Luther King’s use of the KJV:

MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We’re speaking with religious scholar Philip Jenkins. We’re talking about the King James Bible. It is 400 years old this year. And as you might imagine, it had a great influence on the English-speaking Christian world. And we’re talking about how it came about and what that influence has been.

You know, the King James Bible certainly has a role in American political history when Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the U.S.’s 16th president. He laid his hand on a King James Bible, as did Barack Obama, almost 150 years later.

You were telling us earlier that the King James Bible has had a lot of influence on our understanding of what beautiful language is. And I want to play a clip that will, I think, be very familiar to many people around the world, certainly many Americans, and here it is.
(Soundbite of speech)

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. (Activist): I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted.

Unidentified Group: Yes.

Dr. KING: Every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

MARTIN: Of course that is the reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech which was delivered in 1963. He’s quoting from the Book of Isaiah. But tell us, where is the King James in that?

Prof. JENKINS: What he’s doing is he’s taking the King James Version as he is remembering it. He knows the text very well but, you know, like, the odd word here and there, which is a little bit different. But all the way through English language, when people want to use, if you like an exalted tone, they resort to this kind of English.

You mentioned Abraham Lincoln, you know, the Gettysburg Address begins with that line about four score and seven years ago. He’s trying to put things in a King James tone. You know, he didn’t say, eighty-seven years ago. The idea is that the English of the King James represents this very high plane that speakers try to aspire to.