The Origin of King James Onlyism
by Laurence M. Vance (used with permission)
The phrase “King James Onlyism” describes the heartfelt conviction of multitudes of Bible-believing Christians. Those who believe that God has preserved his words in English where anyone on the face of the earth can find them and read them maintain that the King James Version—the Authorized Version—is where they are preserved. But this phrase also serves as a scornful epithet. Those who believe that God has not preserved his words in English where anyone on the face of the earth can find them and read them maintain that somewhere spread among two hundred different modern English translations is where they might be found, but that one must know Greek and Hebrew or have the help of scholars to know where they are and what they say.
There are two ways in which advocates of modern Bible versions use the term “King James Onlyism” as a term of derision: guilt by association and appealing to the King James translators.
The first way is by associating the origin of or belief in the “King James Only” position with persons that some Christians consider to be unscholarly, out of the mainstream, or unorthodox. The second way is by saying that since the King James translators were not “King James Only,” then it obviously is not a position that a Christian should take.
It is a little late to use the guilt by association argument, given that the Authorized Version was the only version read for three centuries. And no Bible-believing Christian who knows anything about English Bible history teaches that the King James translators were “King James Only.”
What, then, is the origin of “King James Onlyism”? Was it invented by some over-zealous modern defender of the Authorized Version? Hardly, for the origin goes back, not to the beginning of the “King James Only” movement in the twentieth century, but four hundred years earlier to King James (1566- 1625) himself.
To begin with, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) there was a “Draft for an Act of Parliament for a New Version of the Bible” that begins: “An act for the reducinge of diversities of Bibles now extant in the Englishe tongue to one setled vulgar translated from the originall.”
Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and King James VI of Scotland was crowned King James I of England. It was soon after, at the Hampton Court Conference in January of 1604, that the idea for the Authorized Version was born. On the second day of the conference, the Puritan, Dr. John Rainolds (1549-1607), proposed that a new translation of the Bible be undertaken. According to the “official” account by William Barlow (d. 1613), the dean of Chester, who was at the conference: “After that he [Rainolds] moved his majesty that there might be a new translation of the Bible, because those which were allowed in the reign of king Henry the Eight and Edward the Sixt were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original.” The king then “wished that some special paines should be taken in that behalf for one uniform translation, (professing that he could never yet see a Bible well translated in English, but the worst of all his majesty thought the Geneva to be,) and this to be done by the best learned in both the universities; after them to be reviewed by the bishops, and the chief learned of the church; from them to be presented to the privy councel; and lastly, to be ratified by his royal authority. And so this whole church to be bound unto it, and none other.”
Tobie Matthew (1546-1628), the bishop of Durham, wrote a letter while he was in attendance at the Hampton Court Conference to the archbishop of York in which he says that the Puritans insisted on “one only translation of the Bible to be authentical, and read in the church.”
In a letter written by the king’s Scottish chaplain, Patrick Galloway (1551-1626), who was also at the Hampton Court Conference, to the presbytery of Edinburgh, written less than a month after the conference, there appears “A note of such things as shall be reformed.” Paragraph two, under the heading “OF DOCTRINE,” reads: “That a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all churches of England in time of divine service.”
In one of the four anonymous accounts of the Hampton Court Conference, supposedly favoring the Puritans, there is mention of the incident when Dr. Rainolds suggested the idea of a new translation to the king: “Secondly, amongst those things which concern purity of doctrine, he wished that the translation might be reformed, and one to stand as warranted for all. . . . Then the King freely gave assent that there should be one translation of the Bible consonant to the original Greek and Hebrew and set forth without note, for that some of them enforce a sense further than the text will bear.”
In “A Note of Such Things as Shall be Reformed in the Church,” written soon after the Hampton Court Conference (and thought to be written by the bishop of London, Richard Bancroft [1544-1610]), fifteen items are listed. Number ten concerns the proposed new Bible: “One uniform translation of the Bible to be made, and only to be used in all the churches of England.”
Then, in a list of principal matters to be considered, which was also drawn up soon after the conference, the fourth reads: “That care be taken, that one uniform translation of the Bible be printed, and read in the church: and that without any notes.”
After the Authorized Version was published in 1611, there were some things written by the translators that relate to the origin of “King James Onlyism.” In the “Epistle Dedicatorie” to the Authorized Version, the translators recounted the king’s actions at the Hampton Court Conference:
There are infinite arguments of this right Christian and Religious affection in Your MAIESTIE; but none is more forcible to declare it to others, then the vehement and perpetuated desire of the accomplishing and publishing of this Worke, which now with all humilitie we present unto Your MAIESTIE. For when Your Highnesse had once out of deepe judgment apprehended, how convenient it was, That, out of the Originall sacred tongues, together with comparing of the labours, both in our owne and other forreigne Languages, of many worthy men who went before us, there should be one more exact Translation of the holy Scriptures into the English tongue.
In the translators’ preface (“The Translators to the Reader”) they also stated:
Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, (for then the imputation of Sixtus had bin true in some sort, that our people had bene fed with gall of Dragons in stead of wine, with whey in stead of milke:) but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against, that hath bene our endeavour, that our marke.
After the publication of the Authorized Version, we can see references to it in the visitation articles issued by the bishops and others in the Church of England exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction during the early Stuart Church. These references specify that it is the Authorized Version that is to be placed in the churches. The earliest such reference appears to be that found in the visitation articles of John King (1559-1621), who was bishop of London from 1611 to 1621. King refers in his 1612 visitation articles to “a large bible of the last edition.” Similar language can be found in many other sets of visitation articles, including the 1614 articles of Henry Cotton (d. 1615), bishop of Salisbury (“a bible of the largest volume, and last translation”), the 1619 articles of John Overall (1559-1619), bishop of Norwich (“the whole bible of the largest volume, and of the last translation”), the 1622 articles of William Laud (1573-1645), bishop of St. David’s (“the whole bible of the largest volume and latest edition”), and the 1622 articles of the aforementioned translator of the Authorized Version, Miles Smith, bishop of Gloucester (“the whole bible in English, of the largest volume and new translation lately set forth by his maiesties authoritie”). We continue to see the same thing after the death of King James in 1625; for example, the 1628 articles of John Howson (1557-1632), bishop of Oxford (“a bible of the largest volume and latest edition”), the 1635 articles of Matthew Wren (1585-1667), bishop of Hereford (“the whole bible in the largest volume of the last translation”), and the 1637 and 1640 articles of Robert Skinner (1590-1670), bishop of Bristol (“the bible of the new translation, lately set forth by the kings authority”).
The evidence is overwhelming that the origin of “King James Onlyism” is therefore not some over-zealous modern defender of the Authorized Version, it is King James himself.
This article is an abridged version of essay ten in the collection of fifteen essays on the Authorized Version by Laurence M. Vance entitled King James, His Bible, and Its Translators. This 172-page book can be ordered from Vance Publications.