Writing a book about the impact of the King James Bible has reawakened in Melvyn Bragg a deep respect for the religion of his youth .
Inspired: Melvyn Bragg, pictured for his BBC series on the King James Bible. Photo: BBC
By Melvyn Bragg
Between the age of six, when I joined the choir of St Mary’s Church in Wigton and, terrified, read the first lesson as the new choirboy is obliged to do in that magnificent service of the Nine Lesson and Carols (“and the serpent beguiled her and she did eat”), and the age of about 18, when I left the town for university, I also left the Church. It was not as abrupt as it sounds, but at university I experienced the common delusion that only reason mattered, and so where did that leave miracles, and especially the Resurrection?
But in the years during which I have written my recent book about the impact of the King James Bible, I find that I have come to respect again the best of that faith. I am still unable to cross the River of Jordan which would lead me to the crucial belief in a godly eternity. But that early faith, powerfully held, is no more capable of being erased than the memory of the first real love affair and it is part of me still.
I wrote my book because I was first irritated and then appalled at the way the King James Bible’s profound and often beneficial effect on humanity across so many areas has been rubbed out of our history. It is one thing to lose faith in the Christian faith, it is another to amputate and take away from our past the powerful positive force the King James Bible had.
Of course it was at times an accomplice in the pursuit of wickedness. It was used by power systems like all ideologies have ever been. It has been the best man at many a blood wedding.
But there is another story which we have chosen to disregard to our own impoverishment. It has radically transformed the modern world and often for the better. The Anglican Church, which has declined in this country over the last few generations, has virtually abandoned the King James Bible. I would argue that the latter has accelerated the former. Apart from anything else, the King James Bible in its language, its stories, its morality (at its best) has been a massive part of our national identity for several hundred years. Like no other nation, we had a national book and it was the King James Bible.
Before I move on to make claims for it, I think it’s only fair to say where I stand. Einstein wrote that he was a “believing unbeliever”. I know what that means and I agree with it, as I guess many of you do. Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal, still goes to the Anglican Church because “it is my tribe”. I agree with that too. And Stephen Hawking speaks of worlds of thought which we shall never know – there is the inexplicable. I think most of us sense that now and then we have pulses from it – in passion, in daydreams, “surprised by joy”. I respect those who have no faith or little faith or are indifferent to it, but the current notion that atheistic reason marks the apotheosis of human intelligence, strikes me as being very doubtful. I’m as certain as I can be that there’s more to come.
We can see the effect of society surprising us in the impact of the King James Bible. Take slavery. In every recorded civilisation we have the acceptance of slavery. The Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, African kings, Indian princes, Chinese war lords… for millennia it seemed a natural and inevitable part of the human condition. But it was abolished. Perhaps the greatest humanising act in history. And it was the King James Bible which was the fuse that lit the liberating flame.
To take one man of many – William Wilberforce. He embarked on a passionate Christian mission fuelled by a daily reading of parts of the King James Bible. At the end of the 18th century, with the boldest and most controversial speeches delivered at Westminster, he pushed through the abolition of the slave trade. In 1833, as a consequence, slavery was abolished. People who used the King James Bible in the West Indies and in America were also heavily involved, and it was from that Bible that they derived their moral force and their sustenance.
It is also a wonderful chapter in the history of slaves themselves. The black slaves in their millions in America educated themselves through the King James Bible (taken to them first by English preachers like George Whitefield). They built a common language from it. They built an evangelical religion with music – spirituals, gospels – which became the deep culture of all America. With increasing political conviction, the Bible gave them revolutionary notions. “Let my people go,” Moses had said to the Pharaoh of the enslaved Jews, and this translated directly to the condition of the slaves.
The enormity of this achievement is matched by another, which is the seeding of modern democracy. This too was rooted in Britain. This too can be tracked back to Westminster but now in the 1640s. There, in the Great Hall, a king who thought – as so many did – that he had been divinely appointed, was tried by common law, found guilty and executed. The arguments were massively conducted through reference to the Bible. Tyrants in the Old Testament were invoked by those who opposed the king, just as the king himself invoked the godlike relationship kings had with the Almighty.
This shattering breakthrough – of the legal overthrow of a divine monarch – can be thought of as a key moment enabling the gathering force of democracy. It spread quickly to America, where so many British Presbyterians had fled to found a new, more godly, state. It then spread around the world.
When President Obama spoke in the Great Hall last month about democracy, it is extraordinary to think that he was a few yards away from where a divinely appointed king had been sentenced legally to death and next door to the building in which the abolition of the slave trade had begun the wider political process of ending the deepest stain on civilised history. There is a photograph of Obama being sworn in as President, his hand on the King James Bible which had belonged to Abraham Lincoln.
There is much else that secularists, atheists and the indifferent choose to ignore in our history. This Bible inspired many great philanthropists, it gave purpose and support in the 19th century to the Bible Women and the Slum Sisters and the Sunday Schools, all of which took on the dispossessed and destitute in society and insisted on redemption and improvement. And there is more. But mostly we find other causes to explain these movements, and of course there were economic causes and political causes and the Enlightenment played an increasing part, but the King James Bible, the national book which fed so many of our great writers and gives us so much of our daily speech still, was the life force of much that makes the modern world.
If people want to turn their back on their faith, that’s one thing. To turn our backs on our history is to embalm ourselves in the superficialities of the present.