Puritans and the King James Bible

6 minute read

It is an overlooked fact of church history, but one that speaks volumes about the importance and quality of the King James Bible. The Puritans, well-known for their use of the Geneva Bible, played a large part in the  translation and establishment of the King James Version. This is a brief recap of that story.

The Rise of Puritanism

The Protestant Reformation began in England during the reign of King Henry VIII, and solidified in the latter half of the 16th century during the rule of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth as Protestant leaders continued to push for the purging of any church practice associated with Roman Catholicism. These Protestants became known as Puritans, because they wanted to purify the Church.

These attempts at purifying Anglicanism continued into the reign of Elizabeth’s cousin, King James VI of Scotland, who became King James I of England in 1603.

Early in his reign, Puritan leaders confronted Jame with the Millenary Petition, named for the one thousand Anglican clerics with Puritan sympathies. These Puritans wanted further reform of the Church of England by removing Catholic practices still prevalent, such as performing the sign of the cross during baptism, bowing at the name of Jesus, and the wearing of special clerical caps and tunics. In short, the Puritans believed that the Church of England had not gone far enough in reforming itself.

The Puritans mistakenly assumed that James, a Scotsman, educated by Presbyterian tutors, might be sympathetic to their cause. James, however, thought their views undermined the monarchy. A potential clash was brewing.

A New Bible Is Needed

The king responded to the Millenary Petition by granting the Puritans a hearing at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604. He rejected all their requests except their suggestion for a new translation of the Bible, given issues found in the Bible currently used in English churches.

The Puritans themselves preferred the Geneva Bible. However, not only did the Geneva Bible notes contain a reformation bent, but they also promoted a parliamentary form of government, and encouraged elected leadership by congregations, instead of single bishops appointed by the king. James believed these views were a threat to his authority as king.

James could not easily combat the Geneva Bible’s popularity in England. So when the Puritans, in a last-ditch effort to save their Petition, requested that a new English Bible be produced, James saw this as an opportunity to subvert Geneva. With a chance to produce a Bible more agreeable to his rule, James granted their request. Seven years later, the King James Bible was born.

James authorized the new translation with several guidelines for the translators. The most significant was no study notes would be included in the text. This restriction prevented unwanted theological perspectives and political positions. It also revealed James’ theological assumption that God’s Word approved of his kingly right to the throne. 

Puritan Influence

Despite anti-Puritan sentiment that existed during King James’ reign, Puritans maintained considerable influence in both state and church matters. For example, approximately one fourth of the KJV translators were men of Puritan sympathies. One of the chairmen who headed the six translation committees was the Puritan John Rainolds. And while several preceding English translations were consulted by the KJV translators (these included the Tyndale Bible, Coverdale Bible, Matthew’s Bible, the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible), scholars place the Geneva Bible in prime position for the most influence, with some textual analyses concluding that Geneva contributed as high as 90% to the KJV wording.

And yet, Puritans endured religious persecution. It would not be for several more decades before they gained political prominence through the English Civil War (1642-1649). Before then, many fled England for continental Europe and the American colonies.

Ascending to the Top

Highly publicized is the fact that many of the Pilgrim Fathers aboard the Mayflower were Puritans who favored the Geneva Bible over the KJV when they brought copies of the Bible to the New World in 1620. But the Geneva Bible’s days were numbered.

In order to boost sales of the KJV, King James banned publication of the Geneva Bible and made ownership of it a felony. The last edition of the Geneva Bible published in England was 1616, just five years after the first publication of the KJV. As the political landscape of England split, so too did sentiments toward the Bible. Anglicans preferred the KJV (nicknamed “the Authorized Version”), while the Geneva Bible was seen as the Bible of the Puritans and seditionists.

Puritans were not without complaints about the King James Bible. For starters, it included the Apocrypha, those intertestamental books of the Bible preferred by Catholics. And whereas the Geneva Bible was produced by a committee of men, the KJV was commissioned by a monarch, not Parliament. According to the Puritans, Parliament should have ultimate authority over state and church matters, not a lone ruler.

Puritan Embrace

Several factors, though, show that Puritan opinions about the KJV were changing. For example, during the English Civil War and the Puritan Commonwealth (1649-1660), you might expect the Puritans to favor the Geneva Bible at the expense of the KJV, but that was not the case. Additionally, in the next seven decades, at least nine editions of the KJV were published that included the Geneva Bible notes even though the Geneva Bible itself was no longer being published.

Most importantly, though, the King James Version features prominently in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Once they gained control of the English government, the Puritans wanted the Church of England to turn back to the pure truths of the Bible, without all the formalities of Catholicism that still remained. They convened a council in 1646 to draft articles that would guide the Church of England into a “re-formed” faith that turned back to God’s Word. This document came to be known as the Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the most influential confessional statements of Protestantism.

Eventually, the Puritans lost control of the English government and many fled the country, but with them they took the Westminster Confession and its King James Bible influence. With the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the King James Version became a symbol of religious and political unity. It remained the definitive English translation of the Bible for centuries to come, and Puritans who had at one time opposed it, now embraced it fully wherever they settled.