Some Reformation History
As the Protestant Reformation took root in continental Europe in the 16th century, through the work of men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin, the English Reformation began in the British Isles. Through the Supremacy Act of 1534, King Henry VIII declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, separating England from the Roman Catholic church.
Catholic Or Protestant?
Henry’s Catholic daughter Mary ascended to the throne. She immediately restored papal supremacy in England and promptly executed approximately 300 Protestant leaders. Fortunately, Mary died just five years into her reign, leaving the throne to her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s long, 45-year reign solidified Protestantism and secured the Church of England as the dominant strain of Christianity. Upon her death in 1603, Elizabeth’s cousin James took the throne.
Can King James Keep The Religious Peace?
This important background helps us better understand both the King James Bible (KJV) and the dedicatory presented in its opening pages. Officially known as “The Epistle Dedicatory,” this two-page dedication was written by one of the editors of the KJV, Thomas Bilson, and appeared in the original 1611 edition. Subsequent editions of the KJV may or may not have the dedicatory depending on the publisher. For this article, we’ll consider the original version of the dedicatory from the 1611 KJV Bible.
What Is A Dedicatory?
Including a dedicatory in a publication has a long history dating back to Greco-Roman times. The practice continued into the Middle Ages, but its heyday came in the 16th century. Typically written to a dignitary or someone with specific connection to the publication, such as a patron who paid to have it written, dedicatories often “butter up” the sponsor or lavish praise on those who may read the book. Dedicatories can add authority to a work if they are addressed to someone of note.
Dedicatories fell out of fashion over time, though we have vestiges of the idea in preliminaries like prefaces and short acknowledgements, or with blurbs on the back covers of dust jackets.
The KJV's Epistle Dedicatory
In the case of the KJV, the dedicatory is understandably written to “the most high and mighty” King James I, the regent who commissioned its publication. At a modest 1,000 words, it is straightforward and clear, heaping considerable praise upon King James as “King and Sovereign” of Great Britain.
The Message Of The KJV Dedicatory
The dedicatory opens with gratitude for James’ ascension to the throne. Written with Protestant sentiments, it praises James for continuing what Elizabeth I had done by granting freedom for “the preaching of God’s sacred Word among us.” Preaching is noted again later as a blessing that James has encouraged, along with praise of his as the “principal Mover and Author of the work.” James is seen as opposing the “Man of Sin,” who in context is surely the Pope, who keeps the people “in ignorance and darkness.”
In fact, in commissioning the KJV, King James had united the people around an Authorized Translation that pleased the Protestant branches of the church—mainly Puritan and Church of England—and could be read by any person. This was a feat worthy of praise.
The Dedicatory Honors The Monarch
The dedicatory has a high view of the monarchy—one shared by James and his predecessors—that the king rules by the will of God. In fact, the people are blessed by a monarch who “under God, is the Author of their true happiness.” This is certainly a lofty view of the crown.
While few nations in the world today share a high view of monarchies, preferring democracies and other forms of popular government, the Epistle Dedicatory nevertheless brings us back to a time when the king was honored and revered; the people trusted him for their wellbeing, and he had their loyalty, so long as he wasn’t a tyrant.
Remember The Historical Backdrop
The Epistle Dedicatory gives us a window into the tenuous state of Protestantism in England at the turn of the 17th century. Despite Elizabeth’s long reign, the translators of the KJV worried that upon her death, Roman Catholicism might again take over, and the troubles of Queen Mary’s reign return.
Though it didn’t end all the troubles within Protestantism in England, the King James Version solidified Protestantism as the religion of the country, signaling an end to persecution, for a time.
Celebrating The KJV
The most popular English Bible translation ever produced was done following tumultuous times of little religious freedom. The Epistle Dedicatory of the King James Bible is a celebration of relief and gratefulness to a king that would commission such a work, one for the everyman, and one that still stands after 400 years.