Did you know that in the 1300s, British farmers would pay a wagonload of hay to rent a hand-written English copy of the Bible for one hour, or to purchase just a few sheets of the manuscript? (1) So great was their hunger for the gospel light that many were willing to do this, even knowing that if they were caught reading they might be burned at the stake with their Bible manuscripts hanging about their necks! This first English translation of the Bible was done by John Wycliffe, with the aid of some associates.
A hundred years later, William Tyndale also wanted to give the common people a Bible they could read for themselves. Almost all of Wycliffe's Bibles had been burned, some of them with people attached, and England had returned to the same state it had been in previously. The church leaders were the only ones who could read the Bible, and they didn't follow it. In fact, the Bishop of Gloucester surveyed 311 church leaders in his diocese and found that 168 of the 311 did not know all Ten Commandments, 31 couldn't tell him where the commandments came from, and 40 not only couldn't repeat the Lord's Prayer, they didn't even know who had said it. By now, Gutenberg had invented the printing press and published the Latin Vulgate Bible on it. The invention of the printing press dramatically lowered the cost of books, making them available to a broader portion of the population. Tyndale translated the Bible into the common vernacular, something that he hoped any plow boy could read and understand. He had to leave England and do his work in Germany to preserve his life. He smuggled his Bibles back into England. People had an insatiable craving for these books, even knowing that they might be hunted down, excommunicated, imprisoned, tortured, or even burned at the stake for possessing them. Tyndale himself was finally betrayed by one of his closest friends, and was executed October 6, 1536, by being strangled and then burned. His final words were, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes!"
His prayer was answered. Henry VIII's new wife Anne Boelyn liked the idea of an English Bible, and gradually the notion became more popular until several different English versions of the Bible were circulating through several monacharies.
THE KING JAMES TRANSLATION
In 1603, James, the King of Scotland, also became King of England. King James loved the Bible, and himself had translated parts of it into English. In every letter he wrote, he quoted scripture. The suggestion was made to him that the present Bible translations had too many mistakes to teach the truth well and it should be retranslated.
King James loved the idea! He was so excited about it that he immediately drew up a detailed plan about how the work could be accomplished. He carefully selected men from all different walks of life and religions, all of whom were the most honorable, knowledgeable, and Christ-like people he could find. They were great and good men who had spent their lives trying to bring people to Christ in various ways in their own denominations.
47 men organized into six groups did the translation at the three great colleges, Westminster, Cambridge, and Oxford. James was not a rich king and really couldn't afford to pay them much, so the colleges donated room and board for the translators. Each group took a section of the Bible. Each man in each group translated each chapter, then they compared and combined their translations. Each book was then sent to the five other committees for their review. Any learned man in the country of England could be called upon to assist. The bishops of the land were instructed to inform their congregants of the project and solicit help from any who felt they had some special linguistic knowledge. The translators worked diligently and carefully to find, not just the most accurate translation, but the one that carried the deepest meaning in the most beautiful way. For example, the 23rd Psalm could have been translated, "The Lord is my shepherd, therefore I lack nothing." Instead they chose the beautiful phrase we have all come to love: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."
The King James Version was the first Bible translation to have a table of contents, a map of the Holy Land, chapters and verses, and summaries of the chapters. It took eight years for the 47 men to complete the work, and several of them had died before 1611 when it was done.
Quoting a scholar of the Bible, Geddes MacGregor: "[The King James Translation] has been in life and death the guide of a billion hearts and minds. It has taught, consoled, enlightened, civilized and disciplined millions who have read little else. It has...astonished the learned, and formed the characters of those who have led."
181 years after the KJV was first printed, Alexander Geddes, a Roman Catholic Priest and translator, wrote, "If accuracy, fidelity, and the strictest attention to the letter of the text, be supposed to constitute the qualities of an excellent version, this of all versions, must, in general, be accounted the most excellent. Every sentence, every word, every syllable, every letter and point, seem to have been weighed with the nicest exactitude; and expressed...with the greatest precision." (3)
For a nice 3-minute video by the Church on the William Tyndale, go to either Mormon Messages on YouTube, or the Church's website and search for the video "The Blessings of Scripture." I apologize for not being able to link it directly.
For another great article on the King James Bible go to the August 2011 Ensign.
(1) Robert J. Matthews, "A Bible! A Bible!" Ensign, January 1987;
(2) Lenet H. Read, "How the Bible Came to Be: Part 7," Ensign, August 1982;
(3) Dr. Laurence M. Vance, A Brief History of the King James Bible, excerpts found at http://www.av1611.org/kjv/kjvhist.html;