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Jan Swearingen

Shaping the American Idiom: The KJV and Vernacular Rhetorics

Jan Swearingen, Texas A&M University


On the eve of the King James Bible’s appearance, at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, alternate interpretations of the existing English Bibles had provoked schism and controversy, but also productive doctrinal debates as Puritans settled into their roles as reformers and rebels within the Church of England.   William Perkins’ The Arte of Prophesying (1593) influenced generations of Puritan preachers, and in British America provided the standard form for sermons well into the eighteenth century.  Not only in New England but also among Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and Huguenot ministers in the Middle Colonies and Virginia, Perkins’ version of sola scriptura—that one need only the scriptures to interpret scripture—encouraged interpretive readerships among the laity, and promoted devotional practices within the home as well.  Prayer and psalm books, joined by devotional literature such as The Whole Duty of Man, and The Fourfold State of the Human Soul, promoted biblical literacy and devotional reflective practices.  Perkins’s homiletic model provided a three step method for reading and interpreting: scriptural text, doctrinal precept drawn from the text, and application of that precept to current circumstances.  Just as readings of Revelation during Elizabeth’s reign widely interpreted that book as a prophetic denunciation of the fall of the papacy and a corrupt Roman Catholicism, readings of Revelation in the American colonies continued the practice of seeing Protestant and Puritan reforms as  cleansing the Church of England of corrupt religious and social practices.  Scots brought Presbyterianism to America in the late seventeenth century, and with it anti-episcopalian and anti-monarchal  doctrines firmly rooted in Biblical interpretation, homiletic substance, and congregational devotional practice.  Regardless of region and denomination,  reading the Bible aloud, in the home and in the church,  served as an indelible imprint upon spoken and written language.  Because children universally learned to read in the home by reading the Bible and devotional literature based upon the Bible, and because hymns until the end of the eighteenth century were adapted from scriptural texts, the sung word joined the spoken and written word in creating a common language.  To speak properly was to speak Biblically.   


The Geneva Bible, popular in England and America prior to the gradual acceptance of the King James version, brought with it schismatic annotations that denounced not only the Roman Catholic church, but also clerical and spiritual malpractices within the Church of England and monarchy.  The absence of interpretive glosses in the King James Bible gave it a simplicity and restraint that became increasingly popular in British America, even within New England, as away of avoiding sectarian schisms.  Through the pervasiveness of sermons, the primary form of communication and instruction throughout the colonial period, the King James Bible became imprinted on the lettered and unlettered alike, forming the basis of a distinctive American literary and religious idiom.


An examination of passages from the Geneva and King James Bibles, from sermons in which the King James text provides the theme, and from devotional literature and psalm books will further illustrate the increasing presence of the King James Bible in American culture through the end of the eighteenth century.  Nineteenth century examples will include Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural, Douglass’s Narrative, selections from Emily Dickinson’s poetry, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and Melville’s Billy Budd.  African American spirituals and sermons, concluding with selections from Martin Luther King’s political and pulpit oratory will illuminate the distinctiveness of the African American idiom’s uses of KJV terms, themes, and syntax.


A few sources:


Robert Alter, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton 2010), especially Ch2, “Style in America”;  “The sternly grand language of the King James Bible gave American English a reach and resonance it would not otherwise have had.”


David Daniell, The Bible in English, Its History and Influence (Yale 2003). Good on anti-papal glosses and annotations; catechisms and Bibles; Psalms and Hymns, Bay Psalm Book; Aitken’s popular “Art of Speaking” published Philadelphia 1760s.


Liah Greenfield, Nationalism, Five Roads to Modernity (Harvard 1992). NB: KJV uses “nation” 454 times, whereas “natio” appears in the Vulgate only 100 times.


Ellis Sandoz, ed., Political Sermons of the American Founding Era (Liberty Fund 1991). Especially his “Introduction.”


Peter Theusen, In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible (Oxford 1999).

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