VANCOUVER, Wa., July 29, 2011 — The year 2011 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. We need not speculate on its value today. It is woven into the fabric of our personal stories and the wider stories of our faith communities. The cadence and rhythms of the KJB have drawn the world to its sheer literary beauty.
In anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the 1611 KJB, I conducted a worldwide search to find and catalog every known copy. The often quoted speculation by the British library that there are about 200 copies of the 1611 (50 “He” Bibles and 150 “She” Bibles) has been challenged.
There are two “issues” that have claimed the honor as first editions. The true first edition has a copper engraved general title page dated 1611 and the New Testament title page has a woodcut design that is also dated 1611. This edition has the reading in Ruth 3:15, “…and he went into the citie.” Hence it is now know as the “He” Bible.
The second edition often considered to be a first edition, second issue, has a woodcut carving as the general title page dated 1613 and the same woodcut title page for the New Testament but dated 1611. It differs from the “He” Bible NT woodcut title in that it has an added phrase, “Appointed to be read in churches.” The reading in Ruth 3:15 is, “…and she went into the citie.” This edition is called the Great “She” Bible.
Scholars today are nearly unanimous that the “He” Bible is the first edition and that the “She” Bible is a second edition, not just a second issue. This can easily be demonstrated by comparing the two editions. Nearly every leaf has differences. Some printing errors were corrected in the “She” Bible and new ones introduced. Even some of the woodcut initials that introduced a new book of the Bible were changed.
My worldwide census, published in A Royal Monument of English Literature 2011; 1611-2011, considered only first editions known as the “He” Bible. I recorded full descriptions of the condition and ownership of each copy which gave a unique identification to each copy distinguishing it from any other. (credocommunications.net/kjv)
The search fell into three categories: The first category included “He” Bibles in private or institutional collections. This group of holders housed the largest of the sections. The census revealed a total of 121 copies in this category.
The second category listed “He” Bibles sold at major auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bloomsbury, Bonham, Philips, etc. Understandably, auction houses often want to protect the identity of sellers and buyers, making ownership difficult to determine.
Nevertheless, by giving each copy a full description of its faults, missing leaves, general condition, and provenance, it is fairly simple to register an auction copy without confusing it with a copy already registered. This search discovered 43 copies of the “He” Bible.
The last category was copies listed in the book English Short-Title Catalog (1473-1800). They recorded 40 institutions with 41 copies of the “He” Bible. Out of the 41 copies, 35 copies were already registered, one was no longer at the institution described, one was actually a “She” Bible, and the remaining 4 were listed as likely “He” Bibles but not confirmed.
The total “He” Bibles in the census is 174. No doubt more will come to light as owners wish to get their copies registered. These will be included in a supplement to the census.
Using the British Library ratio, this would suggest an estimate of 700 copies of the second edition “She” Bible.
The census uncovered very interesting information. A copy found at the University of Houston has a handwritten note stating, “This Holy Bible was bought of William Cooper in Hereford Robart [sic] Smith the elder and John Hye Church wardens, and also brought into this church upon the 17th daye of Januarie 1612 Anno R(egni) R(egis) Jacobi 10 which cost 3£.” For comparison in 1611, 100 pounds of pickled pork cost 1½£ or to purchase one great copper kettle 2£. Today a complete copy (very rare) or nearly complete of the 1611 “He” Bible has a value of $80,000-$140,000.
There is much speculation as to how many copies were originally printed. Some scholars believe there could have been as many as 20,000 copies printed in 1611. This figure seems a bit exaggerated. Robert Barker, the printer, was in financial difficulty from the initial publication. To print such a large quantity would place additional financial burdens on Barker. The second edition, the 1613 “She” Bible, was printed very quickly after the original printing, possibly because of the small printing of the 1611.
There were approximately 100 churches in London in the seventeenth century (80 perished in the great fire of 1666) and of course there were more in other parts of the country. However, it is doubtful that 20,000 would have been needed in a first printing. The size of the Bibles (15X17 inches) and the expense of buying a copy ensured that churches made the majority of purchases.
It is more likely that 1500-2000 were originally printed, a normal run for printers. That number would probably satisfy the immediate market demand. The fact that we have only 174 extant copies and that there was no organized attempt to destroy KJV Bibles suggest that the estimate of a run of 1500-2000 is quite reasonable.
While the new census has rewritten the figures on extant first edition King James Bibles, the value of owning a first edition of the most influential Bible in the English world has not diminished. The additional information gained from the census will stir the interest of historians and bibliophiles. The value of the KJV Bibles is not in their rarity, but in their importance to English literature, history, and to the Christian faith.
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