The first English Bible in America

When did the first King James Bible reach American soil? Photo: King James I of England Photo: Donald Brake

Flower Mound, TX December 30, 2011—The year 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the printing of the King James Bible (1611). Displays, conferences, and special services recognize this greatest of all works of English prose. The impact the King James Bible has had on American life is a remarkable story. But when did this English treasure arrive in the new world?

 As early as 1584, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted Sir Walter Raleigh a seven-year charter to colonize North America. Raleigh’s expedition to Roanoke Island arrived in July 1584. It is quite possible and even probable that a Bible came on this voyage, but no written evidence has surfaced.

 In 1606 James I of England granted permission for a group of about 200 businessmen from the Virginia Company to set sail for the new world. By 1607 Jamestown became the first English settlement in North America and, no doubt, some of the passengers carried the Bible for consolation in the challengers of the new life.

 However, the King James Bible (1611) was not yet printed. The Geneva Bible first published in 1560 was the popular Bible for the Puritan group and the 1568 Bishops’ Bible was the choice of the traditional Anglican group. If a Bible was aboard in 1607, it would have been a Bishops’ or Geneva Bible. To date no Bible with a specific provenance has been uncovered.

 The strongly Calvinistic Puritans preferred the Geneva Bible because of its heavily annotated notes supporting many of the Calvinistic doctrines. Puritans took the Bible very seriously and attempted to apply it to every area of political, religious and social life. The translation was engineered by protestant dissidents who fled England to Geneva, Switzerland during Bloody Mary’s anti-Protestant reign of terror. A new beginning in a new land brought the hope of religious freedom. The small compact Bible printed in easily read Latin letter and verse divisions made it a good choice for the long voyage to America.

 The Anglicans preferred the large formal Bishops’ Bible translated by scholarly Bishops of the Anglican Church. It had no notes and had the formal approval of the established church. It never reached popularity among common church laity.

 The Pilgrims sailing on the Mayflower in 1620 could have had a copy of the King James Bible, but more likely, they too would have carried the Geneva Bible. However, A King James Bible printed in 1620  being displayed in connection with the Manifold Greatness Exhibit at various locations around the United States claims to have come over on the Mayflower with John Alden. Interestingly, Alden was the ship’s carpenter on the Mayflower. Perhaps he did not identify with the Puritans and preferred the new version of the King James Bible.

 In 1630 John Winthrop brought the first recorded copy of the King James Bible to America (a 1614 edition). Henry Dunster (1609-59), the first president of Harvard College (1640-59), owned another early copy of the King James Bible.

 The Puritans’ strict and legalistic use of the Bible eventually gave way to the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century and a more moderate reading of the Bible. The new movement resulted in the development of biblical educational principles, the establishment of colleges, and the consolidation of political influence. The King James Bible enabled the clergy to forge a more moderate approach to theology and ecclesiastical practice. Churches entered a time of steady growth both numerically and spiritually.


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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.

Contact Donald L. Brake, Sr.


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