Mark Noll’s answer to the question is “both.” Today I had the privilege of hearing him lecture on the topic, “‘Isn’t This the Book of the People?’ The King James Version in America.” Mark Noll is an emeritus faculty member of Wheaton College and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He has written two dozen books, many of them on the relationship between theology and culture.
Noll outlined the pervasive influence of the KJV on American culture and politics. From the retail business to place names like Beulah and Salem, from art and film to language and literature, there is no doubt that the KJV has left its stamp on America. Even the inaugural addresses of many of our presidents have been laced with quotations and allusions to the King James Version. (He mentioned John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon as recent examples, noting that Barack Obama is the first American president whose general practice is to quote from more modern translations). Also notable are the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 (quoting Amos 5:24 and Isa 40:4) and Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, where quotations from four biblical passages in the KJV formed the very skeleton of his speech! There is no question that the KJV’s lofty style elevated English literature and shaped public discourse.
The popularity of the KJV in American high culture did not preclude its widespread use among common people, though, even among the marginalized. Noll mentioned feminist and African American readers who preferred the KJV over other versions available. This is remarkable considering its coercive use by proponents of slavery. The King James was so widely available that no one group could co-opt it for their own ends. It was everyone’s Bible. That was its strength.
As with most things, strengths can become weaknesses. Noll pointed out some disturbing historical problems arising from the use of the KJV. These problems do not stem from the translation itself (Noll thinks it was a good one for its time), but because of its overwhelming popularity and pervasive use. The KJV gave America the lofty language with which it could talk about any number of subjects. Noll called it “an omnipresent source” for allusions and quotations which bestowed a “sacred aura” on public discourse. The mere cadence of KJV-inspired speech was seen as having a certain authority, quite apart from the content of the message. Critical thinking skills were numbed by familiarity. This resulted in confusion between literary and spiritual influence, and between the role of church and state. It was easy to sound Christian without being one.
I couldn’t write fast enough to capture all of the items in Noll’s scathing rebuke of the anti-intellectualism that has been engendered by the KJV. It was shocking. The KJV has, he says, spawned the wrong kind of creation science, enabled the misuse of the Bible to promote slavery, and has even given rise to bibliolatry, or worship of the book itself (in this version!) rather than the God who inspired it. Noll would prefer a dozen modern dynamic-equivalence translations over a lofty, literal, archaic one because the meaning of Scripture is made plain to those who need to know Jesus Christ. He asked, referring to the ability of modern translations to speak to lost souls, “Isn’t the worse translation the better Bible?” [This, in case you’re wondering, did not go over well with Dr. Leland Ryken, in whose honor the conference is being held. Ryken evidently feels that something crucial is lost when lofty style is abandoned in favor of common speech.]
In short, Noll sees both positive and negative effects of the KJV on American culture. Its popularity was a boon to biblically-infused literary expression. But any monopoly has its drawbacks. We need healthy dialogue, not dominance of one point of view. Noll is encouraged by the signs that evangelicals are beginning to make substantive intellectual contributions to society. Ironically, the number of empty seats in the auditorium may have been an indication that he is right. While most evangelicals are willing to admit the great literary, cultural, and spiritual legacy of the KJV, it appears that they are also eager to move on.