“Prayer closet” a KJV-ism


Having a lot of fun sifting through Appendix B of Translation that Openeth the Window, ed. David Burke. This is a book of top-notch essays on the King James Version of the Bible, published by the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL). Appendix B is titled “Words That Have Changed in Meaning.” Say the editors:

“The following is a list of over five hundred archaic and obsolete words and phrases in the King James Bible, along with their contemporary equivalents, to help the modern reader understand more readily the meaning of the King James Version. Each expression is followed by those passages containing the expression particularly likely to cause some degree of misunderstanding.”

And there it is, nestled among the “C”s:

“closet(s) private room(s), Joel 2:16; Matt 6:6; Luke 12:3.”

And suddenly I understand why the Victorian evangelicals I studied in my doctoral work (and some of their modern heirs) keep talking about “prayer closets.” It’s one of those KJV-isms that means something different today than it did when the translators put their “Authorized Version” together in 1611.

I wonder–how many Americans have actually converted a clothes-closet to a prayer space based on this misunderstood word?

It’s worth noting that although “closet”–used to mean a private room set aside for prayer (and not ever having been a room used for storing clothes!) does appear to have had at least a century-long English usage before the KJV’s publication in 1611. I haven’t checked this in the OED, but I suspect that source would verify this usage. However, at least some of the archaisms listed in Burke’s appendix were by no means commonly used in 1611, and people of that day found the language of the KJV odd and archaic.

In God’s Secretaries, Adam Nicholson writes that “some critics thought its dependence on a kind of English which seemed sixty or seventy years out of date (although its English was in fact a form no one had ever spoken) made it ridiculous and bogus.” This complaint was echoed two centuries later by Henry Hallam, the historian (1777-1859), who remarked that “the King James Version abounds in uncouth phrases and in words whose meaning is not familiar, and that whatever is to be said it is, at any rate, not in the English of the time of King James.”26

By the way: the image above, from Wikimedia Commons, is described on that site as follows:”Lady Margaret Beaufort, c1500, This is the most famous portrait of Margaret (1443 to 1509), mother of King Henry VII. of England; She kneels in prayer; the room is a superb representation of the typical royal ‘closet’, or prayer room. The portcullis, the Beauforts’ emblem, is visible in the rondelle in the window on the left and in the tapestry on the right. This portrait is held at Cambridge University, which Margaret generously supported during her lifetime. The painting was presented To St John’s College in 1598.”

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