Overwhelmingly, the King James Version has been the “Bible of America”–and although there are plenty of other versions to choose from now, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. In other words, American language, religious thought, and literature, where it has derived from an English Bible, has derived almost exclusively from the KJV.
[On the KJV in African American Churches, see here.]
No one has chronicled this better than David Daniell, in his 900-page doorstop of a book (and I mean that in a good way), The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). The following are some glimpses into the goldmine of research Daniell has given us in that book, into how the KJV rose, proliferated, and dominated in America.
“The Bible the settlers brought with them, even some years after the King James Bible was first issued in 1611, was far more likely to have been a version of the 1599 annotated Geneva Bible than, to coin a phrase, the marginally challenged Bishops’ [Bible].” (409)
But although the Pilgrims and Puritans of the mid-1600s brought with them their beloved Geneva Bibles, this was not to be the translation of the future in the New World, any more than it was in the Old World. No, the future belonged to the King James Version–and this became clear with the printing of the very first Bible on American soil:
“In England in 1777, scholar and clerics were disputing and refining the King James Version text after 150 years of careful production. In America, the English Bible was being printed for the first time.
“The 1777 Aitken New Testament, though rightly a treasure in American life, is not as an object very remarkable. The whole Bible, which followed four years later, again from the Philadelphia printing hosue of Robert Aitken, is again not a particularly impressive reissue of the KJV. Yet once started, American printers were neither slow nor restricted. By 1800, twenty-three years after their first New Testament, there were in circulation seventy different printings of the Bible, some of them already rich with engravings and notes, from presses in eleven different towns. By 1840, there had been over a thousand, from over forty places. Many of those are wonderful volumes to see, and some were made far from the east coast, in Alabama and Missouri. Twenty years after that, in 1860, when print-runs of other books ran to scores of thousands, and there were thousands of local newspapers, a further 650 different American Bibles had been published, some printed in huge numbers. . . .” (580)
“. . . that part of the account of the English Bible which is especially American has to be, for the middle decades of the nineteenth century, about an avalanche of giant, heavily bound Family Bibles, all of them KJVs, full of pictures and massive extra  matter, sold in colossal numbers right across the States as an essential piece of furniture in the American home. The story of the printing of English Bibles in America has been, after a late start, of amazing success, becoming, in the last years of the twentieth century[,] bewildering excess.” (580-1)
“The printing of their own Bibles might be thought of as a political necessity for the men who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. They should no longer be bound by the British Crown’s copyright on the Scriptures. The blocking of imports during the Revolution was only a temporary check, however, on the regular thousands of copies of KJV arriving in the new United States from Englalnd. Here one first encounters three unexpected circumstances that will haunt the story of the Bible in America. First is the reluctance of the first Congresses to have anything to do with such a printing. American legend exalts those devout and holy men, as they are said to have been, and makes them eager to support an American-printed Bible. It was not so. In spite of appeals to Congress, the Bible of its printer, Robert Aitken, was a financial disaster. Second is the sold, near-absolute dependence of this new, adventurous nation on KJV, on the Scriptures in archaic English fixed under a British monarch long before. The Crown copyright, legally enforced, was not the only thing that kept the United States back from printing their own Bibles: even from the time that it was no longer law, there can be detected a reverential need for what must have been felt to be the ‘proper’ Word of God, the King James Version. With that goes a third mystery, to which I shall return: that is the failure of American leaders to challenge KJV as a translation, to encourage local American scholars to work afresh from the Greek and Hebrew to make a truly American Bible for the emerging American nation. One reason among others for the long delay (over 140 years after The Bay Psalm Book) in printing complete Bibles in America must not be overlooked. This was the gritty fact that though, by the 1770s, there were some fifty printing shops on the eastern seaboard, none of them was equipped, either financially or mechanically, for an operation requiring as much type, paper and labour as printing a complete Bible. Modern methods of paper making and type can disguise what a big book the Bible is. The book of Genesis alone is about forty-five thousand words, the length of a respectable short novel. Yet even so, it is striking how slow America was to Americanise the Bible.” (581)
In 1777, Aitken printed his New Testament as an independent venture. Then in 1781, “Robert Aitken petitioned Congress  for support and sanction for the printing of a complete Bible.”
An excerpt of his appeal:
“To the Honourable The Congress of the United States of America The Memorial of Robert Aitken of the City of Philadelphia, Printer
“That in every well regulated Government in Christendom The Sacred Books of the Old and New Testament, commonly called the Holy Bible, are printed an published under the Authority of the Sovereign Powers, in order to prevent the fatal confusion that would arise, and the alarming injuries the Christian Faith might suffer from the Spurious and erroneous Editions of Divine Revelation . . .” (all 587)
“When this Bible appeared in September 1782, the first volume included, after the standard KJV title-page, now with the State arms of Pennsylvania . . . a page and a half of the commendations of Congress, giving Aitken ‘applause and encouragement’ for his work . . .” (587)
Also included in this edition is a “Resolution of Congress,” which reads in part: “Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an instance of the progress of the arts in this country . . . they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States . . .” (588)
“Thus, eleven months after the British surrendered at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War, America had its own adequately printed complete English Bible. It had to compete with stocks of better-produced copies of King James Version from London, Oxford and Cambridge, which, in spite of shipping costs, could be sold in American shops more cheaply.” (589)
Aitken printed “an astonishing ten thousand copies, of which fifty survive.” But apparently the volume did not do well against the competition from abroad. In a memorial to Congress asking for “a fourteen-year patent ‘exclusively to print the Holy Scriptures’ . . . he states that in the publication of his Bible he had lost ‘more than three thousand pounds in specie’.” (589)
“Other printers in other towns (Trenton, Boston, New York, New Haven) produced New Testaments in the ten years after 1782.” (589)
“By 1792, other printers in other states had produced more elaborate versions and founded successful, profitable, Bible-publishing firms. Demand for Bibles rose quickly with the local revivals of piety, especially in the north east; with the firmer establishment in the chief towns of old, and new, denominations; and especially with the fiery spread of evangelism, soon to affect dramatically the western frontiers.” (590)
New section: “The rapid commercial development of embellished KJVs: Isaiah Thomas and his folio Bible of 1791” (594ff)
“In 1791 Isaiah Thomas of Worcester, Massachusetts, printed the first folio [“A book or manuscript of the largest common size, usually about 38 centimeters (15 inches) in height”] Bible from an American press. It came in two large attractive volumes (occasionally in one) with, at the end of the New Testament, an index, and fifty plates. Thomas’s printing is the first of many American folio  Bibles. It is also the first of very many American Bibles to be illustrated by Americans, as all the plates, he announces, were made by four American engravers. Thomas should be here saluted as the forerunner of a splendid, American tradition of assertively American Bible illusttration, even if the results were often bizarre.” (594-5)
Isaiah Thomas was a fascinating person. A “craftsman-scholar,” born in Boston in 1750 (whose first name, as Daniell points out suggested “the biblical climate of the time), Thomas surprisingly had “only a few weeks of indifferent schooling” before “at the age of six he was apprenticed to a printer.” He founded a newspaper named the Massachusetts Spy, reflecting the fact that he was one of those in 1775 who “joined Paul Revere, William Dawes and others in alerting the countryside before the fighting at Lexington and Concord,” in which action he himself took part. Soon after this, he “began manufacturing paper, and soon became the leading publisher and bookseller of that time. He had branches in half a dozen towns, including Boston and Baltimore.” Among his printing enterprises were magazines, a widely-used almanac, “the first dictionary printed in America, music (importing type) and, among much else, more than a hundred children’s books.” (595)
When it came to his King James Version, the craftsman in Thomas came out in spades. Unlike the Barker printing house in England that had first published the KJV over a century and a half before, Thomas worked to make his new KJV “completely correct,” collating “ ‘nearly thirty’ KJVs of various dates, imported from  different printers. He then arranged for his own proof sheets to be supervised by local clergymen and scholars.” (595-6)
Thomas also “understood his market. The Quarto [a book size of about 9 1 / 2 × 12 in. (24 × 30 cm), determined by folding printed sheets twice to form four leaves or eight pages] has some KJV marginal notes, and twice as many others, and cross-references, and, at the ack, indexes and tables and John Brown’s concordance. Thomas was making Bibles for different needs: his prospectuses were addresed To the Revered Clergy, To Christians of Every Denomination, and To the Publick at large. The Apocrypha was standard in both, but could be optional in the Folio [refer to the Apocrypha piece, adapted from the fellow’s paper], as could be the plates (which varied) and the Concordance in the Quarto. In the Quarto were printed, for the first time in America, blank Family Record pages, a feature of so many lavish editions in the next century. Before the standard KJV ‘Address of the Translators’ is an account of the makin gof that King James Version. Most remarkably, Thomas announced unique arrangements for payment. The ‘Conditions’ in the Quarto prospectus, which include advertising the ‘elegant new types’ helpful to the eyes of ‘the aged and infirm’, go on in ‘Condition IV’ to specify that the cost, ‘seven dollars, although the English Editions of the same size, and of inferior quality, are sold for eight or nine dollars . . .’ can, to make up half, be paid in ‘Wheat, Rye, Indian Corn, Butter, or Pork’. Post-Revolutionary Massachusetts is vividly seen.” (596)
Despite Thomas’s valiant attempts at precision, it was Delaware Quaker Isaac Collins’s 1791 Bible that became the standard for accuracy. That Bible was something new on the American horizon; “the American Bible embellished for home study,” including a longer concordance than the John Brown’s (this was “Downame’s Concordance,” popular in England), plus frequent marginal notes and, between the two testaments, a detailed account of the basic argument of each book in the Bible. It also goes all the way in “Americanness,” deleting the standard “Dedication to King James” and putting in its place an address to the reader by John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) who served for twelve years as a congressman.
Nearly a dozen other Bibles or New Testaments were produced in America during the years 1791 and 1792. Says David Daniell, “In the rush of printers in these years to make money, Bibles came in many shapes, some of them ugly. Those that are over-packed strained to get everything between small covers, usually the result of including the Apocrypha.” Daniell notes that it is a myth that Protestant Bibles did not include the Apocryphal books. Having examined KJBs printed throughout the nineteenth century, he discovered that in at least the first half of that century, more of them than not included the Apocrypha.
Expanding even upon this tradition of packed study Bibles with concordances and notes was the massive multi-volume “Scott’s Bible” of 1804, an annotated King James Version first printed in Britain. Says Daniell, “The additional material in these volumnes of ‘Scott’ is vast. An edition of 1812 has, at the end of the fifth volume, 365 pages of Concordance in triple columns. Long chapter summaries take up a lot of room, and there are dense references in both margins of every page. Also on every page, at the foot, is a great deal of commentary in small print—on some verses (for example, Exodus 20:13, ‘Thou shalt not kill’) crowding out all but four words of Bible text.”
The ‘Scotts’ sold briskly—between 1808 and 1819, over 25,000 copies. Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Scott’ is still to be found in the Library of Congress. Jefferson, a Deist (believer in the existence of God and the morality—but not divinity—of Christ) created his own “cleansed” New Testament: a KJV with all of the miracles and other material unacceptable to Deists scissored out. “The manuscript ends with the great stone rolled to the door of the sepulchre at Matthew 27:60.”
Crucial to this mushrooming growth of Bible sales were the new “Bible Societies” founded in America in the 1800s, along with the associated Sunday School and Tract Societies. Many such societies were local groups of citizens who bought Bibles at cost for resale to their neighbors. Their goal: to put a Bible in the hands of every American. When in 1816 thirty-four of these societies joined to form the American Bible Societies, they launched into achieving this goal with a will. Avowedly non-sectarian, the ABS had printed, by 1850, the King James Version in almost sixty different forms. Their output in 1829 alone was an astounding 360,000 Bibles—this, at a time when first editions of books usually topped out at around 2,000! In 1845, that number increased to over 417,000; in each year of the 1860s, the ABS printed over a million Bibles.
Such powerhouses were the Bible publishers in America during the 1800s that they drove technical innovations in their industry: paper quality improved, stereotypes replaced costly standing type, power presses multiplied output, in-house binding reduced costs. The ABS itself pioneered so effectively in such quality-improving and cost-cutting measures that they were attacked as a monopoly. And indeed, through the economies of scale, they were able to sell New Testaments for an unbeatable six cents apiece, and whole Bibles at forty-five cents—prices almost impossible for smaller publishers to beat. Soon they stopped trying and began to capitalize on that other trend toward huge KJV editions with thousands of annotations and lavish illustrations.
Of course, someone had to sell all these Bibles, and the 1840s saw the innovation of the “colporteur”—the door-to-door Bible salesman. The ABS soon employed a national network of these hardy folks, and other publishers followed suit. And what version was it that poured from America’s presses during those heady days? Almost exclusively King James Versions. David Daniell says that by 1850, seventy-three years after the first Bible was printed on American soil, “nearly fifteen hundred separate editions of KJV had been published in America.”
Daniell, of the mid-nineteenth century: “Such solid parlour Bibles in so many homes, and the American Bible Society Bibles in so many pockets: the Word preached from King James Version on Sundays in churches and nightly from revivalists’ platforms: the sense of that version as an American monument—these things did give the American nation a sense of itself as a Protestant country.”
But then, imminent conflict (Daniell again): “The nearly overwhelming arrival of Irish and other immigrants in the 1840s challenged that, even with violence: they were almost all Catholics. Soon, Roman Catholics outnumbered every other denomination in America.” [segue to Bible Riots]
And segue to the literature stuff (Daniell): “Is it any wonder, when as a central commodity in so many American homes has been a revered book of enormous size, that American literature, and particularly the American novel, scarcely stopping to consider, made itself enormous?”
“Between the beginning of 1840 and the end of 1900, 1,053 different editions of the English New Testament or complete Bible were published.” (701) “Only a handful out of the total of 1,053 were not KJVs, some being Catholic versions, Rheims-Douai or fresh from the Vulgate. The new republic’s love affair with the English Bible was with the Word still dressed as an old, monarchical parent of empire. Much of the additional matter, from points of detail like the use of italics to the great bulk of additional matter, still came from British KJVs. It is odd.” (702) Daniell wonders aloud about the “possible reasons for the continuing and extravagant all-American devotion to KJV.” (702)
But first, he wants to look further at the sheer volume of Bibles bought in America during the 19th century:
“We are in the presence of a Bible-buying phenomenon, beyond anything seen anywhere else in the world. In the United States in the second half of the century it went with being able to buy more magazines and books, as the scale of printing and distribution, especially of cheap reading matte,r exploded. Yet in America at that time the English Bible was special. The earlier Protestant faith in teaching people to read, meshed with religious beliefs, had made the Bile the most imported book, and then the most printed, most distributed and most read text in North America. Even more than in the eighteenth century, if any book touched the lives of Americans it was a Bible. A writer in 1817 commented that Americans were a people who ‘knew much of their bible’ and ‘little besides’. Greatly increasing even from 1817, Bible language and stories dominated the world of American print ‘creating countless idioms, metaphors, narrative themes and publishing innovations’.”
Daniell on the African-American absorption of the King James Version during slavery days:
“It was a crime to teach slaves to read and write, lest they began to get, and disseminate, the wrong ideas, about liberty, dignity, justice and personal fulfilment. But, like their English spiritual forebears, they heard the Bible read. It is startling how wide is the Bible knowledge in the spirituals [the slaves’ religious songs], the basic materials of which have been described as ‘native African rhythms and the King James Version of the Bible.’” (707) And he notes appropriately: “Bible phrases in the spirituals were more than simply hauntingly memorable: they were the good news of life affirmed and passed on: ‘gospel’ indeed.” (708)
- The King James Bible at 400 (nytimes.com)
- The power and glory of King James Bible (boston.com)
- The bible that even atheists worship (independent.co.uk)
- The Lasting Impact Of The King James Bible, 400 Years Later (npr.org)