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God's Secretaries: The Making of the King…

God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible

by Adam Nicolson

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Emphasis seemed to be on the politics rather than the text of the Bible, which was what I was hoping to find. ( )
  Diane-bpcb | Jan 17, 2018 |
According to God’s Secretaries author Adam Nicolson, the King James Bible is the only great work of literature ever produced by a committee. I concur with that, and might go a little further- it’s the only great work of any kind ever produced by a committee. Nicolson is perhaps an odd choice for this work, as he’s primarily a travel writer; but perhaps being used to describing strange locales makes him suitable for describing Jacobean England. The bulk of the book does just that, establishing the “look and feel” of the translator’s milieu; and if it rambles a little Nicholson can be forgiven; the 17th century is, after all, a strange locale and wandering around there exposes the traveler to astonishing sights.

James I/VI was an interesting sort; fond of handsome boys yet apparently perfectly happy with his wife; amazed by the wealth of England compared to impoverished Scotland (and quite willing to spend that wealth on his favorites); personally unprepossessing (he had some sort of jaw or mouth defect that caused him to drool continuously); one of the more intelligent English monarchs (admittedly, that’s not saying much, but he is the only one to have his collected works published) yet passionately devoted to hunting. He saw himself as a bringer of peace to both politics – one of his first acts on ascending the throne was a treaty with Spain ending the decades-old war – and religion. The religious divides in England were between Catholics, who didn’t really count, especially after the Gunpowder Plot; Presbyterians, who were willing to remain in The Church of England but with some cavils about the Book of Common Prayer (particularly whether the Greek πρεσβύτεροι meant “priest” or “elder”); Separatists, who were later called Puritans (an insult at the time) and who wanted nothing not sanctioned by the Bible*; and the Church of England. The Catholics were still nominally illegal, as were the Separatists; both were subject to varying degrees of persecution. The King’s new Bible translation was supposed to unite the various groups in harmony. Didn’t, of course, but a noble attempt.

The translators for the King James Bible were divided into “companies”, each charged with a certain section (Old Testament Torah and histories, except Chronicles; Old Testament Chronicles, Psalms and some prophets; Old Testament rest of the prophets; Apocrypha; New Testament Gospels, Acts, and Revelation; New Testament Epistles). The after completing their translations, each company circulated them to all the other companies for further comment and correction. The process seems guaranteed to produce an incomprehensible muddle, if anything at all; it sounds like the government procurement specifications behind some of history’s more unfortunate failed projects. Remarkably, it didn’t turn out that way.

There are few clues to how the process actually worked; some letters and diaries from the translators with comments and a “life” of one of the translators noting that he read aloud to the company; if there were any objections they were noted and discussed; if not he read on. Nicolson makes an important point here; the frontispiece of the King James Bible contains the statement “Appointed to be Read in Churches”, the key being that it was intended to be read aloud and the language and meter were chosen to suit that; Nicholson notes a couple of examples where the words of earlier versions were left intact but punctuation was added to imply pauses and stops in the reading. James used the word “circumlocution” to describe the kind of language he wanted; modern definitions of “circumlocution” imply confusion and unnecessary verbiage but in Jacobean time the word implied “richness” of language. Earlier English Bible versions – most notably the Geneva Bible, put together by English Protestants exiled during the reign of Mary – although read aloud in church, were more intended to be reference works for private study; the Geneva Bible notably had numerous marginal notes on how to interpret Scripture, plus maps of the Holy Land, diagrams of the Temple, and similar aids, while James specifically prohibited marginal notes except to reference other passages or to give precise Hebrew or Greek translations of phrases that had been modified to sound better in English. To my surprise, the King James Bible didn’t catch on right away; published in 1611, it wasn’t made mandatory for church use until 1616 (and even that was done in a roundabout fashion; rather than ban and collect the old Bibles the law simply prohibited printing new editions).

Ironically what was supposed to be a “standard” Bible ended up full of printer’s errors, to the extent that scholars have cataloged better than 25,000 (!) different text versions. (The most famous is probably the “Wicked Bible”, in which a crucial “not” was left out of the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery”). For the initial 1611 edition, it seems that the printer somehow got two “final” manuscripts from the translators and intermingled pages from each.

This is the Bible I grew up with and the language still resonates; updated English versions may be more doctrinally correct but just don’t carry the same majesty of language. Compare:

“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,

A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.


“Lord, I am your servant, and now I can die in peace, because you have kept your promise to me.

With my own eyes I have seen what you have done

To save your people, and foreign nations will also see this

Your mighty power is a light for all nations, and it will bring honor to your people Israel.

It’s Bach versus Barry Manilow.

Nicolson is satisfying on several levels; this a good description of Jacobean England, a good analysis of the religious feeling of the time, and full of capsule biographies of notably people. Highly recommended.

*This was sometimes carried to an extreme extent; one Separatists preacher, assuming that if God wanted an English Bible he would have seen to it that is was written in that language, gave all his sermons in Hebrew or Greek. Since his congregation was almost all illiterate farmers, this must have been singularly trying for them; it was bad enough to have to sit alertly through the traditional three-hour Puritan sermon but listening to it in an alien language must have strained the patience of even the most devout. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 9, 2017 |
This book is more about the early years of the reign of James I and all the people that surrounded him than it is about the making of the Bible. The actual descriptors of the translation of the King James Bible constituted at best 1% of the book. Most of it is descriptions of the people who came together, some well known, some obscure, and about James himself and the kingdom during the transition from Elizabeth to James. It is an interesting read, but extremely repetitive (and not in a useful way; in a redundant way). In addition, the author will often make a point, which he then contradicts by his examples a few paragraphs later. He attempts to be trying to build up James against the reputation of Elizabeth, who he clearly feels was a far below average ruler. His picture of James as a tolerant sort is hampered, however, by the historical details he presents, including the driving of groups of Puritans out of England to America - a fact he discounts as not that important in the overall kingdom, and therefore not a good example of intolerance. In fact, the picture he paints is of a court and a church corrupt and hedonistic, and dissenters who are totally unlikable and unsympathetic as they attempt to free people from the coercion of the Church of England by offering a new form of coercion that is actually much more coercive than the already existing hierarchy. In short, it was hardly the beatific world he tries to present, and hardly the picture of a tolerant and loving monarch that he appears to think he is presenting. That said, the book is very worthwhile for the descriptions of people and places - if you can get past the "gentle" bishop who engaged in and encouraged torture. ( )
  Devil_llama | May 9, 2017 |
Fun popular history of the 1611 King James bible, with some moving defenses of the poetry of the KJV. ( )
  jalbacutler | Jan 10, 2017 |
A readable and interesting history of the King James translation of the Bible. ( )
  kaitanya64 | Jan 3, 2017 |
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Few moments in English history have been more hungry for the future, its mercurial possibilities and its hope of richness, than the spring of 1603.
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God's Secretaries: the Making of the King James Bible (U.S. title) was published in the UK as "Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060838736, Paperback)

A network of complex currents flowed across Jacobean England. This was the England of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Bacon; the era of the Gunpowder Plot and the worst outbreak of the plague. Jacobean England was both more godly and less godly than the country had ever been, and the entire culture was drawn taut between these polarities. This was the world that created the King James Bible. It is the greatest work of English prose ever written, and it is no coincidence that the translation was made at the moment "Englishness," specifically the English language itself, had come into its first passionate maturity. The English of Jacobean England has a more encompassing idea of its own scope than any form of the language before or since. It drips with potency and sensitivity. The age, with all its conflicts, explains the book.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:41 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

A network of complex currents flowed across Jacobean England. This was the England of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Bacon; the era of the Gunpowder Plot and the worst outbreak of the plague. Jacobean England was both more godly and less godly than the country had ever been, and the entire culture was drawn taut between these polarities. This was the world that created the King James Bible.… (more)

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