The Origin of the Title “The Authorized Version” for the KJV

I have long thought that the proper term for the King James Version is “the Authorized Version.” At times, I’ve wondered if that title isn’t more of a British title, since most Americans prefer “King James Version” or simply the “King James Bible.” But I recently read a historical essay by David Bebbington, professor of History at the University of Stirling, Scotland, in which he points out the fact that the King James Version was not always known as “The Authorized Version.” Bebbington’s essay, “The King James Bible in Britain from the Late Eighteenth Century,” appears in a collection of important historical essays published by Baylor University Press (2011) under the title, The King James Bible and the World It Made (edited by David Lyle Jeffrey).

Bebbington argues convincingly that the King James Bible did not enjoy universal acclaim in the eighteenth century until the very end of that period. In a post at my personal blog, I excerpted Bebbington’s conclusion, which argues that “the enthusiasm for the translation of 1611 rose and fell with the growth and decay of Romantic sensibility.” In the excerpt provided below, I would like to quote his description of how the title “the Authorized Version” came to be used for the King James Bible.

A fourth explanation of the rising tide of admiration for the translation of 1611 was its redefinition as “the Authorized Version.” The title emerged for the first time in a debate provoked by the creation of the [British and Foreign] Bible Society. Whereas the society’s evangelical supporters considered the new agency a bulwark of the existing social order, the High Church party thought it a sinister development. It threatened the work of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, the established Anglican organization for circulating the Scriptures. Furthermore, the timing was unfortunate. During 1804, the year of the society’s foundation, Napoleon’s forces were poised to invade the country, and in the heightened alarm, the equal presence of Dissenters alongside Churchmen on the society’s committee seemed poentially subversive. Had not Dissenters once killed an English king, Charles I? Thomas Sikes, the High Church vicar of Guilsborough, Northamptonshire, warned that, when the production of the sacred text was being entrusted to “sectaries,” nobody could be confident that they would not tamper with the translations. In order to calm such fears, John Owen, one of the society’s secretaries, replied that the organization was limited to producing versions “printed by authority.” When an opponent pointed out that this restriction had not been stated formally, the society hastened in May 1805 to revise its constitution so as to read, “The only copies in the languages of the United Kingdom to be circulated by the Society, shall be the authorised version, without note or comment.” Thus the phrase “the authorized version” was launched on the world as an apologetic device for the Bible Society. By 1819 the phrase had been heard so often that it crept for the first time into the Times newspaper, though still with a lowercase “a,” showing that it was not yet a title. The steady growth of the usage is documented in the number of times in each subsequent decade the phrase occurred in the Times: 1820s, 7; 1830s, 41; 1840s, 61; 1850s, 91. By the last of these decades, the expression was starting to be capitalized, demonstrating that it had emerged as a title. Thereafter “the Authorized Version” became the standard term for the 1611 Bible in Britain, where the phrase “King James Bible” was hardly ever used. The new title surrounded this particular text, as it was originally intended to do, with an aura of unique legitimacy. It helped forward the process by which the version became embedded more deeply in the national culture. (pg. 53-54)

You can pick up a copy of this book at any of the following online retailers: CBD, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Baylor University Press.

Disclaimer: This book was provided by Baylor University Press for review. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.

6 thoughts on “The Origin of the Title “The Authorized Version” for the KJV

  1. bibleprotector December 13, 2011 / 8:53 pm

    “Bebbington argues convincingly that the King James Bible did not enjoy universal acclaim in the eighteenth century until the very end of that period.”

    I don’t think that any convincing argument could be made, considering that the King James Bible dominated from 1660. Publication, quotation and all such indicators show that the King James Bible was considered the normal, common, standard and proper Bible throughout the eighteenth century. To say otherwise smacks of historical revisionism.

    1611 – English Civil Wars — Anglicans and moderate Puritans progressively take up the Authorized Version
    1611 – ECWs — Extreme Puritans prefer Geneva
    1640s – 1650s — Some Puritans desire a new version, however the government publishes the KJB
    1660 onward — most people use the Authorized Version
    Eighteenth century — the KJB considered the normal, common, standard and proper Bible, some argue for its literary merit and praise it in a manner which today is called “AVolatry”
    1798 — Granville Sharp criticises the KJB in a time when it is dominant, nothing replaces it
    1804 — the BFBS etc., use the KJB, and it continues to dominate for the rest of the century
    1830s and following decades — talk concerning the KJB regards the accuracy of its editing and printing, which eventually is the reason for something like Scrivener’s 1873 edition
    1870s and 80s — the rise of the Revised Version, amidst controversy, although enthusiastically received in some quarters, the version fails
    Twentieth century — the King James Bible is the dominant version
    Twentieth century — modern versions from mid-century gain a foothold, RSV, NASV and NIV
    1980s — there is a shift among many conservatives to versions like the NKJV

    Clearly, the KJB can be objectively described as being “universal” to English speakers from 1660 to 1960.

    • Andrew Suttles December 14, 2011 / 4:53 pm

      BP –

      Do you know how many KJVs were printed in 1611? Since it was taken up ‘progressively’, you seem to indicate large numbers were printed.

      Can you define *extreme* Puritans versus *Moderate* Puritans? I’ve never heard this distinguished before.

      Regarding the predominance of the KJV in the 1600s, given that it was the only version permitted to be printed, it is impossible to say that its predominance is based on superiority.

      > “Clearly, the KJB can be objectively described as being “universal” to English speakers from 1660 to 1960.”

      I can’t argue with this. Additionally, we may well find that amongst those Bibles that are ‘actually read’, it is still predominant today. 🙂

    • bibleprotector December 16, 2011 / 5:55 am


      When I said the KJB was taken up progressively, I am talking about something that took several decades. I seem to remember reading that 3000 copies were thought to be printed in 1611, but it is well known that the Geneva Bible continued to be printed and used for the rest of that generation. Therefore, the rise of the KJB was progressive. But interestingly, because the moderate puritans like Samuel Ward were pro-KJB, thus, a pro-KJB attitude did exist among Puritans.

      As for “moderate” versus “extreme” puritans, I mean, those who are contentious as opposed to being reasonable based on a point of conscience.

      In the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, moderate Puritans were those who would stay within the Anglican Church (i.e. broadly), even if they held to a “root and branch” view. The Cromwellian view is the moderate view, that is, in favour of peace, stability and settling. While it was certainly laudable (pun) to resist a romanising prelacy, the effusion of blood and gold in such a conflict was for the ends of the greater good. Providence revealed this to be so.

      Whereas extremes would lead one astray because it would be counter what Edward Hills called “the common faith”, that is, a radical view going outside of orthodoxy. The trait of extremism might be manifested in some particular groups, some anti-Independent English Presbyterians, or one of the fringe groups that rose after the English Civil Wars.

  2. Andrew Suttles December 16, 2011 / 10:00 am

    Thanks, BP.

    I get the pun by the way.

    well said…

  3. Nazaroo December 20, 2011 / 6:46 am

    Bebbington’s conclusion does not properly do justice to the difference between language and habit, and actual on-the-ground battle conditions.

    Battle conditions can be defined as immediate, current, and fully relevant conditions observable as they occur, without perceptible lag.

    Lag is caused by the gap between what is actually taking place in real-time, and the often much longer process of perception, interpretation, evaluation in a broader historical context, and effective description in language which must often be developed in coordination with understanding of a long and partly hidden process. The final description frequently and naturally involved the coining of new language, expression, and formal definitions not in existence at the time of observations.

    It is well known that broadly speaking, language lags behind events by several generations, the classic example being that the lingua franca of the Greek Empire was non-existant, while that of the Roman Empire was Greek, and that of the Middle-Ages (post 800 A.D.) was Latin (Roman).

    On a smaller scale and with much shorter time frames, we find the coining of terms suffers similar patterns and delays. By the time “Authorized Version” was fully coined and circulated, it was describing a situation two centuries after the fact. We may accept Bebbington’s evidence that the term only achieved extensive circulation between 1850-1900, but this was the very time that the authority in Britain of the A.V. was in fact crumbling, being actively hacked to pieces by impatient revolutionaries.

    The true dominance and power of the A.V. in Britain, and its Golden Era, must be ascribed to between 1660 (when it was first assaulted by dangerous Unitarians like Newton), and 1830 (when the British Bible Society was finally taken over by Unitarians).

    The war for the establishment of a single authoritative English translation by 1850 had already been won, and was now being lost. The term Authorized Version was coined just in time to see its authority critically cracked and broken down beyond repair in the public eye. This was due mainly to the unwarranted and unfortunate ‘fifth column’ of textual critics who prematurely ejaculated their 19th century pseudo-scientific conclusions onto the stage. In part due a complete inability to comprehend the bewildering evidences, and in part due to a complete lack of any real scientific methodology, textual criticism entered its darkest and most stubbornly persistent period of ‘know-it-all-ism’, with a pronouncement against the traditional text which was actually a complete reversal of the plausible historical facts.

    The hyper-critical and heavily mutilated, bungled ‘reconstruction’ of the text, based on a shallow and errant group of readings circulating in the 2nd to 4th centuries became the entrenched ‘Textus Receptus’ of the 20th century.

    In the context of a slew of German critical speculation and open attack, the Bible’s credibility and authority was eroded to a point of crisis in the public mind. Men began freely to rebel against all tradition and authority, and even historical common sense.

    Like the ghastly creatures who cheered the death of Aslan in the night, the world became a madhouse of revelry, lewdly celebrating the ‘death’ of the Bible text.

    A small remnant of true believers, who had not been swayed by the smoke and mirrors grimly held onto the traditions of their fathers, but it would be a small consolation, in a world which all but abandoned Godliness in favor of the new ‘God’, scientism.

  4. James Snapp, Jr. December 23, 2011 / 11:21 am

    Hi Bob,

    This is a rather trivial point but I will chime in anyway.

    I’m not sure what to make of this snippet from the essay. Did the author actually *show* that Sikes’ caution was a response to the foundation of the BFBS, or did he just observe that they happened at about the same time, and posit the cause-and-effect relationship that he describes? And did he *show* that Owen’s statement that the Society would produce only authorized versions was actually a “reply” to Sikes, instead of something the Society was going to do anyway?

    Not that it makes a big difference. But the author overstates his case when he says that the term “authorized version” was “launched on the world as an apologetic device for the Bible Society.” I don’t grant that it is altogether an “apologetic device” to summarize what it stated on the KJV’s title-page.

    In related news: the Trinitarian Bible Society offers a nifty summary about the KJV, called, “The Authorised Version: A Wonderful and Unfinished History” which I think you may enjoy. It can be downloaded for free at the TBS website; use the “Articles” link in the sidebar there and it should be easy to find.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

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