March 23, 2005


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God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicolson (HarperPerennial, 2005, 281 pages)

Don’t read this when you’re sleepy.

Do read it if you’re alert and at all interested in either immersing yourself (in a history-research way more than a romantic-fantasy way) in the era of Shakespeare or pondering the alleged word of God.

Adam Nicolson’s sentences can be long and demanding, but if he strove to emulate the combination of richness and clarity that he continually praises as the hallmark of the King James Bible, he has succeeded.

It’s 1604 and the English government is caught between competing groups: religious puritans on one side, insisting that people should seek truth directly from the bible and never from fellow human beings, even (or especially) ones who claim divine authority; and Catholics on other side, insisting that people follow the wisdom of the pope and bishops and other special persons. The government is not thrilled with the Catholics but also wants to keep the puritans at bay, because the government itself is a religious authority (they had this little thing called the Church of England, which you could be fined for not attending) and has much to lose if the puritan view wins out. This is the milieu in which King James oversees the creation of a new bible translation.

Nicolson gives us portraits of some individuals involved. There were many, and little is known about most, so he focuses on a few. He delves into the lives of Robert Cecil, suck-up secretary extraordinaire; George Abbot, a man who “would not hesitate, later in his career, to use torture against miscreants” (he also once went shooting deer in Hampshire and “killed a gameskeeper by mistake,” so, see, it happens); and of course King James himself, who was James VI of Scotland before he became James I of England. Nicolson has done his homework, and tells of stumbling on rare original documents tucked away on ordinary library shelves.

The text feels wandery in places but it is substantive. A bank of photos mid-book helps, particularly the contrasting photos of the plain interior of a puritan church and the ornate interior of a coeval royal chapel.

A good read for Culture War Studies 101. B

— Lisa Parsons

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