Exhibit looks at the King James Version's role in the American Revolution

The Rev. Timothy Safford of Christ Church with the Vinegar Bible of 1717, so called because of its misspelling of "vineyard."
The Rev. Timothy Safford of Christ Church with the Vinegar Bible of 1717, so called because of its misspelling of "vineyard."
Posted: April 06, 2011

In an age when the fires of revolution are spread through cyberspace, it's hard to imagine that the leather-bound volumes resting in display cases at Old Christ Church once had the same incendiary effect.

But the Authorized King James Edition of the Bible, translated into English 400 years ago from Latin and Greek with the aid of earlier versions, was nothing short of a radical text whose populist ethos sowed the seeds of the American Revolution.

"It was the colonists' belief - which they discovered in Scripture, in English - that humankind is free because freedom is an inalienable right endowed by their divine maker," the Rev. Timothy Safford said Tuesday.

It is "justly famous for its beautiful language," he said. "But it also has an American story - and a Philadelphia story."

A first-edition King James "pulpit Bible," printed in 1611, is among 19 historic Bibles on exhibit through the end of May at the church, on North Second Street in Old City.

Most of the well-worn tomes have been in the church's collection for centuries. Chances are, many of the nation's founders - the likes of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, and Benjamin Rush - sat in the painted pews and heard the Holy Writ read from some of them.

On Thursday only, an even rarer treasure will be put on display: an "Aitken's" Bible, on brief loan from the Library Company of Philadelphia.

That Bible, Safford said, represented a "second Declaration of Independence."

In 1782, the Continental Congress decided not to use the Bible authorized by the crown, and cast about for a citizen of the colonies to authorize an American version. Local printer Robert Aitken was commissioned to publish a King James edition, true to the original but expressly printed for the new nation. It was turned over to the Rev. William White, rector of Christ Church and chaplain to Congress, to declare it authoritative.

Historians at the church speculate that White simply proofread Aitken's pages as they came off the presses, comparing them with his own texts and pronouncing them accurate.

"The King James Version may be 400 years old," said Safford, "but it's also the Bible of the Revolution."

Also on display at the church is a massive, lavishly illustrated "Vinegar Bible" of 1717. Its nickname derives from its many typographical errors, the most famous of which is its reference to the "Parable of the Vineyard" as the "Parable of the Vinegar."

There are also a 1591 Latin Bible; a 1698 Latin and Greek edition of the New Testament; an 1822 German Bible; a Hebrew Bible from 1822, and a "Thomson" Bible.

Modestly sized, the Thomson is the first Bible translated into English by an American from the ancient Greek Septuagint text. Charles Thomson - who had notified Washington of his election to the presidency - produced the edition, printed in Philadelphia in 1808.

Safford, rector of Christ Church for 12 years, has reason to take pride in the role the Bible played in fostering the American Revolution: Many of the nation's founders worshipped at the church when they were in Philadelphia.

On July 4, 1776, the vestry voted - treasonously - to scratch the name of "his Most Gracious Sovereign Lord King George" from its Book of Common Prayer.

Long before that, British monarchs had feared that an English version of the Bible might instill in their subjects dangerous ideas of religious autonomy, and even democracy.

In 1604, however, the scholarly King James I impaneled 47 men to turn the Good Book from Latin into English.

Formal and sonorous, it hath topped international best-seller lists ever since. Yet nowhere, said Safford, did James' decision to give God's word to the masses play out more than in the American colonies.

With the publication of the King James Version, "people are reading [the Bible] for the first time, and the power of the word is having an effect on them," he said.

The Latin phrase state et nolite iterum iugo servitutis contineri would have left most colonists scratching their heads. But in English, Paul's letter to the Galatians had meaning and power.

"Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free," it reads, "and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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