The idea of making a new translation of the English Bible had been put forth at the Hampton Court Conference, 1604. King James (1566–1625) embraced the goal with enthusiasm. Forty-seven names of the translation committee are known, although the method of selection is not. A complicated review system was set up with a thorough system of checks-and-balances, with differences ironed out by conferences. Work was divided between six companies. Each member’s work was reviewed by his company, and then the work was passed on to the other five companies for review. After it had passed all companies, the work was passed to a final select committee of two to bring all the work into harmony, and then on to the press. The Bishops’ Bible of 1602 formed the basis of translation with much usage of Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew’s, the Great Bible, and the Geneva version. Although not acknowledged, the text of the Roman Catholic Rheims New Testament was also influential.
In the battle for the loyalty of the English reader, the King James Version (KJV) appeared in a variety of sizes and styles seeking a successful marketing formula sufficient to overcome loyalties to competing versions. A grouping of the various editions of the KJV published during these early years shows a richness of choice—where only a relatively short time before, no choices existed at all.
The folios are noble in appearance and difficult to read unless one is standing at a lectern. The quartos and octavos, frequently in roman type, are study Bibles for the individual bending over them at a desk, or just sitting in a chair. In that position, mind and soul and text meet. Folios are public, authoritative instruments best used to proclaim divine intent in public ceremony. The quartos and octavos with their chubby and bumpy personalities suggest instruction rather than proclamation. In other words, the variety of format available laid the foundation for a readership victory of such magnitude that it dominated English biblical text in proclamation, instruction, art, and literature for three centuries.
Many twentieth-century eyes are surprised at the amount of black letter type used in those early years of English Bible printing. We are easily tempted today to label this a serious fault of judgment by the early KJV printer and publishers. In such opinion we are failing to understand the English mind-set of the early seventeenth century. Rather than being a negative factor, black letter, particularly in folios, was expected. Black letter, the type used by Gutenberg, who had himself used the gothic manuscript tradition as a model, was held in reverence and used for religious and legal texts throughout northern Europe.
While we are spared the vulgarity of having a picture of the sovereign on the title page, we must not underestimate the power carried by the presence of King James in The Epistle Dedicatorie immediately following the title page with its address: To the Most High and Mightie Prince James by the grace of God King of Great Britain.
With books there is a survival value in size. A large folio has a much better chance of lasting through the centuries than an octavo or quarto. The number of surviving copies of the King James folios from the first five years of their existence is remarkably high. On the other hand, the octavos and quartos were read to pieces. Survivors are relatively rare, and in their appearance beautiful with their worn pages—veterans of the battles of versions and faith.