The Bible lives forever, even if the KJV is copyrighted

In May 2011, the English-speaking world celebrated the 400th anniversary of the most important piece of literature ever penned in the English language. It's the King James Version of the Bible, published on order of his Majesty King James I, in May 1611. More than any other publication, the Authorized Version of the Bible has influenced the standardization of language among English-speaking peoples of the world. It's also the best selling book of all time in any language.

Bruce Lampert
Most people presume that since the King James Version has been around so long, it's now in the public domain.

Vaughan Williams, the renowned English composer, often set passages from the Authorized Version to music. He allegedly did this out of his great love and respect for the King James Version. But in an interview, years after his death, his widow, Ursula, was asked why Williams, who professed to be an agnostic, used the Bible so often in his compositions. With a twinkle in her eye, she replied: "Because it's out of copyright! No royalties!"

It turns out that's not true. In honor of the KJV's 400th anniversary, London's newly reconstituted Globe Theater—Shakespeare's old home stage—scheduled a series of actors to recite the entire King James Bible from the stage between Palm Sunday and Easter of 2011. But a few days before the presentation, the director received a bill for payment of a substantial royalty fee for the privilege of reading it publicly. The British Crown actually owns the copyright to the King James Bible, which has been renewed upon the accession of each succeeding monarch since King James himself. So the queen, through the auspices of Cambridge University Press, was sending him a bill, according to BBC Music Magazine.

"All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). This we certainly believe and confess to be true, but the paper and ink belong to the Queen.

In 1874, John Richard Green wrote, in A Short History of the English People, "No greater moral change ever passed over a nation than passed over England in the 16th century. England became a people of the book, and that book was the Bible. As a mere literary monument, the English version of the Bible remains the noblest example of the English tongue. But far greater was its effect on the character of the people. The whole temper of the nation felt the change. A new conception of life and humanity superseded the old and a renewed moral and religious impulse spread through every class."

Two hundred years later, a new nation was born out of that "renewed moral and religious impulse," a nation, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The Bible is more than just a book. Paper and ink can be bought and sold, language changes, and nations rise and fall, but, as Isaiah 40:8 says, "The word of our God will stand forever." It is the firm foundation upon which to build our labors, our loves, and most certainly our lives.

Bruce Lampert is director of pastoral care for Hendrick Health System in Abilene.

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