Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries

After yet another series of terrorist attacks in Europe, a handful of commentators have dared to ask a frightening question: have holy wars returned to the old continent? Europe’s youth does not know – often because they have not been taught – what those centuries of conflict and suspicion were like, when neighbour turned against neighbour, when papists and heretics haunted the imagination, and the Jews – those poor Jews – knew no security or peace of mind. If this seems like an insupportable claim, reflect a little on how much has changed in a short period of time: Islam is ascendant throughout Europe, as the native populations continue their decline; a minority of their adherents openly espouse views antithetical to their host countries, and a minority of this minority have declared a holy war – a jihad – in service of this antipathy. And the Jews? Large numbers of them are migrating to Israel, leaving behind ancestral homes in France and Germany as a virulent anti-Semitism once more takes root in these nations. Adam Nicholson’s God’s Secretaries takes us back to the early 1600s, when questions of dogma divided Britain, and the death of Elizabeth 1 – who preferred to put off questions these questions – offered the hope of resolution.

The man who would bear the burden of England’s hopes was born in Scotland, to Mary, Queen of Scots, the great-great-grandson of Henry VII, and he had been impatiently eyeing the throne of England for some time before Elizabeth finally died. Savvy political actors, of every persuasion, were courting James even before he arrived in England, hoping to earn favour for their causes or themselves, and as diverse as these might have been, one issue in particular dominated everyone’s minds: would England continue on its path of Reformation, expunging the last vestiges of Catholicism from the Church of England – in particular the bishops, who were a political force unto themselves – or would these would-be reformers be rebuffed as heretics? Both sides understood the dire political implications of the their separate causes, and the threat they posed to England’s hard-won equilibrium:

In Scotland, and in other fully reformed countries in Europe, the new churches had established themselves as powers quite distinct from and independent of the state. In Catholic countries all the potency of the Protestant idea, the great revolutionary engine of sixteenth-century Europe, had been put to ends directly in conflict with the state. Uniquely in England, an increasingly powerful state had made itself synonymous with a – more or less – Protestant Church. This state Protestantism was the great and accidental discovery of the English Reformation. It bridged the divisions which in the rest of Europe had given rise to decades of civil war.

To challenge this uneasy status quo was to court revolution, for to undermine the power of the established church was to question the divine right of kings itself, and though James had a mind for reform and toleration, this was a step too far. In an attempt to heal the growing religious rift in Britain, and provide some stability on which – it was hoped – a future prosperity might be based, James commissioned a group of scholars of diverse intellectual backgrounds, not “the brainsick and heady preachers” who sought to destroy the established authority, but the “learned and grave men of both sides,” to create a new Bible, an “official” document from which all of England’s preachers would be required to sermonize.

The end result of their labours was the King James Bible, the “Authorized Version” familiar to most modern readers of the Bible, and arguably one of the greatest prose works in the English language. Nicholson aims to explain its magnificence as a function of the chaotic times that birthed it, and the conciliatory aims of the translators who brought it to life. It would not and could not be free of political influence (for example, the Geneva Bible, popular among Puritans, mentions the word “tyrant” 400 times, whereas it does not appear once in the King James version) but it would seek to encompass the widest possible range of interpretation. In this spirit, James abolished the explanatory notes that littered the Geneva Bible, and which provided a running commentary that seemed at odds with a work purporting to reveal God’s will. There was a further consideration that made the King James Bible unique, and uniquely beautiful: it was written for a largely illiterate audience, whose only encounter with the words would be through the sermons of their local preachers. For this reason, special consideration was given to euphony, and this is surely the largest difference between the King James Bible and the earliest translations of William Tyndale. “The words of this translation, then,” as Nicholson puts it,

could embrace both gorgeousness and ambiguity, and did not have to settle into a single doctrinal mode but could embrace different meanings, either within the text itself or in the margins. This is the heart of the new Bible as an irenicon, an organism that absorbed and integrated difference, that included ambiguity and by doing so established peace. It is the central mechanism of the translation, one of immense lexical subtlety, a deliberate carrying of multiple meanings beneath the surface of a single text.

Nicholson uses a meticulous recreation of the historical context – drawing from journals, meeting minutes, older translations and whatever other source material he could find, much of which only surfaced in the 1950s – combined with a close reading of different passages and their variants across the different translation to drive home his point, and these sections in particular are effective and moving, offering us analysis worthy of the best literary criticism. The end result is a work that renews our appreciation of the King James Bible, and in particular of that incredible historical moment that birthed not only this miraculous translation, but the works of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare.