Speech made by the Dean of Westminster Abbey

Date Published: Thursday, 20 November 2008

The Very Rev Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey

"The connection between King James I’s initiative and Westminster Abbey is definite but not quite as clear as we would like.

James I directed that the new translation should be made by dividing the Bible into six sections, each to be the responsibility of a different ‘company’ of seven or eight scholars. They were selected, it seems, by the king himself. These companies – two based in Westminster and two each in Oxford and Cambridge – were formed during 1604.

The first Westminster Company, responsible for the Old Testament from Genesis to II Kings, was headed by my great predecessor, Lancelot Andrewes, Dean of Westminster (but only till 1605, when he was consecrated Bishop of Chichester, before later moving to Winchester). It also included Adrian de Saravia, a prebendary of the Abbey and noted scholar. The second Westminster Company, responsible for the New Testament epistles, included William Barlow, also a Westminster prebendary.

Alister McGrath, in his recent history (In the beginning: the story of the King James Bible) points out that there is very little documentary evidence about how the companies went about their work. There seems to be no evidence in our library sources that the whole body of translators (ie. all six companies) ever met together in the Jerusalem Chamber at one time, though that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The fact that two of the groups of translators were designated ‘Westminster companies’ must mean that these committees met in this vicinity, and it’s reasonable to assume that the first company at least, headed by Andrewes, met in the Jerusalem Chamber for as long as he was Dean, if not thereafter.

What seems to me astonishing is that the great work could be achieved without any ‘coordinating committee’ as we might have today – each company worked pretty much independently and their translations were finally brought together at a meeting at Stationers’ Hall in the City in 1610.

However, it seems to have been at least partly this traditional association of the King James Bible with the Jerusalem Chamber that led the translators of the Revised Version to meet there in the 1870s. My predecessor, Arthur Stanley, Dean from 1864 to 1881, was one of the committee and would no doubt have encouraged the link.

The translators of several subsequent versions of the Bible, including the New English Bible, have met in the Chamber at least once in the course of their work as a kind of homage to this tradition.

We shall hold at the Abbey another homage to this tradition with a great service of thanksgiving. 20.11. 2011 is a Sunday, so the service will be on 16 November 2011. In the meantime, I ask you to think imaginatively about how you can help the year make the impact it should.”

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