As most readers will doubtless be aware, this year marks the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. This was one of the first ever translations of The Bible into English, and the first one to have the approval of the government. For the first time ever in this country, ordinary people could sit down to read a copy of The Bible, and not have to worry about whether or not the Bible police would get them.
Such was its popularity that it remained the most widely used translation of The Bible in this country until well into the twentieth century. To this day, a lot of people prefer it to other more recent translations, usually because they like its poetic style.
For my part, I would like to tell you about the time when John Cleese addressed a meeting of secular humanists. I believe his speech went something like this:
JOHN CLEESE Christianity is mere superstition, and we don’t need it. After all, what has Christianity ever given us?
FIRST HUMANIST The end of slavery.
JOHN CLEESE What?
FIRST HUMANIST Slavery – it was abolished after a long campaign led by Christians like Granville Sharp.
JOHN CLEESE Yes, true – but apart from that?
SECOND HUMANIST Prison reform. Elizabeth Fry was a leading prison reformer in the nineteenth century, and she was a Quaker.
JOHN CLEESE All right – prison reform and the end of slavery were Christian achievements. But apart from those two things, what has Christianity ever given us?
THIRD HUMANIST Education for the masses.
FOURTH HUMANIST That’s right. Christians like Thomas Charles led the way in bringing education to poor people back in the eighteenth century.
JOHN CLEESE Yes, well, education for the masses goes without saying, but what else have Christians done for us?
FIRST HUMANIST Phsyics.
SECOND HUMANIST Yeah, that’s right. Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell were both great physicists, and they were Christians.
THIRD HUMANIST And what about biology and chemistry? Louis Pasteur and Antoine Lavoisier led the way in both, and they were Christians.
FOURTH HUMANIST And Gregor Mendel discovered genetics, and he was a Christian.
JOHN CLEESE All right, so Christianity helped lay the foundations of modern science – but apart from that?
FIRST HUMANIST Social reform.
SECOND HUMANIST That’s right – a lot of our greatest ever politicians were Christians - Lord Shaftesbury for example. He took young children out of the coal mines, and reformed the treatment of the mentally ill.
THIRD HUMANIST And what about the Topluddle Martyrs? They helped get the trade union movement on its feet in this country, and they were Methodists.
JOHN CLEESE All right, all right – but apart from ending slavery, prison reform, education for the masses, physics, chemistry, biology, genetics, and social reform, what has Christianity ever given us?
Admittedly not all of the people mentioned above were British, and so not all of them would have read the King James Bible, but it is undoubtedly one of the most influential books in British history.