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From buildings to books to tattoos

Through four centuries of influence, the language of the King James Bible has left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape around the world.

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Danielle Brune Sigler, assistant director and curator for academic programs at the Harry Ransom Center, is a co-curator of the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence.” Sigler received her Ph.D. in American studies from The University of Texas at Austin in 2002. Her primary areas of research include African American history and American religious history.

In the course of any given day, you might hear someone encouraging a guest to “eat, drink and be merry” or lamenting that there is “no new thing under the sun” or being relieved to have escaped a tough situation by “the skin of my teeth.”

The university

The university’s Main Building with the inscription “Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.” Photo: Marsha Miller

You might not recognize, however, that all of these phrases come from the King James Bible. It has been so thoroughly integrated into our everyday speech that we use it without a second thought.

Once you begin looking for it, language from the King James Bible seems to make an appearance just about everywhere.

On campus, the university’s Main Building bears the words of the King James Bible, “Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free” (John 8:32), though it omits the initial “and” and modernizes the spelling of the word “Truth” which appears as “Trueth” in the original 1611 printing.

Indeed, most contemporary versions of the King James Bible are beholden to a little-known 1769 revision that modernized the translation and introduced about 16,000 changes to the first edition in 1611.

Cover of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans

Cover of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans. 

The Ransom Center’s exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence” offers visitors a glimpse of this translation’s unique history, the other English translations and revisions that have affected the appearance of the text today, and the stunning range of its influence.

Writers as disparate as John Milton, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Adrienne Kennedy and Norman Mailer all relied on the King James Bible whether quoting it directly or mimicking its cadences.

It has also significantly shaped the language of American conflicts and protest. Works from the era of the American Civil War are filled with the language of the King James Bible. Pro- and anti-slavery activists debated the morality of human slavery by quoting Bible passages directly.

A century later, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech resonated with the language of King James.

To great effect, he invoked Amos 5:24, “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream,” and Isaiah 40:4-5, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.”

The King James Bible also appears in less expected places, like the tattoos Robert De Niro sports in the 1991 film “Cape Fear” and in the title of Walker Evans and James Agee’s 1941 “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a stirring portrait of sharecroppers in the midst of the Dust Bowl.

A production still of Robert De Niro as Max Cady, the bible verse-tattoo sporting convict from Cape Fear

A production still of Robert De Niro as Max Cady, the bible verse-tattoo sporting convict from “Cape Fear.” 

As we examine four centuries of the King James Bible’s influence, it becomes clear that it is a book with resonance and meaning that transcends specific faiths and creeds.

The King James translation has left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of English-speaking people throughout the world.

The King James Bible: Its History and Influence” is the most comprehensive display of Bibles and related materials in the Ransom Center’s history. The exhibition runs through July 29.

Learn more about the Harry Ransom Center on the Cultural Compass blog, which gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at exhibitions, acquisitions, researcher and scholarly work, conservation and items from the collections.