Manifold Greatness – Hannibal Hamlin and the Anniversary of the King James Bible

October 31, 2011

As the year of the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible draws to a close, Professor Hannibal Hamlin speaks to Web site Feature Writer Andrea Leigh Hilliard about the evolution of an idea that grew into an international conference … an exhibition sponsored by one of the preeminent Libraries in the country  … and a scholarly book …

Hannibal Hamlin: Making a Mountain out of a Molehill

In 2006, Hannibal Hamlin, Associate Professor of English at Ohio State, was busy organizing an international scholarly conference to be held in May 2011 at The Ohio State University, to mark the upcoming 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible. While planning the conference, Hamlin had told the librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library what he was putting together for Ohio State, with the help of Luke Wilson, Associate Professor of English, and Norman Jones of the Mansfield campus.

When Hamlin told the Folger, they liked the idea of a 400th anniversary event and asked Hamlin if he would curate an exhibition for them. When Hamlin’s colleague Richard Dutton, the current Chair of the English Department at Ohio State, suggested to him that the Department should do something to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the King James Bible, Hamlin did not realize it at the time, but he was creating a molehill which soon turn into the mountain that Hamlin built.

He explained that the project grew from “this plan to do a conference at Ohio State and then I mentioned it to the Folger, I mentioned it to the Bodleian [Library at the University of Oxford], the National Endowment for the Humanities got very interested in this and suggested that we apply for a large grant which then funded a permanent website connected to the exhibition and also a panel version of the exhibition which is traveling to forty libraries across the country.” The project grew and, along with Steve Galbraith, the curator of rare books at the Folger, and an Ohio State alum who acquired his PhD in English here, Hamlin memorialized the birth of the King James Bible through the exhibit, Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, which opened September 23, 2011, and runs through January 15, 2012.

 

To create the exhibit, The Folger partnered with the Bodleian Library which had recently put together their own exhibit, Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible. At the close of the Bodleian exhibit, they shared their copies of various Bible translations and artifacts, such as portraits and manuscripts, with the Folger to be used in their version of Manifold Greatness.

It was then up to Hamlin and Galbraith to add their own American spin. They collected pieces from the Library of Congress, Elvis’s Bible from Graceland, Frederick Douglass’s Bible. They included Bibles from the American Bible Society and the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., which was a first edition that belonged to Prince Henry, the Prince of Wales. They even have what is believed to be the first bible brought to America on the Mayflower. It was loaned to them from Pilgrim Hall in Massachusetts. There is even a bible on display that is written in a Native American language so that it could be used for missionary work in the New World.

Among the most fascinating and unique artifacts are the only three surviving manuscripts from the King James Bible translation process itself. One of these is a copy of the Bishop’s Bible annotated by the translators, with certain words and phrases crossed out, and changes inserted in the margins. The official Bible of the Elizabethan Church, the Bishops' Bible provided the base text for the King James Version. Also included, is the 1631 version known as the “Wicked Bible” due to its omission of the word "not" in the commandment, Thou shalt not commit adultery.

Two highly controversial versions are part of the collection as well. The first is a 1380s version of the John Wycliffe Bible which was seen as a threat to the king of England. Wycliffe’s bones were dug up and posthumously burned, just to make a point, and nearly all the copies of his Bible were burned.

The second is the William Tyndale translation. His translation, which he began in 1520, was seen as heretical. He was tried and burned at the stake as punishment. Among Hamlin’s favorites is the Tyndale BIble. He said, “I love the Tyndale story because I think he’s really a kind of unsung hero. People are starting to recognize him more, not only as a hero of bible translation, but he’s a huge influence on the English language … The comparison with Shakespeare is not unwarranted.”

Ohio State also contributed to the exhibition, one of the artifacts they shared is a collection of six or eight leaves of Tyndale’s illegally translated Pentateuch. The Ohio State rare book library found the leaves as part of the binding of another book, a book which is worth much less than these few pages. Only one complete copy of the Tyndale translation survived and it is at the British Library in England.

While these are just some of the interesting artifacts included in the exhibit, there is so much more to Hamlin and Galbraith’s project. Hamlin said that they saw it as “An occasion to look back on the production of this book, which is interesting in itself, and the history of Bible translation in the sixteenth century, but also, no matter what you think of it, positive or negative, it’s had this enormous impact on the English speaking world.”

 

The King James Bible is the third official translation, and four centuries later it remains the most published book in the English language. It’s formation and the lasting residual nature of the King James Bible is evident in literature, poetry, film, media, and music among other mediums. Hamlin and Jones have also collaborated on a book to mark the anniversary, The King James Bible after 400 years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences, a collection of essays which chronicles that lasting impact.

With the help of colleagues such as Dutton, Jones, and Wilson, Hamlin built a molehill as a way to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible at The Ohio State University. This one idea grew and manifested into Hamlin and Galbraith’s mountain of a project, which has become a national showcase for a deeper understanding of how this important piece of our past affects today’s culture.

 

To find out more about Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, visit www.manifoldgreatness.org.  And check out Hannibal Hamlin and Steve Galbraith, behind-the-scenes at Manifold Greatness, on YouTube:

The Making of a Folger Exhibition: Manifold Greatness

Mistakes and Misprints: The King James Bible Bloopers

The Literary Influence of the King James Bible

 

 

Report by Andrea Leigh Hilliard, AU11 Website Intern