The Ransom Center’s current exhibition The King James Bible: It’s History and Influencetells the little-known story of one of the most widely read and printed books in the history of the English language. Exhibition co-curator Danielle Brune Sigler offers a list of recommended reading that traces the history of the influence of this translation.
In the 1890s, Kansas minister Charles M. Sheldon (1857–1946) turned to “sermon stories” to engage his congregation. In 1896, Sheldon began reading to the Central Church of Topeka a new series of stories called In His Steps. Like other Sheldon sermon stories, In His Steps ran as a serial in The Advance (Chicago) before being published as a book.
Sheldon and his publishers, who had failed to properly secure a copyright for In His Steps, were stunned at the novel’s success—and all of the pirated editions that emerged. In His Steps became a runaway bestseller in the United States and England.
Sheldon took his inspiration and title from I Peter 2:21 and used the newly revised King James Bible (1881/1885) as his source text: “For here unto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps.”
The 12 central characters in the novel take a pledge to live their lives guided by the question, “What would Jesus do?” As Sheldon was part of the larger Social Gospel movement that sought to improve social problems throughout the world, much of the novel centers on how characters used the pledge to minister to the needs of the urban poor and to fight the destructive effects of alcohol. The popularity of the novel waned, but it was “rediscovered” in the 1990s, and the question “What would Jesus do?” again swept the country, with the four letters “WWJD” appearing on bracelets, bumper stickers, and t-shirts.
Few writers have been as biblically obsessed as John Bunyan (1628–1688). In his spiritual autobiography, he writes of being literally accosted, struck, and pursued by Bible verses wherever he went. His life, like his writings, was a biblical allegory. One of his most famous works, The Pilgrim’s Progress,was the most popular book in English, apart from the Bible itself. Bunyan wrote the allegory during his imprisonment for preaching without the sanction of the Church of England. The novel follows the central character Christian on his journey “from this world to that which is to come,” and is evocative of such works as Dante’s Divine Comedy. The plan or map helps readers follow the protagonist’s journey and provides an effective plot summary as well, as it depicts major events of Christian’s voyage to the Celestial City. Both the style and language of The Pilgrim’s Progress demonstrate the profound influence the King James translation had on Bunyan.
From the very beginning of printing, the Bible was regarded as the ultimate challenge. It presented printers and artists with the daunting task of creating an appropriate medium for communicating sacred text. They met this challenge with widely divergent methods. Some favored sharp, clean typography and traditional artistic approaches, placing as little as possible between the reader and the word. Others celebrated the text with elaborate typographical or artistic interpretations of biblical passages.
One such example of the latter is this large publication in which the text of Exodusis paired with 24 color lithographs by artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985). The prints show Chagall’s expert use of color and are representative of the lyrical, dream-like scenes for which the artist is known. The Story of Exodus represents a major focus of Chagall’s work, namely Judaic spirituality and Hasidism. One of the great lithographers of modern art, Chagall produced more than 1,000 original lithographs over the course of his career.
Each year, thousands of undergraduates come to the Harry Ransom Center to visit with a class, attend one the Center’s programs, or view an exhibition.
Since its founding, the Ransom Center has been an important resource for undergraduates at The University of Texas at Austin. Harry Ransom believed that meaningful undergraduate education was not complete without exposure to rare books and manuscripts.
The Ransom Center continues to maintain this vision to encourage undergraduate interaction with its collections and is launching a new resource that provides information about the many opportunities available to undergraduates.
Whether an entering freshman or a graduating senior, students can explore and be inspired by the offerings of the Ransom Center. Through exposure to and interaction with collection materials—whether it be a manuscript, photograph, artwork, or rare book—students can open the door to the creative process.
Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753–1784) was born in Africa and sold into slavery. At the age of seven or eight she was purchased by a Boston tailor, John Wheatley, for his wife. While in the Wheatley household, Wheatley learned to read and write. Within 16 months of her arrival, Wheatley said she could read “the most difficult part of the sacred writings.” She also read extensively from the poetry of John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Gray, as well as classics from Ovid, Horace, and Virgil.
Wheatley began writing her own poetry, and in September 1773, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London. As the title suggests, Wheatley’s collected poems explored a variety of topics, from the well-known “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to elegies on the deaths of loved ones to a poem simply titled “On Imagination.” Two of these poems, “Goliath of Gath” and “Isaiah lxiii. 1-8,” incorporate the language of the King James Bible. This excerpt from “Isaiah” reveals the influence of the King James Version on Wheatley:
“Mine was the act,” th’ Almighty Saviour said,
And shook the dazzling glories of his head,
“When all forsook I trod the press alone,
“And conquer’d by omnipotence my own;
“For man’s release sustain’d the pond’rous load,
“For man the wrath of an immortal God:
“To execute th’ Eternal’s dread command
“My soul I sacrific’d with willing hand;
“Sinless I stood before the avenging frown,
“Atoning thus for vices not my own.”
Like Milton, Wheatley incorporated elements of classical literature into her poetry. Her retelling of the story of Goliath not only reproduced the language of the King James Bible but also followed the conventions of classical epic poetry. Wheatley’s poetry was largely forgotten after her death until abolitionists rediscovered and popularized her work in the 1830s.
Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) received his early education as an artist in Harlem. By the time he was in his twenties, he had received national recognition for his work, notably “The Migration Series,” about the African-American migration from the South to the North following World War I. Lawrence spent most of the rest of his life in the Pacific Northwest, and at the time of his death, he was generally recognized as one of the most important African-American artists.
All eight of Lawrence’s large silkscreen prints for the Book of Genesis are on display in sequence in The King James Bible: Its History and Influence exhibition. They show the artist’s strongly colorful and mildly abstract style at its best. The words of the preacher invoke the simplicity and force of the King James Version.
Anne Tucker, curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, discusses her research on wartime photography collections found at the Ransom Center. Her work covers collections ranging from Roger Fenton’s documentation of the Crimean War to the World War I photographs of Jimmy Hare to Edward Steichen’s images of the American Navy in World War II.
“To be able to look at the objects of the time in depth is an irreplaceable experience for understanding a time in which you didn’t live,” Tucker said.
Tucker’s research, “We Bear Witness: Photographers Responding to War,” was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for the 2012–2013 fellowship program.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is an account of soldiers’ experiences during and after the Vietnam War. Like his other National Book Award-winning work, Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried offers readers a glimpse of war that neither glorifies nor camouflages its realities. O’Brien himself has said he is only attempting to tell a “true war story.” Because of O’Brien’s frank depiction of war and strong use of language, The Things They Carried has been challenged and banned by some counties and schools. In connection with the Ransom Center’s exhibition Burned, Banned, Seized, and Censored, visitors are invited to see the exhibition during Veteran’s Day weekend, Friday, November 11 through Sunday, November 13, and receive a free copy of The Things They Carried while supplies last. Tim O’Brien’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.
On May 10, 1933, a series of coordinated book burnings took place across Germany. In the academic sphere, the German Students Association’s staged burnings were an attempt to eliminate “un-German” works from university libraries. Addressing the students gathered in Berlin, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels encouraged them to “clean up the debris of the past.” Ultimately more than 25,000 books were burned, including works by Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, and Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and Helen Keller.
The 1933 Nazi-sponsored book burnings in Germany prompted a swift and very public response in the United States. On the day of the burnings, more than 100,000 marchers took to the streets of New York City in protest. American newspapers covered the story extensively, and citizens soon watched the burnings firsthand via newsreel footage in theaters throughout the United States.
In the aftermath, the Brooklyn Jewish Center created a Library of Nazi Banned Books, and the New York Public Library hosted an exhibition of banned books. The book burnings took on greater significance in 1942 as the United States, at war with Germany, pointed to the book burnings as evidence of the Nazi government’s tyranny.