Inside the Collection

400th anniversary of the King James Bible

Bible opened up to the first page of the New Testament
Powerhouse Museum Collection. Gift of Mrs Gwenda Abbott, 1981.

The King James Bible was first published on 2nd May 1611. It was the first authorised English-language version of the Bible. James Cook carried such a Bible with him on his voyage to Terra Australis, and many of the early British settlers would have brought this version of the Bible with them. Most would have known selected verses and carried the words in their minds as well as on paper.

The first king of Great Britain, James I, had commissioned the translation in 1604, and over 40 scholars contributed to the new version. They drew on the work of earlier translators (such as William Tyndale, who was condemned to a fiery death for his efforts) as well as going back to the original Hebrew and Greek texts. The scholars worked individually before comparing notes and agreeing on each verse and chapter. Poet Andrew Motion has made the following comment on the resulting work.

“The King James Bible is a cornerstone of our culture and our language. Whatever our faith, whatever we believe, we have to recognise that the rhetorical power of this book, and in particular its power to fuse history with poetry, connects at the most fundamental level with our own history and poetry.”

This particular Bible was owned by Edgar Leslie Bainton, a musician and composer who became director of the NSW Conservatorium of Music in 1934 and strongly influenced music performance and music education in NSW. The Bible was a wedding present from his father (a minister of religion, as were all his brothers) and mother (sister of the principal of a theological college) in 1903. It was donated to the Museum by one of his daughters.

Side image of a closed bible with frayed edges
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Given Bainton’s family background, it is not surprising that he composed music for several hymns and conducted the St Matthew Passion in Sydney each Easter from 1939 until his retirement in 1946. He also loved poetry, and the language of the King James Bible would have been highly significant in his life. The battered state of the book’s cover suggests it was well used, but, apart from his parents’ message near the front, there are no pen or pencil marks on the pages: Bainton was not the type of bible student who marks favourite verses or writes annotations beside contentious passages.

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