Thanks to the personal sacrifices of many great men and women, the King James Version of the Bible has endured for centuries and continues to have an immeasurable impact and influence on the world.
Yet few know the full story of its origin.
In celebration of the volume’s 400th anniversary, BYUtv will air a three-part documentary series titled, “Fires of Faith: The Coming Forth of the King James Bible,” beginning this Sunday.
The film was produced and directed by Lee Groberg, and written by screenwriter Mitch Davis. “Fires of Faith” chronicles the lives of central figures in the European reformation era, including John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, William Tyndale and King Henry VIII, as well as others, and the events that led to the creation of the King James Bible. The documentary and dramatic feature is told through the eyes of international scholars at prestigious universities and institutions such as Oxford, Notre Dame and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Religious leaders from around the world, including Catholics, Evangelicals, Southern Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalians and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were all invited to share their perspectives and insights in the film.
Part 1 of the documentary airs Sunday (Oct. 16) and Wednesday (Oct. 19) on BYUtv. Part 2 airs Sunday, Oct. 23, and Wednesday, Oct. 26; and Part 3 airs Sunday, Oct. 30, and Wednesday, Nov. 2.
Groberg and others began working on the project three years ago. More than 130 re-enactments were filmed in eight different countries, many at the actual location where the original events took place.
“Fires of Faith” is likely the greatest project ever undertaken by BYU broadcasting, said Derek Marquis, executive director and managing director of BYUtv.
“This is huge. I don’t think I would be melodramatic or overstating anything if I said this is the greatest investment that BYU broadcasting has made in any single project,” Marquis said. “The investment that has been made and the time that has gone into this is a reflection of how important we felt about the topic and how important we felt that the story needed to be told to a national and international audience.”
Filmed in places like a fourth-century monastery, 800-year-old English castles and 500-year-old European churches, Part 1 is titled “Yearning for the Word” and follows the lives of reformers John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, William Tyndale and others who wanted the common man to have the word of God in their native English tongue.
In 1408, a decree known as The Constitutions of Oxford made translation of the whole Bible or any part of it into English illegal. To do so would result in imprisonment, torture and death. Still compelled to spread the gospel, Tyndale, a British religious scholar, spent his life translating the Bible into English and shared it with people under the table on the black market.
The English Reformation was brought about by King Henry VIII’s insatiable desire to father a male heir to the throne. When the church balked at his request to dissolve his sonless marriages, the desperate king ordered the execution of anyone who stood in his way. The film crisscrosses a tumultuous Europe at the birth of religious freedom during a time that seemed to consistently involve the burning of books or people.
Part 2, “Martyrs for a Book,” depicts how Tyndale was eventually betrayed, charged with heresy and condemned to death. He was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.
Part 3, “The King James Bible,” describes the events that led to the printing of the King James Bible in 1611, using more than 80 percent of Tyndale’s work. The Bible came to America on the Mayflower in 1620 and has continued to influence religion, language, culture, art and literature throughout the world today. The final hour of the series highlights the Bible’s effect on people today and includes interviews with random people on the street.
“This has been one of the more humbling, ambitious projects I have ever been associated with because of the complexity and the different levels of telling the story,” Groberg said. “It’s a story that is so universal and global, and yet a story, beginning with me, very few people knew much about. Talk about a master’s degree education in the last two years of production, I am excited for the viewer to gain a great education.”
Marquis said there were moments on the set when a reverent, solemn spirit prevailed. “Those were special, sacred moments. There aren’t words to describe the feeling that was on the set,” he said. “It was obvious that this was an important story that needed to be told. This is a sacred topic.”
Marquis said BYUtv was determined to take a nondenominational approach in telling the story. “(Those interviewed) all have a shared purpose and shared reverence for holy writ of scripture,” Marquis said. “All have shared values for King James Bible.” Among those interviewed is President Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Tyndale’s translation work provided the world with expressions like, “Let there be light,” “Broken heart,” “Judge not lest you be judged,” and “Seek and you shall find.”
David Rosen, a rabbi of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, said in the film that there is nothing that compares to the classical English literary resource as the King James Bible. “The closest thing, of course, are the works of Shakespeare and we do relish and treasure Shakespeare,” he said. “But it doesn’t speak to our deepest commitments, as obviously, the Bible does.”
Brad S. Gregory, a professor of early modern history at the University of Notre Dame, admires the bravery of men like Tyndale who were willing to risk their lives for Christian truth. He also said the Bible is unmatched in its phrases and rhythms.
“The phrases and rhythms of the King James Bible have worked their way into wider Anglophone sensibilities and consciousness in ways that no other translation of the Bible has achieved, nor will likely ever achieve.”
Alec Ryrie, a professor of history of Christianity at Durham University in England, said the King James Bible has an amazing tenacity.
“It has hung on in the affection of particular churches and of whole peoples in a way that a 400-year-old text really shouldn’t,” he said. “I think the King James translators, themselves, would have been amazed that this 400-year-old translation is still being used.”
Groberg hopes viewers will come away with a new reverence for the King James Bible.
“I’m hoping they will experience what I experienced. I hope they will gain a reverence, awe and respect for a book that often sits on our shelves,” Groberg said. “I think when they understand what went into making a Bible in English available they will have a greater respect and a greater desire to read it.”
"Fires of Faith" will premiere on BYUtv, a U.S. and worldwide cable/satellite television channel reaching 60 million households.
Sunday, Oct. 16, at 8 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. MT & 11 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. MT Wednesday, Oct. 19, at 9 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. MT & midnight ET / 10 p.m. MT
Sunday, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. MT & 11 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. MT Wednesday, Oct. 26, at 9 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. MT & 12 p.m. ET / 10 p.m. MT
Sunday, Oct. 30, at 8 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. MT & 11 p.m. ET / 9 p.m. MT Wednesday, Nov. 2, at 9 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. MT & midnight ET / 10 p.m. MT
Timeline for the Coming Forth of the King James Bible
1408 – A decree known as “The Constitutions of Oxford” makes translation of the whole Bible or any part of it into English illegal.
1523 – William Tyndale seeks special permission to translate the bible and is denied by the English church.
1536 – Tyndale is charged with heresy and condemned to death. He is strangled and burned at the stake.
1539 – “The Great Bible” is authorized by King Henry VIII and printed as the first Bible in English. It contains the majority of Tyndale’s translation.
1611 – King James orders the translation of a new bible. It features Tyndale’s work and becomes known as the King James Bible.
1620 – An early edition of the King James Bible arrives in America on the Mayflower.
1789 – George Washington is sworn as the first president of the United States in using a 1767 edition of the King James Bible, starting a longstanding tradition of swearing in presidents at their inaugurations.
1861-1865 – During the Civil War, more than three million King James Bibles are distributed to both Union and Confederate troops.
1963 – Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gives his famous “I have a dream” speech is influenced by passages in the King James Bible (Psalms 30:5, Isaiah 40:4 and Amos 5:24).
2011 – The King James Bible celebrates its 400th anniversary.