On the first day of many of my introductory writing classes, I insult my students by telling them they can’t write like a first grader.
OK, that’s not true — and it certainly isn’t my intent to insult them.
Instead, I tell them of my experience with the skillful writing of Abigail Adams, the wife of America’s second President John Adams, and that she, if I quote David McCullough correctly, had something like a first-grade education — about one-thirteenth the formal training of many college students.
I read her words in a 1775 letter: “You tell me of degrees of perfection to which humane nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.”
As a way to provoke thought among my students about the nature of writing, I assert that Adams writes better than many college students today. To be sure, many of the students are fine writers.
Whether my students agree with my premise or not, I ask them why it might be true — if it is — that a woman with a simple formal education could write with such confidence when some of their college peers might not be able to do so.
My students produce many excellent reasons. They point to the trouble texting causes with our formal written structures. They point to the difficult media environment that distracts. They argue that Abigail Adams’ writing and personal correspondence demanded more passion than mere classroom assignments do, and such was reflected in her writing. We learn she was a genius who had to take time to write things out by hand.
All true enough. Some also point to the flaws in our education system that sometimes focuses on document length rather than on written clarity and that sometimes rewards writing that uses too many muddled adjectives and too few clear verbs.
But one thing I illustrate to my classes is the possible influence on her prose of Adams' likely reading material: the King James Bible. In saying that Abigail Adams’ writing was shaped by the King James Bible, I speculate. I know nothing of her reading habits, but she was the daughter of a minister, and Bible reading was an important cultural tradition of the time. Therefore, it seems likely that Abigail Adams read the King James Bible a great deal. I am willing to stand corrected if I am wrong, but her reading habits one way or another do little to change my point — the old King James Bible, among its many other virtues, is a great way to see how to write well.
I sing the praises of this Bible today because this month marks the beginning of the 400th anniversary year of the publication of this great achievement of English civilization.
I hope this anniversary year becomes an important conversation point in the news because the KJV's influence on American and English culture can hardly be underestimated. Meanwhile, its quiet relegation to second-class status in our schools is a shame, especially considering how powerful its writing and stories remain in American culture.
So, maybe in our studies of the old KJV this year, it might be worthwhile to look for a few minutes at its beauty and its language, not just at its profound teachings. We might look beyond the old forms of “thee" and "thou” and look, instead, at its use of verbs and at its subtle poetry.
Consider for a minute Job 19 — the chapter of Job’s poetic testimony.
By examining only the first 12 verses of this chapter, you will find at least 25 powerful verbs or forms of them: answer, vex, break, reproach, err, remain, magnify, plead, know, overthrow, compass, cry, hear, fence, set, destroy, strip, take, go, remove, kindle, count, come, raise and encamp.
What a rare, strong voice comes though these verbs, but these verbs merely prelude the poetry of the chapter’s penultimate verses:
“Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends; for the hand of God hath touched me.
"Why do ye persecute me as God, and are not satisfied with my flesh?
"Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book!
"That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever!
"For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
"And though skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.”
Contrast these verbs and this remarkable poetry with the drowned sentences we sometimes droll into our text messages and splice into our e-mails, and it remains little wonder that the KJV's language stands the test of time.
Let’s read the Bible, and rejoice in God’s gift to us this year.
We might even learn to write with more confidence along the way.