The University of Texas at Austin
  • From buildings to books to tattoos

    By Danielle Brune Sigler, Harry Ransom Center
    Published: Feb. 27, 2012

    Danielle Brune Sigler, assistant director and curator for academic programs at the Harry Ransom Center, is a co-curator of the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence.” Sigler received her Ph.D. in American studies from The University of Texas at Austin in 2002. Her primary areas of research include African American history and American religious history.

    In the course of any given day, you might hear someone encouraging a guest to “eat, drink and be merry” or lamenting that there is “no new thing under the sun” or being relieved to have escaped a tough situation by “the skin of my teeth.”

    The university's Tower with the inscription from the King James Bible
    The university’s Main Building with the inscription “Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.” Photo: Marsha Miller

    You might not recognize, however, that all of these phrases come from the King James Bible. It has been so thoroughly integrated into our everyday speech that we use it without a second thought.

    Once you begin looking for it, language from the King James Bible seems to make an appearance just about everywhere.

    On campus, the university’s Main Building bears the words of the King James Bible, “Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free” (John 8:32), though it omits the initial “and” and modernizes the spelling of the word “Truth” which appears as “Trueth” in the original 1611 printing.

    Indeed, most contemporary versions of the King James Bible are beholden to a little-known 1769 revision that modernized the translation and introduced about 16,000 changes to the first edition in 1611.

    Cover of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans
    Cover of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans.

    The Ransom Center’s exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence” offers visitors a glimpse of this translation’s unique history, the other English translations and revisions that have affected the appearance of the text today, and the stunning range of its influence.

    Writers as disparate as John Milton, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Adrienne Kennedy and Norman Mailer all relied on the King James Bible — whether quoting it directly or mimicking its cadences.

    It has also significantly shaped the language of American conflicts and protest. Works from the era of the American Civil War are filled with the language of the King James Bible. Pro- and anti-slavery activists debated the morality of human slavery by quoting Bible passages directly.

    A century later, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech resonated with the language of King James.

    To great effect, he invoked Amos 5:24, “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream,” and Isaiah 40:4-5, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.”

    The King James Bible also appears in less expected places, like the tattoos Robert De Niro sports in the 1991 film “Cape Fear” and in the title of Walker Evans and James Agee’s 1941 “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a stirring portrait of sharecroppers in the midst of the Dust Bowl.

    A production still of Robert De Niro as Max Cady, the bible verse-tattoo sporting convict from Cape Fear
    A production still of Robert De Niro as Max Cady, the bible verse-tattoo sporting convict from “Cape Fear.”

    As we examine four centuries of the King James Bible’s influence, it becomes clear that it is a book with resonance and meaning that transcends specific faiths and creeds.

    The King James translation has left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of English-speaking people throughout the world.

    The King James Bible: Its History and Influence” is the most comprehensive display of Bibles and related materials in the Ransom Center’s history. The exhibition runs through July 29.

    Learn more about the Harry Ransom Center on the Cultural Compass blog, which gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at exhibitions, acquisitions, researcher and scholarly work, conservation and items from the collections.

    • Quote 2
      Zach said on May 29, 2012 at 11:33 p.m.
      Wow, really interesting to learn more about that scene from cape fear as being linked to the King James Bible. I found this cause I am a tattoo buff, but lots of interesting stuff. Thanks for writing!
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      Michael Meso said on May 8, 2012 at 5:14 a.m.
      As description says: "Four centuries after its first printing, the King James Bible (1611) remains one of the most influential books in the English language." This version of the Bible, I particularly like, because of a wide variety of forms. My thanks go to Harry Ransom Center for their great desire and willingness. All the best, M.
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      Thomas Vanhoutte said on May 2, 2012 at 10:41 a.m.
      Nice article. “Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free". Certainly a quote to think about twice.
    • Quote 2
      Dolores Tatton said on March 20, 2012 at 4:57 p.m.
      Its refreshing to see something positive regarding the Scriptures and its influence on all humanity, instead of the negative viewpoints pronounced by those in the celebrity genre.
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      Juan Borjon said on March 8, 2012 at 8:53 a.m.
      Good article! As a Christian, it is encouraging to see people talk about the influence of the Word of God, specifically the King James Bible. This world needs to be influenced by the Word of God more.
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      Boby Sammons said on March 8, 2012 at 6:22 a.m.
      The King James version, as are other versions, is the Word of God - instructions on how we are to live. Many souls have been saved by itds teaching.
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      Karen Williams said on March 2, 2012 at 12:15 a.m.
      It is rather comforting to me to see the Bible recognized somewhere besides evangelical congregations for the profound influence it has had on the English-speaking (if not the entire) world. Thank you to Danielle Brune Sigler for a well-written description of what's in store at the exhibition.
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      Jane H. Thorne said on March 1, 2012 at 9:21 p.m.
      As a Southern Baptist who was made to memorize many passages from the King James version of the Bible, I've always been indebted to the language therein for its contribution to my understanding of Shakespeare. I look forward to the exhibit and am glad for the scholarship that the endeavor represents.
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