Parish Bibles

Published on: 1 January 2018

Parish Bibles can tell us something of the history of the church to which they belong through clues such as annotations and their general appearance.

They also have a wider story to tell about the Church of England and its development, particularly during the first century or so from the Reformation. The single best known version of the Bible is arguably still the Authorised (King James) Version (AV or KJV), first published in 1611 and still available today.

The KJV was neither the first official English translation of the Bible, nor the first required to be available in every parish church in England. Henry VIII ordered that each parish should have a copy of the Great Bible, first published in 1539–40. This was largely a revision of a translation by Miles Coverdale (first published 1535), who in turn relied on the work of William Tyndale (his New Testament was first published in 1526).

The next version to have a significant impact on parishes was the Geneva Bible (first printed in 1560), so called because the work was carried out in Geneva by English Protestant exiles during the reign of Mary I. The Geneva Bible is recognisable by the extent of its marginal notes, which seek to explain difficult parts of the text, to highlight references between different parts of the Bible and to suggest particular interpretations of verses or passages.

The Geneva Bible was much loved, eclipsing in popularity both the later Bishops’ Bible (first printed 1568), and, in its early years, the KJV. The Bishops’ Bible was produced by the bishops of Elizabeth I’s Church of England and ordered to be available in all parishes. Both of these translations, like the Great Bible before them, relied substantially on Tyndale and Coverdale as sources.

The last edition of the Bishops’ Bible was printed in 1602; the following year saw the accession to the English throne of James I. The decision to commission a new translation of the Bible (the KJV) was partly James’ response to the need to unite the differing religious elements of the two kingdoms of England and Scotland. This fact is symbolized within the KJV by decorations which include both the rose of England and the thistle of Scotland. The KJV was a remarkable feat, with teams of translators each working on their own specified areas of the overall Bible. Despite this, studies have demonstrated that some 80 per cent of the New Testament is essentially similar to William Tyndale’s translation, first published in 1526.

The Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 brought a reassertion of the KJV in parishes, and over the following centuries Bible versions and editions have proliferated. Whatever version you use now, you are part of a substantial tradition in the life of the parishes of the Church of England.

Norwich Cathedral Library acts as a place of deposit for significant historic parish books. Please contact us to find out how we can help your parish in the care of its books:, 01603 218443.

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