King James VI of Scotland and I of England has a split reputation among Christians. Some have nearly divinized him because of his association with the Authorized Version of the Bible. Others, typically those taking themselves to be heirs of the stricter Puritans, have reacted strongly against this portrait, going out of their way to demonize him and accuse him of grave sin. Perhaps the most prominent assumption about him now, however, derives from no kind of Christianity at all, but rather from the jaded cynicism of our time: no powerful monarch really believes in the state religion; it’s all just politics. King James was happy to support whatever institution provided national stability, they say.
It would be presumptuous to seek to “get to the bottom of this” in a brief treatment, and there are, of course, scholarly biographies of James which have done more or less successful jobs of it. What we can point out, however, is that whatever private proclivities James might or might not have had (and they are far from proved), he had a very public Protestantism and there is no reason whatever to doubt that it was personally sincere. The stamp he sought to put upon his commonwealth, which was quickly becoming the most important in the world, was a moderate Protestant irenicism, in which the greatest theologians and scholars, the English clergy who earned the title stupor mundi, were endorsed and supported by the crown. James also sought to unify the Reformed churches of England, Scotland, Ireland, and those on the Continent with various Lutheran churches. James was confident enough to attempt this because of family connections he possessed with Scandinavian royalty. And though he was ultimately unsuccessful in this reconciliation, the attempt was highminded and heroic.
One of the more illuminating resources that we possess on the faith of King James is the book that he wrote for his son, Basilicon Doron, or the gift of the king. This has been reprinted in King James VI and I Selected Writings ed. Neil Rhodes, Jennifer Richards, and Joseph Marshall (Ashgate, 2003) 199-258. In Basilicon Doron James gives a lengthy explanation of his own theology, his Protestantism (along with his hostility to extremist Puritanism and the reasons for it), as well as his views about sacred Scripture and right hermeneutics. He even explains to his son the role of religion in government. In an effort to let James speak his mind, or his soul rather, we will copy sections of Basilicon Doron here.
James begins by explaining the sections of his book, especially those pertaining to his own faith:
To come then particularly to the matter of my Booke, there are two speciall great points, which (as I am informed) the malicious sort of men have detracted therein; and some of the honest sort have seemed a little to mistake: whereof the first and greatest is, that some sentences therein should seeme to furnish grounds to men, to doubt of my sinceritie in that Religion, which I have ever constantly professed… (203)
Some of the more extreme preachers in James’s day had begun circulating the rumor that he was not actually a Christian. His response is clear:
The first calumnie (most grievous indeed) is grounded upon the sharpe and bitter wordes, that therein are used in the description of the humors of Puritanes, and rash-headie Preachers, that thinke it their honour to contend with Kings, and perturbe whole kingdoms… (204)
James further explains his attitude towards the Puritans:
So as if there were no more to be looked into, but the very methode and order of the booke, it will sufficiently cleare me of that first and grievousest imputation, in the point of Religion: since in the first part, where Religion is onely treated of, I speake so plainely. And what in other parts I speake of Puritanes, it is onely of their morall faults, in that part where I speake of Policie: declaring when they contemne the Law and sovereigne authoritie, what exemplare punishment they deserve for the same. And now as to the matter it selfe whereupon this scandal is taken, that I may sufficiently satisfie all honest men, and by a just Apologie raise up a brasen wall or bulwarke against all the darts of the envious, I will the more narrowly rip up the words, whereat they seeme to be somewhat stomacked. (204)
Notice that James does not disagree with the Puritans’ theology in general. He does not single out their soteriology or views of sacramental efficacy. There’s no mention of predestination or justification. James says that the Puritans have moral failings. They break the law and reject the authorities. His critique of them is predominantly political.
James considers the Puritans to be practical anabaptists. They teach the same relationship of church and state, and they advocate rebellion against the civil authorities:
First then, as to the name of Puritanes, I am not ignorant that the style thereof doeth properly belong onely to that vile sect amongst the Anabaptists, called the Family of love; because they thinke themselves onely pure, and in a manner without sinne, the onely trew Church, and onely worthy to be participant of the Sacraments, and all the rest of the world to be but abomination in the sight of God. Of this speciall sect I principally meane, when I speake of Puritans; divers of them, as Browne, Penry and others, having at sundrie times come into Scotland, to sow their popple amongst us (and from my heart I wish, that they had left no schollers behinde them, who by their fruits will in the owne time be manifested) and partly indeede, I give this style to such brain-sicke and headie Preachers their disciples and followers, as refusing to be called of that sect, yet participate too much with their humours, in maintaining the above-mentioned errours; not onely agreeing with the generall rule of all Anabaptists, in the contempt of the civill Magistrate, and in leaning to their own dreams and revelations; but particularly with this sect, in accounting all men profane that sweare not to all their fantasies, in making for every particular question of the policie of the Church, as great commotion, as if the article of the Trinitie were called in controversie, in making the scriptures to be ruled by their conscience, and not their conscience by the Scripture; and he that denies the least jote of their grounds, sit tibi tanquam ethnicus & publicanus, not worthy to enjoy the benefitie of breathing, much less to participate with them of the Sacraments: and before that any of their grounds be impugned, let King, people, Law and all be trode underfoote: Such holy warres are to be preferred to an ungodly peace: no, in such cases Christian Princes are not onely to be resisted unto, but not to be prayed for, for prayer must come of Faith; and it is revealed to their consciences, that GOD will heare no prayers for such a Prince. Judge then, Christian Reader, if I wrong this sort of people, in giving them the stile of that sect, whose errours they imitate: and since they are contented to weare their liverie, let them not be ashamed to borrow also their name. It is onely of this kinde of men that in this booke I write so sharply; and whom I wish my Sonne to punish, in-case they refuse to obey the Law, and will not cease to sturre up a rebellion: Whom against I have written the more bitterly, in respect of divers famous libels, and injurious speaches spred by some of them, not onely dishonourably invective against all Christian Princes, but even reprochfull to our profession and Religion, in respect they are come out under coulour thereof: and yet were never answered but by Papists, who generally medle as well against them, as the religion it selfe; whereby the skandale was rather doubled, than taken away. (204-206)
James is quick to point out that he does not have a quarrel with those who might hold the same worship and liturgical views of the Puritans, but do so privately and without sedition. He allows for adiaphora, pointing out his own indifference towards vestments:
But on the other part, I protest upon mine honour, I meane it not generally of all Preachers, or others, that like better of the single forme of policie in our Chruch, than of the many Ceremonies in the Church of England; that are perswaded, that their Bishops smell of a Papall supremacie, that the Surplise, the cornerd cap, and such like, are the outward badges of Popish errours. No, I am so farre from being contentious in these things (which for my owne part I ever esteemed as indifferent) as I doe equally love and honour the learned and grave men of either of these opinions. It can no ways become me to pronounce so lightly a sentence, in so old a controversie. Wee all (god be praised) doe agree in the grounds; and the bitternesse of men upon such questions, doeth but trouble the peace of the Church; and gives advantage and entry to the Papists by our division: But towards them, I onely use this provision, that where the Law is otherwayes, they ay content themselves soberly and quietly with their owne opinions, not resisting to the authoritie, nor breaking the Law of the Countrey; neither above all, sturring any rebellion or schisme: but possessing their soules in peace, let them preasse by patience, and well grounded reasons, either to perswade all the rest to like of their judgments; or where they see better grounds on the other part, not to bee ashamed peaceably to incline thereunto, laying aside all praeoccupied opinions…(206)
This expresses James’ basic political disposition. He detests both Papists and Puritans, for both taught that it was allowable, in certain circumstances, to rebel against political rulers, even to the point of advocating regicide. Partly this was an objectionable absolutism; but in greater part it was a sense for the delicacy of civic life in times of great change, and a sense of the perils of revolution. James may have been self-serving, but the self he served here was certainly far more his public self, guardian of the peace, than his private one.
James’s personal theology also comes out in the Basilicon Doron. He believes that a king needs to be a Christian in order to govern best, and he points his son to the Holy Scriptures for his instruction:
As he cannot be thought worthy to rule and command others, that cannot rule and dantone his owne proper affections and unreasonable appetites, so can hee not be thought worthie to governe a Christian people, knowing and fearing God, that in his owne person and heart, feareth not and loveth not the Divine Majestie. Neither can any thing in his government succeed well with him, (devise and labour as he list) as coming from a filthie spring, if his person be unsanctified: for (as that royal Prophet saith) Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vaine that build it: except the Lord keepe the City, the keepers watch it in vaine: in respect to the blessing of God hath onely power to give the successe thereunto: and as Paul saith, he planteth, Apollos watereth; but it is God onely that giveth the increase. Therefore (my Sonne) first of all things, learne to know and love that God, whom-to ye have a double obligation; first, for that he made you a man; and next, for that he made you a little GOD to sit on his Throne, and rule over other men. Remember, that as in dignitie hee hat erected you above others, so ought ye in thankfulnesse towards him, goe as farre beyond all others. A moate in anothers eye, is a beame into yours: a blemish in another, is a leprouse byle into you: and a veniall sinne (as the Papists call it) in another, is a great crime into you… (210-211)
James is hermeneutically self-conscious as well, no doubt because of what he saw among the Puritans. He warns his son:
Now, the onely way to bring you to this knowledge, is diligently to reade his worde, and earnestly to pray for the right understanding thereof…But above all, beware ye wrest not the worde to your owne appetite, as over many doe, making it like a belle to sound as ye please to interprete: but by the contrary, frame all your affections, to follow precisely the rule there set downe. (212)
James comments on the Scriptures. listing the books of the canon. It is clear that he is not a Roman Catholic when he rejects the apochrypha:
As to the Apocyphe bookes, I omit them, because I am no Papist, as I said before; and indeed some of them are no wayes like the dytement of the Spirit of God.(213)
Finally James gives us his views on faith and salvation:
But because no man was able to keepe the Law, nor any part thereof, it pleased God of his infinite wisedome and goodnesse, to incarnate his only Sonne in our nature, for satisfaction of his justice in his suffering for us; that since we could not be saved by doing, we might at least, bee saved by believing.(213)
Now, as to Faith, which is the nourisher and quickner of Religion, as I have already said, It is a sure perswasion and apprehension of the promises of God, applying them to your soule: and therefore may it justly be called the golden chaine that linketh the faithfulle soule to Christ: And because it groweth not in our garden, but is the free gift of God, as the same Apostle saith, it must be nourished by prayer, Which is nothing else, but a friendly talking with God. (214)
Such a confession is wholly consistent with the magisterial Reformers. James is clearly evangelical. For those familiar with a Richard Hooker-brand of Protestant Anglicanism, James’ ideas are a rather neat fit.
He also tells his son to read the Psalms, learning them carefully, and to pray regularly. Regular piety is essential for both the King’s personal religion and public ability, he says; and the second aspect touches on the constitutional question of the sovereign’s conformity to the original, founding moments of royal conversion and consequent political vicariate of the Messiah with regard to temporal peace and welfare, and fostering of faith.
We all swim in the sea of the Authorized Version, and the people even now call it by King James’ name. He figures in the list of English Reformers, however one looks at it, and is an example of an evangelical magistrate who saw his duty to the common good as being a duty first to God, whose care for the Word led him to convene supreme scholarship in its service, and who saw beyond the borders of his realm and sought the union of evangelical Christendom. His Bible is emblematic still of the popular unity of evangelical believers, across all denominations; and his kingship is emblematic of governance aware of its lieutenancy of Christ. In many particulars King James’ example is no longer relevant in our time; but in its ethical essence it is, and it is a lesson many among the Reformed would do well to learn.