Church discovers a first edition King James Bible

King James Version Bible, 1611
Image caption The New Testament title page reveals that this version of the King James Bible is a first edition

A first edition King James Bible has been discovered hidden away and forgotten in a church in Cambridge.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Staff at Great St Mary's University church had forgotten about the book, which was donated in 1925.

"It's not quite perfect, but it does have the New Testament title page which has the date 1611," said Peter Meadows, from Cambridge University Library.

He is the library's Bible Society librarian and part of the congregation at Great St Mary's.

Phil Gorman, the pastoral assistant for Great St Mary's, rediscovered the ancient book.

To celebrate the King James Bible's original publication in 1611, church staff decided to organise a public reading of the whole book.

Readers will include people from Great St Mary's and many other churches from the Cambridge area. It will be launched by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on 27 April, who will read Genesis I.

As a result Mr Gorman needed to find a King James edition, and rummaged through an old chest towards the back of the church.

"I came across a very large package covered in acid-proof paper," Mr Gorman explained. "As I lifted it out and opened the wrappers the first thing that caught my eye was Barker 1611 on the spine.

"I opened it and it was a first edition King James."

'Rare' and 'delicate'

In 1604 King James VI of Scotland had been England's king for a year. He ordered a new translation of the bible to be made, and 54 Greek and Latin scholars worked on what was to become the official version of the bible for the Church of England.

According to its records, Great St Mary's bought its first copy of the King James Bible in 1612 for 52 shillings.

Image caption Most contemporary readers would struggle with the first edition's archaic script

But that copy has long since disappeared.

The book rediscovered by Mr Gorman is listed in the church's inventory, which is how he knows it was donated in 1925, and it had been stored safely away from harm in the chest.

This may explain why the current staff were unaware of its existence.

"It's rather ironic that when we do find a copy it's fairly rare, and perhaps too delicate for people to read from," he commented. "Plus the script is rather difficult as well, if you're not used to reading that type of script on a daily basis. For instance the s letters look like fs."

He has also tracked down a number of Victorian copies of the King James Bible and these will be used for the community read.

The 1611 bible will be placed in a glass display case.

So what about value?

Even though it has had a new cover at some point, and is missing some pages, it is fairly valuable.

"There are probably several hundred first editions," said Mr Meadows. "And very few of them are absolutely perfect because over the years they have lost pages.

"A slightly imperfect copy is going to be worth a few thousand pounds. An absolutely perfect copy is worth many thousands of pounds."

However, staff at Great St Mary have no intention of selling their rediscovered copy.

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