National Geographic on the KJV

The Bible of King James

First printed 400 years ago, it molded the English language, buttressed the “powers that be”—one of its famous phrases—and yet enshrined a gospel of individual freedom. No other book has given more to the English-speaking world.

By Adam Nicolson
Photograph by Jim Richardson

Rome Wager stands in front of the rodeo chutes on a small ranch just outside the Navajo Reservation in Waterflow, New Mexico. He is surrounded by a group of young cowboys here for midweek practice. With a big silver buckle at his waist and a long mustache that rolls down on each side of his mouth like the curving ends of a pair of banisters, Wager holds up a Bible in his left hand. The young men take their hats off to balance them on their knees. “My stories always begin a little different,” Brother Rome says to them as they crouch in the dust of the yard, “but the Lord always provides the punctuation.”

Wager, a Baptist preacher now, is a former bull-riding and saddle-bronc pro, “with more bone breaks in my body than you’ve got bones in yours.” He’s part Dutch, part Seneca on his father’s side, Lakota on his mother’s, married to a full-blood Jicarilla Apache.

He tells them about his wild career. He was raised on a ranch in South Dakota; he fought and was beaten up, shot, and stabbed. He wrestled and boxed, he won prizes and started drinking. “I was a saphead drunk.”

But this cowboy life was empty. He was looking for meaning, and one day in the drunk tank in a jail in Montana, he found himself reading the pages of the Bible. “I looked at that book in jail, and I saw then that He’d established me a house in heaven … He came into my heart.”

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