King James Bible Translators
Personal and Family Life
John Harding was born in the parish of Frensham, Hampshire (now Surrey) about 1562. His family owned property in the tiny village of Dockenfield adjacent to Frensham. John inherited this property and passed it to his heirs. Little is known of his parents apart from their connection to Dockenfield. John Harding had at least three brothers, Abraham, who became rector of Dunsfold, Surrey, Robert, who remained in Dockenfield, and Edward. Each is mentioned in John's will. His sister Elizabeth married the renowned jurist and lawyer, Sir Henry Martyn.
John left home for Oxford as an adolescent to pursue his university studies. He remained there until 1597 when he moved to Great Haseley, Oxfordshire where he served as rector. He married a widow, Isabella Clarke, with whom he had six children. His firstborn son was named John, born in 1601. John Jr. followed his father to Oxford and into the ministry. Elizabeth, their first daughter died not long after her birth in 1603, and a year later Isabella gave birth to another child also named Elizabeth. (The practice of parents giving a child the name of a deceased sibling was common at the time.) A daughter Francis was born in 1606, followed by son Edward in 1607. Finally, daughter Mary joined the family in 1604.
John's close friends included Sir Henry Martyn, his brother-in-law, John Wilkenson of Magdalen Hall, and Thomas Wentworth of Lincoln's Inn.
John left Great Haseley and returned to Oxford in 1608 where he lived until his death on 5 November 1610. He was buried in the Magdalen College Chapel.
John Harding likely attended the Farnham Grammar School, which was located nearby to his birthplace, Frensham. His will contained a bequest to Farnham School of the income from his Dockenfield property. The grammar school in Farnham was established in 1560 near the time of John's birth. His university education at Magdalen College, Oxford probably began when he was thirteen or fourteen. He graduated B.A. in 1578, proceeded M.A. in 1581, B.D. in 1592, and D.D. in 1597, when he was about thirty-five years of age.
John Harding's first academic appointment came with his election to a fellowship at his college, Magdalen. He subsequently was made proctor in 1589. In 1591 he received the singular honor of being named regius professor of Hebrew at Oxford and occupied this position until 1598 when he stepped down, likely to devote himself to the rectory at Great Haseley. Harding's appointment to such a distinguished professorship is noteworthy, especially considering the number of other outstanding scholars at the university. It speaks to the quality of Harding's scholarship, and the depth of his knowledge of Hebrew.
In 1597 he became rector of Great Haseley. He served in this position concurrently with his professorship and his work as one of the Translators. He finally left Great Haseley in 1608 to become president of his alma mater, Magdalen College. His election to the presidency of Magdalen was tightly contested. One of his most ardent supporters was Arthur Lake, his fellow Translator.
John Harding and the Translation
Bishop Richard Bancroft, overseer of the King James Bible translation, wrote a letter early in the project urging his fellow bishops to lend support to the effort. The letter dated 31 July 1604 names three men who had primary responsibility for the activities of the Translators in their venues. They were "Mr. Lively, our Hebrew reader in Cambridge, … Dr. Harding, our Hebrew reader in Oxford,… Dr. Andrewes, dean of Westminster". The letter implies that John Harding had general oversight responsibility for all of the translation work being done at Oxford, including the First Oxford Company of which he was director as well as the Second Oxford Company headed by Thomas Ravis.
The First Oxford Company had responsibility to translate the Prophets, Isaiah through Malachi. To be selected director of a company consisting of the scholarly talent of John Rainolds, Thomas Holland, Richard Kilby, Miles Smith, Richard Brett, Richard Fairclough and Daniel Featley was an honor indeed. Perhaps out of respect and to accommodate his ailing health, the company met in John Rainolds' apartment at Corpus Christi College until his death in 1607.
The translation of the Prophets was a daunting task. These books are quoted or alluded to over ninety times in the New Testament by Jesus, St. Paul, and others. In their work they were directed by Bishop Richard Bancroft to give deference to the Bishop's Bible and to consult Tyndale's, the Geneva, Coverdale's and others. This they did, preserving the beauty of the original, retaining the best rendering of previous translations, and making small improvements, often line by line, and word by word. As director of the company, John Harding deserves much credit for the magnificent translation that was produced.
On August 28, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., setting forth his grand vision of racial equality. In that speech he declared:
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. [see Isaiah 40:4 - 5] We will not be satisfied until justice rolls like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. [see Amos 5:24]
These stirring words of Dr. King echoed not only the thoughts of the prophets Isaiah and Amos, but the language of John Harding and his company of Translators.
As important a role as John Harding played in the translation, very little has been written about him. His brother, Abraham followed him to Magdalen and was the college chorister there for six years. His sister Elizabeth was the wife of the most influential lawyer and jurist of his day, Sir Henry Martyn. Two of John and Isabella Harding's sons, John and Francis, like their father, graduated from Oxford. Francis has been described as a physician and excellent poet. Son John went into the ministry and became a translator of Paracelsian medical texts, pioneering the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. John in turn had two sons, John and Edward who also graduated from Oxford. John and Isabella's daughter Mary married Edward Reynolds a prominent leader of Oxford and later Bishop of Norwich. Mary and Edward had two children who went on to have significant careers. Though yet unknown to history, the parents of John Harding from the small villages of Frenshaw and Dockenfield must have been remarkable people.