Because English has changed so much since 1611, we miss a subtle feature employed by the King James translators.
The King James Version (KJV) has an unmatched eminence among English translations of the Bible. It has profoundly influenced English speech ever since, especially English rhetoric and literary style. One needs only remember that the power of Abraham Lincoln’s oratory owed much to his childhood immersion in the King James Bible and Shakespeare.
One of the enduring influences of the KJV is the elevated tone it set for religious language in English, especially the language used in liturgy. The KJV translators adopted some features of middle English that were already becoming archaic in their own day to give their Bible a more heightened style as divine scripture. For example, verb forms like falleth and doest would have sounded old-fashioned to Jacobeans just as they do to us.
We tend to assume that one other feature of this heightening tone is the KJV’s standard use of thou, thee, and thy as the pronouns in addressing or referring to God. Ever since English speakers have assumed that these pronouns give elevated sanctity to our addresses to God.*
If we make this assumption, we are wrong. The KJV translators were striving for something else in using these pronouns in reference to God.
The Original Association of Thou, Thee, and Thy
Thou, thee, and thy were once the standard pronouns in middle English used for the second person singular. Thou was the nominative form, thee the accusative form, and thy the possessive form. If you were addressing a single person, you would have addressed him or her as thou.
You and yours were the second person plural pronouns. If you used the word you, it was understood that you were addressing more than one person. The effect would have been similar to that of the slang expression we use today you all (clearly a plural address).
Middle English also shared with other European languages the custom of using the second person plural pronouns in formal speech. If a lower-status person were addressing a person of high rank, he would have used you, even if he were only talking to one person. For example, he would have said your majesty to a king, not thy majesty.
The second person singular forms, however, were the customary pronouns that you used in addressing someone you were familiar or intimate with. So a mother might address her child as thou. Likewise a man might address his wife or a close, bosom friend. Using thou, thee, and thy was then a sign that someone was in an intimate or familiar relationship with you. The effect was to include that person within the circle of your family.
This intimate cast of the word thou would have been parallel to the use of tu in French or du in German. All of these words carried the trappings of familiarity, intimacy, or some social level of equality.
In the Elizabethan era the use of thou, thee, and thy was beginning to fade. All second person speech, whether singular or plural, was being covered by the all inclusive you. But there were yet memories of how thou, thee, and thy had this cast of intimacy. That is why Quakers continued to use these forms into the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Quakers considered all members of their sect as brothers and sisters, and so all should be addressed using the intimate form of the second person pronouns.
The Emotional Effect of Retaining Thou, Thee, and Thy
The KJV translators retain these second person pronouns in referring to God. But their intent was something different than choosing a heightened terminology in addressing God. They were not communicating that God was exalted, remote, and distant.
Rather by choosing this terminology, they were signaling that our relationship with God is one of intimacy. God is our loving Father. Therefore, God should not be addressed with the formal you but with the informal, intimate thou. For God is in a sense so close to us that he forms a part of our family. He is the father of our spiritual family. Jesus was conveying the same sense when he chose to address God as Abba, which was Aramaic for the word Daddy.
But as English has changed, we have lost touch with this intimate cast of the second person singular pronouns thou, thee, and thy. Instead they have become formal terms heightened by their use in talk about the divinity. As a result, they tend to speak to us of the spiritual distance of God rather than of God’s intimate presence with us. And as that happens, we undermine the intent of the King James translators. How ironic!**
* It was also the adopted practice of Thomas Cramner in his drafting of the Book of Common Prayer. That book has had even greater influence on the vocabulary we have traditionally used in English-speaking worship.
** I want to acknowledge that this insight into this feature of the KJV translators is one that I gained from listening to the lecture series The History of the English Language, by Professor Seth Lerer of Stanford University. The lecture series is published by the Great Courses company of Chantilly, Virginia. The series is an excellent survey of the development of the English language. Lerer devotes one whole lecture to the translators of the King James Bible.