Uses and Abuses of the King James Version

By Mark A. Noll

As was the case in 1911, this 400th anniversary year for the King James Version (KJV) has brought forth a flood of positive commentary on the style, affect, and influence of this greatest of English-language Bibles. Although I agree wholeheartedly with most of what has been claimed about the beneficent legacy of the Authorized Version, as both a historian and a Christian it has seemed to me that other sides of the King James Version story deserve a hearing. What follows, therefore, is not an attempt to negate positive assessments, but rather an effort to add sober realism to what sometimes becomes runaway triumphalism.

For a surprisingly numerous cloud of American witnesses, the recent ascension of new translations at the expense of the KJV was long overdue. James H. Hutson, chief of the manuscript division at the Library of Congress, has published a splendid little book providing well-authenticated quotations from the American Founders on religious matters. In this great wealth of fascinating commentary are several surprisingly negative opinions about the KJV. John Adams, for example, once wrote to his son, John Quincy, to attack the notion that any one version of Scripture could count as a true “Rule of Faith.” He began his argument by denouncing “the translation by King James the first” as being carried out by someone who was “more than half a Catholick,” which in 1816 was for Adams anything but a compliment.

Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician who helped heal the breach between Adams and Thomas Jefferson, once warned parents away from the KJV by calling it, in effect, R-rated: “there are, I grant, several chapters, and many verses in the old testament, which in their present unfortunate translation, should be passed over by children.” For his part, Benjamin Franklin once tried his hand at translating a passage from the book of Job afresh because he held that “the language” since the time of the KJV “is much changed”; as a consequence, that translation’s “style, being obsolete, and thence less agreeable, is perhaps one reason why the reading of that excellent book is of late so much neglected.” Needless to say, no one at all abandoned the KJV to take up this New Bible by Ben (James H. Hutson, ed., The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations [Princeton University Press, 2005], pp. 26, 25, 36).

John Adams’s disparagement of James I as a Roman Catholic points to a more serious reason why some Americans might be delighted to see the KJV pass from the scene. Catholics could be first in line. As John McGreevy has shown in his compelling book, Catholics and American Freedom, a long American history exists of civil strife driven by the mandated use of the KJV in public institutions, especially public schools. McGreevy begins his book with the “Eliot School Rebellion” of 1859, which was sparked when an assistant to the principle at a Boston public school used a rattan stick to beat the hands of a 10-year old boy, Thomas Whall, for half an hour when Whall refused to recite the Ten Commandments from the KJV. Whall’s priest and his parents did not object to reciting the Ten Commandments as such, but they did object to the mandatory use of the Protestants’ KJV for the recitation (John McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom [Norton, 2003], pp. 7-14).

A few decades later in 1886, Roman Catholic parents in Edgerton, Wisconsin, filed suit against the local school board to stop mandatory readings from the KJV. The board replied that reading the KJV without comment gave all children the right to interpret the Bible as they pleased. To read the Bible without comment was a publicly useful act; to stop reading it because it offended Roman Catholic parents meant kowtowing to the particular beliefs of one religious community. In agreeing with the school board, a local judge stated that the KJV’s “very presence, as a believed book, has rendered the nations having it, a chosen race; and then too, in exact proportion as it is more or less generally known and studied” (John O. Geiger, “The Edgerton Bible Case: Humphrey Desmond’s Political Education of Wisconsin Catholics,” Journal of Church and State 20 [Winter 1978]: pp. 13-28 [quotation p. 19]). Even though this ruling was reversed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, it testified to a Protestant coercive spirit and a Protestant cultural obtuseness that relegated Roman Catholics to second-class citizenship, and all because they were loyal to a different translation of the Scriptures.

It was the same for Jews. Before the Civil War, Rabbi Isaac Wise of Cincinnati, who did oppose Bible reading in the public schools, nonetheless suggested that, if the practice was judged necessary for the health of the republic, the most neutral solution was to read the original versions in Hebrew and Greek (Naomi W. Cohen, Jews in Christian America: The Pursuit of Religious Equality [Oxford University Press, 1992], p. 80). A few years later Wise was joined by another of Cincinnati’s prominent Reform rabbis, Max Lilienthal, to support the school board’s decision to eliminate Bible readings. His reason pointed again to the evil effects of coercion: “We are opposed to Bible reading in the schools. We want secular schools and nothing else. … Having no religion[, the state] cannot impose any religious instruction on the citizen” (ibid., p. 83).

Other reformers, who also felt that the KJV had been used as a tool of repression, joined in this same chorus. As early as 1837, Sara Grimké was appealing for a translation to replace the KJV, which she felt had obscured the Bible’s message of liberation for women. Grimké professed her entire willingness to live by the Bible, but she also believed that “almost every thing that has been written on this subject, has been the result of a misconception of the simple truths revealed in the Scriptures, in consequence of the false translation of many passages of Holy Writ. … King James’s translators certainly were not inspired. I therefore claim the original as my standard, believing that to have been inspired” (Sarah Grimké, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and Other Essays, ed. Elizabeth Ann Bartlett [Yale University Press, 1988], pp. 31-32).

The cause for complaint among African Americans went even deeper, since liberal quotation from the KJV erected probably the most powerful bulwark in support of American slavery. Thus, it was no surprise when in 1899 Henry McNeal Turner, a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, called for a new translation. His complaint was that “the white man” had “colored the Bible in his translation to suit the white man, and made it, in many respects, objectionable to the Negro. And until a company of learned black men shall rise up and retranslate the Bible, it will not be wholly acceptable and in keeping with the higher conceptions of the black man. … We need a new translation of the Bible for colored churches” (quoted in Stephen Ward Angell, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South [University of Tennessee Press, 1992], p. 256).

The bitter relevance of Turner’s appeal was underscored shortly thereafter and from the highest reaches of the land. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson responded positively to an invitation to take part in a 100th anniversary celebration for the American Bible Society to be held at the Daughters of the American Revolution building in Washington, D.C. Yet before the event could take place there was, in the words of a Bible Society official, “one difficult corner to turn — the color question.” This official explained to the staunchly segregationist president that, “as a national organization, having an Agency among colored people with a colored minister at its head, we have certain obligations which we cannot avoid” (John Fox to Woodrow Wilson, April 3, 1916, in The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 36: January-May 1916, ed. Arthur S. Link [Princeton University Press, 1981], p. 481). Despite this sense of duty, it came to pass on May 7, 1916, that, because of unrecorded backstage maneuvering, the president addressed the Society with no blacks on the platform. On that occasion, the same Wilson who on the occasion of the KJV tercentenary had praised the translation because of “How these pages teem with the masses of mankind! … These are the annals of the people — of the common run of men,” now spoke loftily of how “the Word of God” was “weaving the spirits of men together” throughout the whole world (Wilson, “An Address,” in Papers, vol. 23, pp. 15-26; Wilson, “Remarks Celebrating the Centennial of the American Bible Society,” vol. 36, p. 631). If what was then so commonly accepted about how to treat the races, but now is seen as so reprehensible, is connected to the ever-present use of the KJV, then the loss of this version might not be considered much of a loss at all.

But more than just the coercive and discriminatory use of the KJV might encourage observers today to conclude that it is simply a good thing for this translation to pass from general use. From the side of Protestants who believe in the truth of Scripture as divine revelation, it may be necessary for their own religious health to redraw a stronger line between the Bible’s relevance for religion and its relevance for public life. When the phrases of the KJV came naturally to one and sundry, all too many believers assumed that it was the nation’s responsibility to do the business of the Church and the Church’s responsibility to do the business of the nation. But that assumption could easily become a threat to the religious integrity of the churches.

A notable foreign visitor in the 1930s concluded his own appreciative commentary on American Christian believers with something like that criticism. After spending two periods of study in the United States, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an essay on American Christianity after he had returned to Germany. In it he praised what he had seen, but he also observed that the American separation of church and state was linked with an extraordinary “participation of the churches in the political, social, economic, and cultural events of public life.” To Bonhoeffer, the nature of that activity made him ask whether American Christians understood the negative criticism of the Christian gospel. As he put it toward the end of his essay from 1939, “[American believers] do not understand that God’s ‘criticism’ touches even religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. … In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics. But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognised as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism Without Reformation,” in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes from the Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Vol. 1, ed. Edwin H. Robertson, trans. Robertson and John Bowden [Harper & Row, 1965], pp. 105, 117-18). To apply Bonhoeffer’s observation to Americans’ engagement with Scripture, perhaps it could be said that the KJV had to die as an American public book before the Bible could rise again as the Church’s particular book.

From the side of the public at large, something similar might be said. When the language of the KJV was everywhere the common public language, it was very easy to bestow a sacred aura on public discourse. As happened with a vengeance during the American Civil War, and has happened other times since, the sacralization of public rhetoric leads easily to an absolutization of public principle. And the absolutization of public principle leads easily to the demonization of opponents, which in turn promotes crusading at home and abroad. When in the mid-1920s the Frenchman André Siegfried visited the United States, he did not comment directly on the use of the KJV, but he did comment on an American public style that was everywhere expressed in the language of this translation: “Not only do [Americans] believe that they have been called to uplift the outside world — a duty toward savages, negroes, and Frenchmen — but they also feel the need of home missions to evangelize their own community” by means of “crusades against cigarettes, alcohol, and the slums, and such movements as feminism, pacifism, anti-vivisection, Americanization of immigrants, and even the gospel of eugenics and birth control.” Siegfried thought that these tendencies were easily translated into politics; thus, the Puritan-evangelical heritage was the secret behind an American political style that so often perplexed Europeans. “Every American is at heart an evangelist, be he a Wilson, a Bryan, or a Rockefeller. He cannot leave people alone, and he constantly feels the urge to preach” (André Siegfried, America Comes of Age: A French Analysis [Harcourt, Brace, 1927], p. 35). For the sake, therefore, of a calmer, more self-critical public discourse, it may be good that the KJV is passing away.

Even casual readers of these paragraphs will recognize that they contain several phrases — like “cloud of witnesses” or “it came to pass” — that remain in the common speech because they were fixed by the words of the KJV. That language reminds us of the great debt that all English-speakers, and especially all English-speaking Christian believers, owe to the translators of this great translation. Nonetheless, to attempt a somewhat fuller accounting of a story that is actually more complex than often portrayed is itself to follow a biblical injunction, which I may paraphrase from the KJV itself as “for the letter [of any particular translation] killeth, but the spirit [behind all translations of the Bible] giveth life.”

Dr. Mark A. Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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