Unity and the KJV, part one.

People might rightly ask why Anglophone Latter-day Saints still use the King James (Authorized) Version of the Bible when there are new translations available which better represent the ancient sources and their languages.

The purpose of this series of posts is not to offer a defence of the KJV nor to criticise its use. Rather, I wish to try to explain, particularly for a non-Mormon audience, why Mormons use the KJV, or to state it differently, what the use of the KJV says about the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In short, I believe that the use of the KJV underlines the importance of unity to the LDS Church: unity with Joseph Smith and the Restoration, unity with the Brethren, and unity with traditional Mormon Christology.

History

The KJV has been the de facto English LDS Bible since the beginning of the Restoration. The KJV was Joseph Smith’s Bible — an 1828 KJV was, for example, used by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to begin work on the Inspired Version (JST). As Barlow puts it, “Joseph Smith’s generation was raised on the KJV.” However, Joseph never heralded the KJV as the “official” LDS Bible. Indeed, a recognition of its flaws led him to learn the ancient languages, work on the Inspired Version, and seek out alternative modern translations such as the Luther Bible. It was not until the mid-20th century that the KJV began to acquire official status. In 1956, with a “lawyer’s skill and churchman’s zeal” (Barlow), J. Reuben Clark wrote a defense of the KJV (Why the King James Version); the KJV’s place was then (quasi-)canonised with the 1979 LDS version of the KJV, a project begun under Harold B. Lee, a close associate of Clark.

Unity with Joseph Smith and the Restoration

Latter-day Saints have a distaste for dissonance. The gospel is largely regarded as a unified, eternal project, its teachings evident from Adam to modern times. The King James Version, unlike other translations, offers a seamless continuity from ancient scripture to latter-day revelation. It is a translation which offers gospel unity. I first came across this idea in Douglas Davies’ Introduction to Mormonism where he suggests that the KJV is “retained for purposes of coherence, mutual reinforcement and unity of ethos.” I wish to explore that idea further.

A First Presidency statement published in 1992 says that “while other Bible versions may be easier to read than the KJV, in doctrinal matters latter-day revelation supports the KJV.” This is a view (stated with remarkable and naive circularity) taken further by a 1911 Deseret News editorial: the KJV “is the version given to the world…in the very same language in which modern revelations are given.”

Jacobean English is the language of LDS revelation. Furthermore, Joseph’s use of the KJV acted as a trigger for many of the revelations in the D&C (see Heikki Räisänen’s discussion of the JST in Dialogue). Joseph was fond of placing new doctrinal wine in old KJV bottles and much would be lost if Mormons were to use newer translations.

Compare the following doctrinal phrases found in the KJV and their newer equivalents (LDS doctrines in parentheses):

  • “dispensation of the fullness of times” vs.  “when the times have reached their fulfilment” (millenarianism)
  • “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains” vs. “as the highest of the mountains” (Salt Lake Temple)
  • “First estate” vs. “Proper domain” (pre-existence)
  • “Veil” vs. “curtain”; “more sure word of prophecy” vs. “the prophetic message more fully confirmed” (temple liturgy)

By retaining the KJV, a biblical link with certain Mormon doctrines is maintained and allows “all scripture [to be] woven together as one book” (Joseph Fielding McConkie).  Use of another Bible would orphan Mormon phraseology, from the “And it came to pass”-es and other Jacobeanisms of the Book of Mormon to the important doctrines listed above. I was speaking to a missionary last week who expressed frustration about a Bible used in another Christian church because it “didn’t support our doctrines.” The purpose of the JST — to “improve” the Bible — may also be weakened when using an “improved” Bible. Thus, to maintain unity with Joseph Smith and the Restoration, the KJV is retained.

Next: unity with the Brethren.

Comments

  1. Great. Words matter, contextually. Well said.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Interesting take on this, Ronan. I like that you picked up this “unity” idea from Davies.

  3. Nice. Thanks. We’ve talked a little before about how KJV vocabulary shapes our theology, but something about your wording here — maybe the orphaning of phraseology bit — deepens that. I had a brief flash of someone having moved to a different translation and then discovering those doctrinal ties to KJV language in the same way that we read about hebraicisms in the Book of Mormon, or struggling over something in the New Testament that is apparently crystal clear in Greek but ambiguous in English.

  4. Well put, Ronan.

  5. Thanks Ronan, I’m glad to see this in the 400th anniversary of the KJV.

  6. Great stuff, Ronan. I completely agree.

  7. Ronan, I think this line summed up much of what I have felt about the KJV: “Latter-day Saints have a distaste for dissonance. ” Nicely done.

    While I love the language of the KJV, I have had questions over the years concerning newer translations with access to other manuscript resources that have come to light since the 17th century. Then I came across this site and it became a little clearer to me. So many of the newer translations use the “thought for thought” process, which would appear to be more subjective in nature than “word for word”, and prone to word choices driven by different doctrinal interpretations. I have a copy of the Harper Collins NRSV, but I find the language of the KJV engenders a more reverential attitude in me when I read it.

  8. I think that part of the reason the KJV version is used is because of the JST. It would be very confusing to understand the JST if it was printed with a different translation.

  9. Is there a good KJV study bible with a scholarly approach? The most popular KJVs I’ve seen out there tend to lean Evangelical.
    Is there one that is basically scholarly rather than devotional?

  10. You’ve hit the nail on the head here.

    I think a fourth reason that parallels this first one here is Unity with Tradition – i.e. modern day Mormons are really (really) change-adverse. (really)

  11. gwenydd mccoy says:

    “Use of another Bible would orphan Mormon phraseology”, so what? i think people are able to adapt, and we could use different words to mean the same thing in modern speech.

  12. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    Great, thank you. How could we surrender our buzz words and phrases from the Bible, the agony?! There is something tragically lost when we say other sheep of this “pen” (NIV) instead of “fold” (KJV). Fold sounds more dignified in reference to our bros and sis in the new world. Pen makes the Americas sound like a dump. There is a literary quality to the KJV too that I enjoy.

  13. 12 – not to mention all the time that we would have to fill in Sunday School if we couldn’t have stimulating discussions about what the word “charity” means.

  14. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    (13) Charity never faileth

  15. iguacufalls says:

    I think we should modernize the Book of Mormon to match the modernized Bibles.

    “And Abinadi said, “Don’t touch me, you jerks! I’m not done preaching to you, yet!”

  16. (14) Thats not true. She and I broke up after high school right before I started dating my wife. Charity failed, my friend.

  17. Dustin,
    I’ve found William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible to be good one that doesn’t lean evangelically. If you can find the 1st or 2nd edition (the latter printed in the 1950s) they are more complete than the revised edition (1970s) and the “New” (2004), but they are all good. The earlier editions are harder to find. It’s a multi volume set and not cheap but many public libraries have copies of some of the volumes if you’d like to look them over and you can always find used sets of the later editions available on ebay.

  18. Barclay’s volumes only cover the New Testament.

  19. Its nice to have this set out so clearly for any readers.

  20. Thanks MB. Will take a look.

  21. This may be covered in a succeeding post, but I think part of using the KJV is so that we are not only singing from the same hymnal, but so we are reading from the same translation. Suppose the Brethren decided that the KJV is so outdated and stilted and difficult to understand, that we need a translation that the common people can read and understand (the same reason why we lionize the Tyndale translation which preceded the KJV). I would support that. However, which translation would we use? Would we risk schism in replacing one official translation with another?

    I would note, as has been previously discussed, that the Church has adopted a non-KJV bible as official for LDS–but it is the Spanish language version, and is based on the fairly stilted Reina-Valera 1909 version (and thus KJV like–e.g., it uses “caridad” instead of “amor” in 1 Cor. 13).

  22. That is really intersting to consider how word choice affects our doctrine. I personally would have a hard time judging which translation would be good…it’d be nice to have 4 or 5 side by side and read that way. I must admit I’m spoiled with the cross references and footnoting. It’d be interesting to see another christian footnoted bible on some of our pet scriptures like Isaiah 29.

  23. Would we risk schism in replacing one official translation with another?

    I feel sorry for those that would break off for something as trivial as that. But they probably do exist.

  24. Master Blaster says:

    KVJ was good enough for Moroni to quote several times to Jospeh Smith, so I figure good enough for me.

  25. Moniker Challenged says:

    Does the fact that KJV is in the public domain have anything to do with it?

  26. The purpose of the JST — to “improve” the Bible — may also be weakened when using an “improved” Bible.

    Not necessarily. I recommend you compare the KJV to the NRSV to the JST on Hebrews 11:1. Tell me which translation is correct. :)

  27. Moniker Challenged — very much, these days.

    It is important to note that in many Protestant churches which do not use the KJV, it still shows up in sermons that are to be published and in written materials because of the difficulty in obtaining permissions, charges for use and such that go with newer Bibles.

    You can read a very interesting discussion of many of those points if you read about what was behind the creation of The Net Bible (which I like enough to have in print and on my itouch). That is an effort to create a new modernized text that can be freely used and quoted.

    The other problem is that the KJV is intensely poetic. So is much of the original text. Many, many translations are not or make choices that lose the poetic flavor.

    “Valley of the shadow of death” vs. “Valley of deepest dark shadows.” Which one is poetic? For that matter, which has resonance with core cultural expressions in the English language? Modern translations do more than lose context with word pattern usages in the LDS Church, they lose context with much of the culture at large.

    But, the intellectual property rights issue is a huge one.

  28. I really liked this post Ronan and look forward to the continuation.

  29. re # 27, if the KJV is good enough for Coolio, then it’s good enough for the Church as a whole.

  30. I think you nailed it RJH. Additionally, in the latest CHI found online it states:
    “The most reliable way to measure the accuracy of any biblical translation is not by comparing different texts, but by comparison with the Book of Mormon and modern-day revelations.”
    Though as mentioned this is very circular, I think it underscores what you’re saying here. The KJV is a natural fit.

    The only big question I’ve had is why not use the JST Bible? Surely it would coincide with the BoM and modern day revelation more than the KJV? I explored this a bit here http://mormonmatters.org/2010/05/26/jst-bible-and-early-christianity/ but I’m still unsure, given that in 2004 the CoC and LDS church released a full manuscript. The best I can come up with is that it’s largely tradition.

  31. 29 FTW

  32. Glenn Smith says:

    The KJV being Joseph’s Bible gives stronger and more intriguing meaning to the 8th Article of Faith, “We believe the Bible to to the word of God as far as it is translated correctly…” I am pleased to have read this post. Thank-you, Ronan.

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    I second no. 31!

  34. “Latter-day Saints have a distaste for dissonance.”

    Ronan, the distaste for dissonance appears selective to me as one observing as an outsider. I regret not being able to attend the upcoming KJV symposium at BYU, but I would be curious about any LDS post exploring “An LDS dissonance with the doctrinal Tradition of the KJV”.

  35. Absolutely, #29 FTW!
    While poetic structures and diction may not be necessary to teach doctrine, I think the metaphorical nature of a lot of gospel teaching, particularly as done in LDS theology, lends itself well to the literary bent of the KJV. Ronan, I do love your point about orphaned phraseology. Another great post!

  36. Well said, Ronan! I can think of only one other organization that has stuck so tightly to the KJV as our Church has, and that is the Masons- and isin’t that telling?? The verbiage does seem to lend itself to some specific beliefs and phraseology that are watered down, or are lost completely in newer translations. Then, indeed, there is the poetry of the KJV. The text of Handel’s Messiah, under even the most accurate modern translation, becomes as mushy and lame as the worst of main line Protestantism’s awful ‘contemporary worship’ music. Blech. I’ll take the poetry, and deal with accuracy in the JST, German and Greek translations.

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