Beginning in 1604, 54 scholars labored for seven years under the sponsorship of King James I to produce a new translation of the Bible. While the influence of that text over the past 400 years is unquestioned, what is the place of that venerable old version in the actual life of the church today?
Called the Authorized or King James Version (KJV), this version was first published in 1611, 400 years ago this May. Numerous celebrations of this anniversary have been planned, including a national expo in Washington, D.C. on May 2-3 (BYU already held its King James Bible Symposium on February 23-24), and Congress has adopted a Resolution extolling the influential place the KJV has had in the history of the United States (see H. Con. Res. 38, 112th Congress, 1st Session [April 12, 2011]).
Beginning perhaps with the publication of the Revised Standard Version in the middle of the 20th century, the influence of the KJV has been waning. It is no longer the common Bible among American Protestant Christians, having been superseded by such modern translations as the New International Version. There are good reasons for this drift away from the KJV. There have been numerous manuscript discoveries over the past four centuries that are of course not reflected in the KJV. Our knowledge of the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek languages has advanced significantly since that time. The English of the KJV is literarily beautiful and a classic of the English language, but it is also archaic at this late date and in places quite difficult to comprehend (especially in the Hebrew prophets and Pauline epistles).
Perhaps somewhat ironically, as the commitment to the KJV has been loosening among most Christians, for Latter-day Saints if anything it has actually gotten stronger. The KJV was simply *the* Bible at the time when the Mormon Church was organized in 1830, and for over a century and a half it was simply the common Bible used among Mormons. But in 1979 the Church published its own edition of the KJV (through Cambridge University Press) with an award winning system of notes and cross-references linking it to other LDS scripture. As a result of this publication, the KJV has gone from merely the common to the official English-language Bible of the Church.
Will Mormons follow other Christians in moving away from the KJV? Not in the foreseeable future. The weaving of the Jacobean English of the KJV and the other Mormon scripture produced in the 19th century makes a move to a different English translation quite problematic. (Ironically, perhaps, this problem doesn’t exist in languages other than English, where Mormons often use more modern Bible translations.) The ever increasing archaism of the KJV language may eventually compel a change to a more modern translation, but my guess is that any such development is at least decades away.
Mormons are not scriptural inerrantists and they reject the fundamentalism of the KJV-only school. But they do continue to cling to this venerable old translation after most other Christians have already moved on. Mormons tend to view the KJV as solid, conservative, and durable. As old as it is, the KJV continues to be a force in the life of the Church even to this day, 400 years after its first publication.
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