If you go to the Church’s online edition of the scriptures you’ll notice a prominent link to a 3-part documentary called “Fires of Faith: The Coming Forth of the King James Bible,” produced by BTUTV. What an interesting subtitle. “Coming forth” is a phrase we typically reserve for discussions about the Book of Mormon. The phrase connotes divine direction, implicitly asserting the KJV’s prominence for LDS scripture study in the English speaking church.
I’ve recently been using a New Revised Standard Version for my scripture study. I’ve also used a free Kindle copy of the English Standard Version to follow along with recent Sunday School lessons on those ever-so-difficult Pauline epistles. Using different Bible versions has brought the text to life in a new way for me; I wish more members would make use of a variety of translations. Too often we say “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a KJV Bible and there cannot be any more Bible.”
That being said, there’s a peculiar devotional quality I personally experience in the KJV that I can’t easily escape. I figure it has something to do with the KJV’s prominence in my early memories of the reading or hearing scriptures, including its familiar cadence in the Book of Mormon.
Speaking of which…
It’s unquestionable that the KJV text had direct influence on the translation of the Book of Mormon. Scholars both critical and apologetic have always recognized the presence of KJV idioms there, a fact which makes a strong case that the Book of Mormon text we have can’t be a strictly literal translation of an ancient text. The most obvious examples of KJV influence are the notorious Isaiah parts through 2 Nephi, the presence of which led B.H. Roberts to suggest that Joseph Smith actually referred to a Bible while translating the Book of Mormon.1 This isn’t the only possible explanation, but I thought I’d throw it in here because reasonable folks have believed such things.
Here I’m focusing specifically on “idioms”—short expressions like “fly in the ointment”—because of linguist/scholar David Crystal. In the book Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (OUP, 2011), Crystal identifies idiomatic expressions as evidence for the KJV’s continued influence on English. Crystal acknowledges that tracing a book’s influence on language in terms of grammar, spelling, vocabulary, syntax and so forth is always difficult and never precise. So in Begat he focuses directly on idioms, which originated in the KJV, or seem to have gained their popularity through that medium, which can be found floating around in contemporary culture. Throughout Begat he traces 257 such expressions (258). He even gives a shout-out to the Church’s use of “pearl of great price” as the title of “a collection of its doctrinal materials” (190). What if KJV had gone with Wycliffe’s “margarite”?2
One particular phrase from 1 Kings 19:12 stuck out to me: “And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. Crystal notes that “still small voice” has “captured the imagination” of practically all subsequent English translations (77). Wycliffe has “the issuing of thin wind,” Douai-Rheims says “a whistling of a gentler air,” and Geneva has “a still and soft voice.” Crystal speculates that “still small voice” reigns because “its gradual lengthening of the vowels (short i, longer a, diphthong oi) is more euphonious” than the other attempts (78). Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon, in good KJV fashion, retains the euphonious KJV rendering:
“Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words…” (1 Nephi 17:45).3
What most interests me is that the KJV’s phrase is not found in a quotation of 1 Kings, but rather it appears in its own context, through a different prophet’s voice, translated into KJV idiom by Joseph Smith. The phrase “still small voice” has a heavy devotional purchase in LDS culture today. But it might have been otherwise, were it not for the translators of the King James Version—a book whose voice is neither still nor small in current English-speaking LDS parlance.
1. Roberts explained: “When Joseph Smith saw that the Nephite record was quoting the prophecies of Isaiah, of Malachi, or the words of the Savior, he took the English Bible and compared these passages as far as they paralleled each other, and finding that in substance, in thought, they were alike, he adopted our English translation,” B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 1:272, cited in Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 303. Emma Smith insisted that she never saw Joseph use a book during the translation. This was a late reminiscence and Emma was not always present while Joseph was translating. See Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate 2/4 (October 1879): 50-52. Other LDS scholars including Kent P. Jackson and Grant Hardy have likewise suggested Joseph’s direct usage of the KJV during the translation, see Gardner, 303.
2. Crystal has written a ton of pretty cool stuff, but to be honest, I thought his execution in Begat was boring. Each chapter tackles one or several biblical phrases by tracing their use amongst English speakers, frequently via google searches. There is next-to-no analysis about the interaction between language and culture. He merely gives a litany of examples of phrases which people still use, the origins of which being traceable to the KJV.
3. “Still small voice” also shows up in Doctrine and Covenants 85:6. Helaman 5:30-31 uses “still voice of perfect mildness,” but as with the verse in 1 Kings and 1 Nephi, the element of “thunder” is interestingly also present.