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.
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.