The Book of Mormon and the King James Version

Many people find problematic the extent to which the Book of Mormon quotes the King James Version of the Bible, because this practice can make the Book of Mormon look more like a cobbled-together 19th-century text than a translation of an ancient artifact (bearing in mind Joseph Smith’s idiosyncratic usage of “translation”). Without claiming to offer a solution to this conundrum, I’d like to put forward an 1820s analogue, in which the translator of a recently recovered text relied uncritically on the King James Version, in the process masking some interesting details of the scriptural text presented.

This analogue is a Latin theological treatise, De doctrina Christiana, generally attributed to John Milton, but unpublished in his lifetime. For complex reasons, the manuscript of this treatise ended up among various state papers in a cupboard at Whitehall, where Robert Lemon, sr., discovered it in 1823. The editing and translation of this treatise soon garnered royal support, and the task fell to Charles Richard Sumner, Cambridge graduate and soon-to-be bishop of Winchester.

Apparently feeling some urgency, Sumner worked quickly, staying up nights with a wet rag on his forehead and copious amounts of green tea to hand—in the end taking only fifteen months to translate 745 manuscript pages (a feat not too dissimilar to Joseph’s). Because approximately half of the manuscript consists of scriptural citations, an obvious shortcut suggested itself: much easier to look up a verse in the KJV than to translate it fresh, so this is what Sumner did. His editions of the treatise in both Latin and English were published in 1825. (The BYU library has a copy of the English volume.)

The problems with Sumner’s approach have subsequently become apparent. In 2012, Oxford published a new edition of the treatise as volume VIII in The Complete Works of John Milton (still in progress). One of the editors, J. Donald Cullington, checked each of the Latin citations against other Latin translations of the Bible available at the time. In most instances, the citations accorded with the Old Testament of Franciscus Junius and Immanuel Tremellius or the New Testament of Theodore Beza, but in a few cases it seems that Milton decided that he could do a better job of rendering the Greek or Hebrew than his predecessors had. Cullington records several such instances in the Oxford index—but he also translates Milton’s Latin rather than relying on any existing translation, whereas Sumner leaves these Miltonic renderings indistinguishable from any others.

If such instances indicate some of the trouble in Sumner’s reliance on the KJV, the rabbit hole goes deeper still, for in select cases, Milton decides that the “external scripture” (about whose textual corruption he complains) isn’t good enough, so he turns to the “internal scripture” of the spirit, which authorizes him to render some passages in ways at odds with any scholarly precedent, including the original languages. Significantly, one of these instances occurs in the chapter on Christian Liberty (Book 1 Chapter 27), where Milton renders Romans 12:2 as follows: “et ne conformemini huic seculo, sed transformemini renovatione mentis vestrae ad explorandum quaenam sit voluntas Dei illa bona et accepta, & perfecta [Oxford trans: And do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed  by the renewal of your mind for exploring what exactly God’s will is: that good and acceptable and perfect [will].]”

Among the many things that Milton does in rendering this verse, two are significant for our purposes. First, “accepta” hints at the “acceptable” of the KJV, against the Vulgate’s  beneplacens or Beza’s placens. So even Milton leaned on the KJV sometimes. Second is “ad explorandum,” which is a bigger deal. Latin has no way of reproducing the grammar of the Greek purposive expression eis to dokimazein humas, where humas is the subject of the infinitive, but ut probetis (the rendering in both Beza and the Vulgate) seems to me like the most straightforward way of doing it: a basic subjunctive purpose clause, with the pronoun implied by the verb. Milton’s formulation drops the pronoun altogether, resulting in a less personal, more generalized purpose to the transformation being urged. Then there is the choice of word. Probo pretty directly captures the idea of testing or trying conveyed by the Greek, and while exploro can also have this meaning, its primary sense has more to do with searching than with testing. So Milton is subtly shifting the scriptural sense in a direction reminiscent of the “Nation … so prone to seek after knowledge” portrayed in Areopagitica, a place where people are both “searching” and “trying all things.”

Thus, Sumner’s reliance on the KJV really does leave some riches buried—among them, ironically, a sign of Milton’s own use of it. What, then, of the analogue to the Book of Mormon? Closer scrutiny of Milton’s Latin reveals some commonalities between his practice as a translator and Joseph’s: in many instances, a received version was adequate to the job, while others called for a spiritual intervention. (Joseph, in fairness, seems to have intervened in this way with much greater frequency than Milton.)

Even so, with the Book of Mormon we do not have the option of peeling back Joseph’s layer of mediation, as we do with Sumner’s, so as to probe and re-translate the text in the manner of the new Oxford De doctrina Christiana. It seems to me, however, that in using the familiar language of the KJV the Book of Mormon makes its departures from received scriptural texts more transparent than they would have been had Joseph produced a fresh “translation.” While people like me might revel in the opportunities for textual criticism that such a translation would provide, the Book of Mormon presents a text that could readily be compared with a book that many 19th-century Americans already owned. This democratizing detail is, I believe, quite significant in its own right.

Having said that, though, the realities of a global church and the general supercession of the KJV in the Anglophone world by more reliable translations make this ready parallel less useful now that it was in 19th-century America. In the absence of an original, perhaps it would have been nice after all if Joseph had translated all of the Book of Mormon’s scriptural quotations instead of leaning on the KJV quite so heavily as he seems to have done.

Note: the controversy over the authorship of De doctrina Christiana is too complicated to go into here, so I’ll refer interested readers to Gordon Campbell et al., Milton and the Manuscript of “De doctrina Christiana” (Oxford, 2007). Milton’s version of Romans 12:2 appears on MS 333 (p. 718 in the Oxford edition). The quotation from Areopagitica can be found on p. 31 of the 1644 printing (available on the subscription database Early English Books Online; the text can be read for free here).


  1. Fascinating–thank you!

  2. Ah, very interesting analogy. Thanks!

  3. Almost thou persuadest me to be a Miltonist!

    You seem to be espousing a somewhat looser view of what translation meant for the Book of Mormon. Many people take the perspective that it is the most perfect book in the world and that the translation is perfect, e.g. that the words on the page are the perfect English language version of that reformed Egyptian. How do you reconcile this perspective with the analogy you’re making here?

  4. Really great stuff. A very illuminating parallel. Thanks.

  5. How does this fit with the stone in the hat though and that Joseph was supposed to have read the characters off an “interpreter”.

  6. Splendid stuff, Jason.

  7. Thomas Parkin says:

    We really need to lose the idea of the scriptures as a perfect guide. Everything passes through people, and so everything bears a mark of the people through whom it has passed. Joseph was exceptionally idiosyncratic, on one hand, and on the other, bound, as we all are, by the language of his time and place. Scriptures, then, are not a collection of perfect aphoristic guides to living, but records of people struggling for spiritual realizations in ways similar to our own. We should ‘liken them to ourselves’ not in the manner of applying perfect truths to imperfect lives, but instead as instances in which other people have struggled for realizations like the ones we are seeking.

  8. Thomas Parkin says:

    You know, you can ‘declare doctrine’ till the cows come home, but reality remains as it is, largely undiscovered.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    I’ve been meaning to write something on the documentary hypothesis and record keeping for the first 100 years of the church. This really interesting post has pushed me to get off my duff. Thanks for your thoughts, Jason.

  10. @Steve Evans. Perhaps “most correct of any book” means the “most right of any book” or the book that portrays the most important and fundamental truths of life and Christ in the most correct or least error-ridden way. Maybe “correct” has nothing to do with how exact the translation was.from the original. Not every book has been translated, and if “correct” simply referred to how well the translation was done it could not be compared against every book on earth.

  11. SteveF, good thoughts except that the early leaders of the Church meant it in both senses.

  12. Agree with SteveF. The treatment of topics like the atonement in the Book of Mormon is clearer than elsewhere. To me, that is very “correct.”

  13. Thanks for the kind words, everyone.

    Responding to Steve Evans and Don Q, I do take a fairly loose view of “translate.” The mere fact of so much KJV in the BoM necessitates taking such a view, in my opinion. I mean, there is no reason for an 1820s translator to render anything in the exact same way as it was done in 1611–that is, the KJV passages make no sense to me as the product of pure translation, unless you want to believe something along the lines of the legend about the 70 Septuagint translators all miraculously producing the same text. Sumner at least sort of had an excuse, because Milton did own and use a 1612 KJV. For Joseph, however, I think it was the convenience of having a received version–and it’s not like the evidence suggests he merely followed it uncritically. I don’t know how consulting the text worked in conjunction with the hat, but the evidence of how the translation work proceeded is sparse enough to leave room for plenty of things we just don’t know about. Basically, my view of scripture is pretty similar to Thomas Parkin’s. The truth resides more in the process of engagement with the text than in the text itself. But there I am being a Miltonist again.

    J.: yes, do get off your duff! I’d love to read what you have to say on the subject!

  14. Love this, Jason.

  15. Your answer to that is in D&C 1: “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding….” and the rest of it….

  16. Jason, haven’t other scholars identified subtle differences between some of the Bible verses quoted in the Book of Mormon, and their counterparts in the KJV? So in those verses, it seem that Joseph Smith (or Mormon) was doing the same thing that you describe Milton doing.

  17. SilverRain: exactly.

    Yes, Zefram, that’s right. Part of my argument is that his using the KJV helps make the departures readily apparent to people familiar with the received version.

  18. Thank, Jason – I missed that part of the argument because I was speed-reading your post.

    Also, I think standard translation practice is this: if the source text contains direct quotes from another widely-known text which has already been translated into the target language, then the final translation of the source text should actually use the previously-translated version of the quoted text for the passages in question. From this perspective, the Book of Mormon is following customary translation practice by not having Joseph Smith rewrite KJV-era Bible verses into something more contemporary.

  19. I really like this analogue and find it to be a very productive way to look at the KJV selections that appear reprinted in the Book of Mormon. Why retranslate something when there is already a received version ready to hand? And, as Zefram notes, some of the KJV verses that appear in the BoM do evidence some changes.

    What is interesting to contemplate is the extent to which Joseph Smith played the part of both Sumner and Cullington in the Milton analogue. That is, encountering selections from the Old Testament, Joseph Smith defaulted to the KJV during the quick and dirty translation process. Later, in working through the Bible more systematically, he made changes — which we view as largely inspired — to the KJV language. It would be interesting to analyze changes Joseph Smith made to KJV selections in the course of his study of the Bible with how KJV selections appear in the Book of Mormon. I am sure it’s already been done but I would be particularly interested in comparing the Sermon at the Temple as it appears in the Book of Mormon with any changes Joseph Smith might have made to the Sermon on the Mount in the KJV during his work on the Bible.

  20. Zefram: yes, that customary practice has its advantages–and, as I’ve tried to point out here, its pitfalls as well.

    John: yes, it is interesting that Joseph Smith plays a dual role. I’d imagine that the work you mention has indeed been done. Anyone have a reference?

  21. Well, I’m not afraid to offer a solution to this conundrum! Whoever says it’s a ‘conundrum’ in the first place isn’t looking at the Source but focusing on ancient artifacts, 19th century texts, curious translation processes and other temporal things. What is forgotten is that all scripture is given by the Spirit of God, even that same eternal Spirit that spoke through all the prophets since the beginning of time and enters into the hearts and minds of all who engage in the work of the Lord. Ninety Percent of the King James material came from William Tyndale, a man who was filled with the Spirit of God. The Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith through the Spirit of God. Because they came so obviously from the same Source, why you DON’T think they should match up is the conundrum in my book.

    PS. Maybe the “the KJV selections that appear reprinted in the Book of Mormon” (john f.) are that way on purpose, to provide a connection or link to that particular verse of scripture in order to provide more detail about its meaning. If you were trying to reveal a great mystery to the world in a set of books, wouldn’t you throw in some connecting “key words” or “key scripture passages” which lead to the ultimate unlocking of your mystery?

  22. There were others besides Joseph Smith in the first half of the nineteenth century who used “translation” differently from how we use it nearly two centuries later. In a speech Abraham Lincoln gave to a Whig political club in Springfield, Illinois, in August, 1852, he quoted first a letter that Gen. Winfield Scott, the Whig nominee for President, had written (in English) and then he commented on Judge Douglas’s interpretation of the letter:

    Now it appears to me the Judge’s translation of this may be called a very free translation—a translation enjoying a perfect freedom from all the restraint of justice and fair dealing.

    This certainly doesn’t answer any questions about how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, or how he viewed his work in preparing a new “translation” of the Bible, but it suggests that we should pay attention to how words were used 180 years ago as we try to understand.

  23. “perhaps it would have been nice after all if Joseph had translated all of the Book of Mormon’s scriptural quotations instead of leaning on the KJV quite so heavily as he seems to have done.”

    Or at least bothered to correct the errors that were contained in the very KJV he was copying. I have no problem with the gorgeous text of the KJV being included in the Book of Mormon, but why not a simple correction of the simple errors in the KJ texts? Why were the italicized portions (which those early scholars who translated the KJV used to indicate that what they translated was not original to the text) either dropped or completely rendered incoherent, or even worse, left in unaltered, if he indeed had access to an inspired, correcting process?

    Russel M Nelson gave in the July 1993 Ensign a detailed description of the translation process; “Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.”

    It was through this process that we purportedly received at times detailed descriptions of events in the BoM, including unheard of animals like Cureloms and Cumons, numeric details of armies and tactics. With the confirmation mechanism in place that would indicate and facilitate “the most correct book on earth” (belonging as a keystone to the “only true and living church upon the face of the earth) it is indeed a curious thing that spelling, context, geography and anachronistic mistakes could and would be so prevalent. I’m sure Occam’s razor would love to take a swing at it.

  24. Meldrum the Less says:

    This is perhaps a slightly different issue, but I think related. Last night I was talking with a good friend whose first language is Spanish. Does anyone know what the Spanish Book of Mormon does with the long references parallel to KJV? Does it quote an old traditional Spanish version or a more recent one? Has it been “corrected”? My friend believes there have been a couple of Spanish versions of the Book of Mormon and it has not been explained to him very well the whats and whys of it.

    My friend is in the construction business and has only a high school education. However, he is anything but dumb. He reads and compares the Book of Mormon in both languages and to him they seem like they are not consistent on important points of doctrine. This is disturbing to him. Since half of Mormons now speak Spanish I think the discussion about translation is going to have to include this aspect. At this point many of our Spanish brothers and sisters are not on the upper end educationally but it wouldn’t take many to raise questions disturbing to all. Since many of them living in the US are bilingual our explanations need to be informative and consistent across languages, especially these two. Any help in this area would be appreciated.

  25. Meldrum: very salient questions. I don’t know the details of the Spanish BoM translations, but it was with an eye to the eventual need for translation into other languages that I expressed my wish that JS had provided fresh translations. The KJV was very convenient for a certain place and time, but the Church is much bigger than that now.

  26. I believe the Spanish Book of Mormon translators quoted from the Reina-Valera version (first published in 1569 and revised several times since) where Joseph quoted the King James version. In 2009, the Church published its own Spanish Bible based on the 1909 Reina-Valera version with a few updates.

  27. Also, the language and grammar of the Spanish Book of Mormon tends to follow Reina-Valera style Spanish, much as the Book of Mormon tends to follow King James style English (what with all the thees and thous and all). That said, my perception is that the language in the Reina Valera Bible and Spanish Book of Mormon is slightly more similar to present day Spanish than the language in the King James Bible and English Book of Mormon is to present day English.

  28. Thanks for the informative comments, Raymond.

  29. The Other Clark says:

    Fantastic post. I’m going to do some digging on how the 1960 R-V Bible, the new Mormon Bible, and the various Spanish editions of the Book of Mormon (1969, 1980, and 1992) compare quoting Isaiah and the Sermon on the Mount. If I find anything interesting, I might submit it as a possible guest post.

  30. that would be excellent and welcome

  31. Absolutely!

  32. Meldrum the Less says:

    “In 2009, the Church published its own Spanish Bible based on the 1909 Reina-Valera version with a few updates.”

    This is astonishing to me.

    This would be like: The LDS church changing from the 1600’s KJV to the 1940’s RSV in English. (Or perhaps the recently Revised KJV?) If there is something more authorized or authentic about the original KJV then it raises the question, is the Bible (or BoM parallels) as “true” in other languages as it is in English? If not then it seems that the use of the even more modern versions (which are supposed to be even more accurate from a scholarly viewpoint) would be acceptable, even helpful. If Spanish speaking Mormons are using a 20th century translation of scripture, I see NO REASON why I should not be able to do the same in English, and without apology.

    I love the familiar poetic quality of KJV but I like the greater clarity of the NIV. Just like when I read Shakespeare; I love the sound and feel of the old English poetic passages, but I comprehend the material so much better and so much easier when reading modern translations.

    If the LDS church is getting much bigger in a mindful way (not just larger population) then might it be time to put on our grown-up pants and admit that different versions of the sacred Word touch different people in different places and different times far beyond our ability to authoritatively declare, and let God sort the rest of it out? I now have this nagging feeling that saying one particular version of the Bible is universally better than another is sort of like a drippy diaper that is not going to hold water much longer.

    My wife just called: Snow and ice. Wrecked the car. Adopted daughter in labor in a traffic jam, ambulance summoned. Twenty year old son currently in charge of almost 2 year old trapped at hospital with mom because he can run miles and ran to the hospital. Heading home. Horses anybody? Wish me luck.

  33. wow, good luck — that sounds like a very hazardous situation

  34. Oof, Meldrum: good luck!

  35. I found both Grant Hardy’s work on the Book of Mormon, and Brant Gardner’s work on translating the Book of Mormon helpful in this discussion (although I know that some have been critical of Gardner’s book). The whole concept of what translation means in regards to the Book of Mormon is a fascinating topic. You have multiple authors (Ether, Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni), direct quotations from additional authors, and even multiple editors. Finally, whose voice does the final translation reflect? God? Joseph Smith? Mormon? The King James translators? The multiple scribes? The answer is likely all of those. It has been enlightening rereading the BoM as a product of multiple authors, listening to the different voices, and trying to understand the context each was working in. Not to mention that we now have multiple occasions where even GAs have quoted from newer translations in general conference.

    I sometimes wonder about the purpose of a canon of authorized scripture, when we know that not all the revelations given to Joseph Smith are in our current scriptures, and we see via the JSPP that the editing process for the Doctrine and Covenants began almost as soon as they were written, and continued up through multiple versions and printings.

    All in all, I think I have gained a greater appreciation for the scriptures in all of this. The Lord not only works with us as imperfect beings, but he also has to do his work through us imperfect beings as well.

  36. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Finally, whose voice does the final translation reflect? God? Joseph Smith? Mormon? The King James translators? The multiple scribes? The answer is likely all of those.”

    Yea, yea.

  37. Meldrum, I’m afraid the LDS Spanish Bible is not quite as astonishing as I might have made it sound. As I understand it, the 1909 edition of the Reina Valera version (and, by extension, the 2009 LDS edition) is still largely based on the original 16th century translation. That is, it still uses a lot of old vocabulary and grammar. According to Wikipedia, the 1909 Reina Valera version is roughly analogous to the King James Version (although, as I mentioned above, I do think it sounds more modern than the King James Version).

  38. Peter H. Bendtsen says:

    Regarding the different bible translations we are in the church in Denmark using the latest translation published by the Protestant church in Denmark. The Isaiah portions in the new Danish translation of the Book of Mormon looks to be a mixture of the English Book of Mormon text and the new Danish bible translation. I will presume that this is the same in all the other smaller countries where the church do not have the resources to make our own up to date translations of the bible. Later in his life Joseph Smith was apparently more found of the German translation of the bible than the KJV. This translation is of course easier to do in Denmark where it is not the original text/translation that we read. Maby one day that will come in English as we’ll. :-)

  39. Thanks, Peter; this is fascinating. As a Danish missionary 15 years ago, I didn’t like the new Bible translation, so I carried around a gothic-type 1898 Bible that I found in a thrift shop. It was always good for a conversation piece. In any event I’d be interested to see how the new Isaiah translations turn out.

  40. Peter H. Bendtsen says:

    The new translation of the Danish bible you will find here.
    And the Danish translation of the Book of Mormon can of course be found on
    Funny that you served your mission in Denmark. :-)

  41. Interesting stuff, Peter. What do you do in Denmark?

  42. Peter H. Bendtsen says:

    The translation process I think is more complicated than just looking in the seer stone and reading the text of that you see. O. Cowdery did not manage this as we read in D&C 9
    7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

    8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

    9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.

    10 Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now.

    (D&C 9:7-10)

    From this we must conclude that this was what Joseph Smith did when he translated the Book of Mormon.
    Maby you can confirm that the differences of the Isaiah portions in the Book of Mormon and the bible was not intended to be different according to what R. Skousen found out in his work of comparing the different manuscript for the Book of Mormon? If this is right it will bring a new dimension to this.

    As to what I do in Denmark Steve, is difficult to answer :-) ha ha
    If you think about my work I am working as a salesman.
    In the church I am currently serving in the stake high counsel.

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