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Baptists and Bible translation: toward a deeper understanding.

Reading and studying the Bible fueled the Reformation. Protestants found new light in the pages of scripture to answer the deep theological questions at the heart of their unease with the Roman Catholic Church. (1)

Breaking from the Church also meant breaking from the Church's translation of the Bible: Jerome's Vulgate. Translating the Bible into the vernacular enabled these protesting Christians to read and hear the words of scripture in their own languages and to wrestle control of those words from an educated clergy. (2) Freedom to read, study, and interpret the words of scripture went hand in hand with the burgeoning political and social quest to decide for oneself or one's family how to worship God and to serve the, monarch. The words of the Bible were powerful agents for reform, or outright rebellion.

Baptists, that unmanageable subset of Protestant Christians, have styled themselves as "people of the Book." (3) Many of the theological ideas closely held by Baptists began with serious discussions of New Testament passages and their implications for proper church polity and practice. The English Bible was particularly important to those discussions, because many of the roots of modern Baptists can be traced back through English-speaking Protestants, and the core Baptist movement took place primarily in England and America. The Bible, especially the magisterial King James (or Authorized) Version (KJV), provided the words of scripture for most of those who accepted the Baptist label or would later be considered Baptists. For many, these words published in 1611 remain tantamount to the very words of God. The KJV translation thrives at an almost visceral level in many Baptist worship services and homes.

Perhaps the understanding that reading and studying the Bible for oneself was vital to one's coming to a saving faith compelled Baptist missionaries to be among the pioneers in translating scripture into other, and more exotic, vernaculars. Baptists who accepted the missionary calling understood the importance of hearing and reading scripture in one's own language, and Bible translation quickly became a task central to their mission.

This article serves as an introduction to an entire issue devoted to exploring the relationship between Baptists and translating the Bible. As such, it offers a brief historical overview and provides a context for deeper excursions into aspects of that relationship. I am thankful for those people whose linguistic gifts allow them to work simultaneously in multiple languages, some ancient and some modern, and I hope that this introduction adequately expresses my thanks for their labors in the service of God and humanity.

In the Beginning: Baptists as Consumers

The subject of Baptist beginnings has provided considerable opportunities for discussion. (4) But those origins seem to have attached themselves to using existing translations rather than creating new translations. (5) Once established, early Baptists appear to have preferred to study and interpret the words of scripture rather than to devote significant time and financial resources to producing vernacular translations of the Bible. Several influential translations into English were already available for their use, including those of John Wycliffe (1380s), William Tyndale (1525), Myles Coverdale (1535), and John Rogers (Matthew's Bible, 1537). The Geneva Bible (1560) and the Bishops' Bible (1568) were also important translations available during this formative time period. (6)

Many of these translations contained marginal notes that questioned the monarch's claim to rule by divine calling. Some of those same versions contained translations and notes heavily biased toward the teachings of Calvin and his followers, and many Protestants (including the Puritans) had become convinced by the early seventeenth century that the words of scripture ought to be freed from most, if not all, marginal notes. King James I of England took full advantage of this political and religious dissatisfaction with existing English translations of the Bible and convened a committee of clerics and scholars that ultimately produced what remained for centuries as the most influential translation in the history of the English-speaking world. His authorized version first appeared in 1611 and was "England's equivalent of the great baroque cathedral it never built, an enormous and magnificent verbal artifice." (7) Within a few years of its publication, the KJV became the Bible of choice for English-speaking Protestants.

Many of the English who migrated to the American colonies brought with them copies of the KJV, and this version early on was the accepted translation for Protestants in America, established and dissenting alike. (8) Questions of church polity and practice dominated the discussions between those who would become Baptists and the Congregationalists and Presbyterians whose ranks they would leave, and the words of the KJV left quite enough room for everyone's interpretation. The KJV, in fact, continued to be the dominant English translation in America until the mid-twentieth century, particularly for Baptists, many of whom were transplanted to and flourished in the American South. As David Daniell noted in his discussion of American revivalism:
 The old north-eastern colonial domination of Congregationalists,
 Presbyterians and Episcopalians was overtaken in the numbers and
 speed of expansion of these gatherings of Baptists, Methodists
 and Disciples.

 Nevertheless, however primitive and rudimentary frontier religion
 was then, and continued to be, it was still also conservative, indeed
 European, in its institutions and practices. Its Bible was still
 KJV. (9)

Even this cursory glance at early Baptists in Europe and America demonstrates the importance of the Bible for the groups' development. Also clear, though, is that these early Baptists felt little compulsion to replace the English translations of the Bible already available to them with translations of their own. The proper translation and understanding of baptizy was certainly a point of discussion; some later Baptists would promulgate their own translation designed to correct the common transliteration (to "baptize") with an interpretative translation (to "immerse"). (10) For the most part, though, English-speaking Baptists found all they needed to guide faith and practice in the available vernacular versions, most notably the KJV.

Bible Societies: Baptists as Missionary Translators

Since Protestants made such good and careful use of vernacular translations in the development of their own faith and practice, one should not be surprised that they carried that same philosophy into their missionary efforts. Part of the Catholic response to the Reformation involved a renewed emphasis on evangelism and educating the faithful around the world, especially those in colonies controlled by the empires that remained Catholic. (11) Protestant missionary activities would have to wait for the burgeoning imperial power of emerging Protestant nations to bring the economic stability and increased access necessary to send and support missionaries. Christianity was an integral part of the European imperial impulse, and inhabitants of these exotic regions needed to have every opportunity to embrace the truth of Christianity. For the Protestant missionary, missions involved providing "people the Bible in the language they could read so that they might discover for themselves the truth of the Gospel and the Church might be born among them by the impact of the Word of God." (12)

Formal missionary efforts were supported by the establishment of groups like the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Both groups were vitally interested in "the provision both of Bibles and of missionaries for the enlarging witness of the Church overseas and at home." (13) According to Eric Fenn's analysis, the eighteenth-century evangelical revival was "the decisive element" that led to the missionary fervor of the nineteenth century. (14) Led by "men whose whole religious life had been transformed by a fresh study of the Bible," the revival brought "a fresh conviction of the universality of the Gospel" and moved the Bible "into the centre of faith and practice again in a way that ensured that it would be at the very heart of the new movement when it came." (15)

William Carey is widely acknowledged to have been at the forefront of this missionary movement. Instrumental in the formation of a Baptist missionary society in England, Carey soon became that society's missionary to India, "where he was missionary, linguist, botanist, industrialist, economist, medical humanitarian, printer and maker of the first newspaper to be printed in an oriental language, agriculturalist, astronomer, forest conservationist, crusader for women's rights, public servant, moral and cultural reformer and translator." (16) Carey's translation work in India was prolific. According to Daniell, "With the help of Indian nationals, Carey translated the entire Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Hindi, Marathi and Sanskrit. He made partial translations into Punjabi, Pashto, Kashmiri, Telegu and Konkani. He translated smaller parts of the Bible into twenty-three other languages and dialects." (17)

Carey and his colleagues had moved to India without resources to guide them in their missionary activities. After considerable trial and error, they developed strategies that combined preaching with printed translations of scripture and established a model for many "foreign" missionaries to follow.

William H. Brackney noted that "because Baptists have spearheaded missionary work in non-English-speaking cultures, their contribution to Bible translation has been great." (18) Baptist missionary/translators made significant contributions to translations in Burma (Ann and Adoniram Judson, Nathan Brown), China (Robert Morrison, Josiah Goddard, William Dean), Japan (Jonathan Goble), and Southeast Asia (Josiah and Ellen Cushing, John Williams). Many of these missionary/translators worked closely with missionary/translators from other denominations to fashion versions that accurately and faithfully communicated the words of scripture in languages and dialects around the globe. This partnership continues today as many Baptist missionary/translators work with such groups as the United and American Bible Societies and the Wycliffe Bible Translators toward the goal of providing the Bible in every known language of the world.

After the KJV: Baptists as Advocates

Many Baptists had been inclined to interpret the New Testament word baptizo as "to immerse" and to argue that the word should be translated rather than transliterated, noting that baptize "through centuries of Church practice had come to mean sprinkling the new-born rather than, as among the earliest Christians recorded in the New Testament, immersion of believers." (19) Because of this issue, Baptists, particularly in America, often had significant difficulties with the KJV. Early in the nineteenth century, Baptists requested that the American Bible Society substitute "immerse" for "baptize" in the Bibles being printed and distributed. When the ABS refused to accede to that request, Baptists formed the American and Foreign Bible Society and set out to produce a translation free from the "deficiencies of an 'Episcopal Bible' such as archaic language, inaccurate phrases, and most important, an erroneous translation of the Greek word 'baptizo'" (20) Controversy over the exact purpose and form of the new translation caused the project to bog down, and a new organization, the American Bible Union, was formed in 1850 to accomplish the task of a translation faithful to the ancient languages and correct doctrine. After some years and expense, this group managed to produce a translation that made little change other than replacing "baptize" with "immerse." (21)

The twentieth century brought increasing challenges to the dominance of the KJV among English-speaking Christians on both sides of the Atlantic. The American Standard Version (1901) was a revision of the KJV. The ASV did not deviate significantly from the vocabulary and rhythm of the KJV, and it used the same ancient language text, but implicit in the translation itself was the suggestion that the KJV might not still be relevant to an America on the brink of a new century and millennium.

By the middle of the twentieth century, individuals had produced their own translations of the Bible, among them at least three Baptists. Richard Francis Weymouth was a Baptist layman in England whose modern speech translation of the New Testament was published posthumously in 1903 and revised in the 1920s. While still based on a majority text (like the KJV), Weymouth's translation attempted to "ascertain the meaning of every passage, and then to state that meaning as accurately and naturally as he could in present-day English." (22) Helen Barrett Montgomery produced another modern speech translation to commemorate the centenary of the American and Foreign Bible Society in 1924. Her Centenary Translation was noteworthy for its intention to remove the barriers between the Bible's text and the average reader and for Montgomery's creative and highly descriptive chapter and paragraph headings. (23) And one cannot overstate the importance of Edgar J. Goodspeed's translation of the New Testament (1923), considering his academic credentials (University of Chicago), his use of the Greek text of Westcott and Hort, and his considerable attention to a particularly American vernacular. Goodspeed's translation was widely acclaimed at its publication and continues to be one of the better modern-speech versions produced in America. (24)

The discovery and dissemination of "new" ancient manuscripts prompted even more dissatisfaction with the KJV. The language of the KJV was still overwhelmingly beautiful in many of its passages, but its words were increasingly archaic. An increased scholarly attention to the texts of the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament raised significant questions about the ancient texts that the KJV translators had used.

The last half of the twentieth century saw monumental Bible translations, both in England and America, which offered English-speaking Christians their first serious alternatives to the KJV in some 300 years. These versions were usually produced by committees of translators, working both individually and collaboratively. (25) Using the ancient texts considered most accurate in the scholarly community, they covered the entire range of translation philosophy. (26) By the early 1970s, three such American translations had found their place in the landscape of American Christianity: the Revised Standard Version (1952), the New International Version (1973), and the Good News Bible/Today's English Version (1976). Scholars representing the entire spectrum of Baptist life served on all three translation committees. (27) Both the controversy engendered by the RSV and the success of the NIV seemed to create the space necessary to encourage other new translations, and bookstore shelves were flooded with new translations and versions. (28) Baptist scholars and ministers (depending on the scope of the project) continued to play a significant role in these translation projects, particularly with such recent projects as Today's New International Version, the English Standard Version, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible. These versions were intended to appeal to American Evangelicals, a group with which many Baptists in America would identify. Baptists were just as active in the two major translation projects in England: the New English Bible and the Revised English Bible.

Baptists have, through their translation efforts, evinced a particular concern with an accurate translation--from the best texts and free from tendentious interpretative notes--that would offer the reader/hearer the best guide to faith and practice. Discussions concerning the most accurate ancient textual readings dominated the early twentieth century, and Baptist scholars were involved in those discussions. But issues of interpretation and translation have seen more involvement by Baptists, with considerable attention to the changes in modern (or receptor) languages. In other words, Baptists appear to have been most interested in producing translations that can be read and understood by individual believers, not just scholars or ministers.

Two projects illustrate that concern and advocacy. The first was Clarence Jordan's translation of parts of the New Testament: the Cotton Patch Version (1968). In many ways, Jordan's work begs not to be taken seriously, since his setting and language were that of southern America rather than the Middle East. As the success of Tom Key's theatrical version attests, Jordan's work has considerable entertainment value. Upon deeper examination, however, Jordan's effort demonstrated a solid scholarship and a deep concern that the language and rhythms of the available scripture translations were a formidable barrier to those who most needed to hear the gospel.

The translators of the Good News Bible/Today's English Version (and its successor, the Contemporary English Version) evinced a similar concern for modern American English speakers/readers. Led by Baptists, including Eugene Nida, Robert Bratcher, Barclay Newman, and Roger Bullard, the American Bible Society translation teams used the lessons learned from years of translating the Bible into modern languages around the globe and applied them to produce translations in modern American English. The focus was on the readers' understanding of the text's meaning, rather than a literal rendering of the ancient text--a translation philosophy known as dynamic equivalence. And, whether one chooses to adopt one of these translations or not, they have had a significant impact on the history of English translations of the Bible.


Baptists are a people convinced that true faith and practice are integrally connected with scripture. Therefore, having access to a useful and accurate translation of scripture remains a prime concern for Baptists. Throughout the early years of their history, Baptists appeared content with the available English translations, giving their attention to reading and interpreting scripture. Missionary realities compelled Baptist missionaries to become Bible translators so that people around the world might have the words of scripture in their own languages and come to faith. And a concern for understanding and accuracy led many Baptists to remain involved in translating the Bible into English, both in England and America. The Baptist role has not always been a leading role, but Baptist contributions to Bible translation since the Reformation have been important ones. We commend those who have blazed these paths and eagerly await new generations of Baptists committed to providing accurate translations of scripture so that all may hear and understand.

(1.) See Roland H. Bainton, "The Bible in the Reformation," in The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. S. L. Greenslade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 37. Bainton noted that the reformers "looked upon the scriptures as the container of the Word of God, uniquely given at a definite point in the past, to be recovered and appropriated in every generation through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Not in dreams and visions, not in direct communication, but in a warming of the heart enabling the hearer or the reader to see, feel, participate, and believe in that which God once spoke by the mouth of Moses, the prophets, the evangelists, and the apostles."

(2.) Basil Hall, "Biblical Scholarship: Editions and Commentaries," in The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. S. L. Greenslade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 38-39, chronicled the early sixteenth-century demand for a "well-grounded knowledge of the Bible" (38) and argued that "an attempt to meet this increasing demand can be seen in the large number of vernacular translations from the Vulgate in Germany and France in the latter fifteenth and earlier sixteenth centuries" (39).

(3.) See William H. Brackney, The Baptists (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994), x. Brackney wrote: "The Baptist self-understanding begins with scripture. Early Baptists argued solely from scripture in contrast to the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Catholics, who built upon scripture, tradition, and at times, reason." See also H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), 62-63, for a discussion of the role of the Bible in the development of Baptists, including the note that early Baptists "consciously and conscientiously sought to draw every teaching and practice from scripture."

(4.) See McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 21-63, and Brackney, The Baptists, ix-21.

(5.) The one nagging translation issue was that of how to translate baptizo. One should probably not be surprised that a group of people characterized primarily by arguing For believer's baptism by immersion might argue that the proper translation of baptizo should be "to immerse."

(6.) See Steven M. Sheeley and Robert N. Nash, The Bible in English Translation: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), 18-20.

(7.) Adam Nicholson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 2003), 70.

(8.) See Steven M. Sheeley, "The KJV and American Culture: "A Far More Exceeding and External Weight of Glory," SBL Forum,; September-October, 2003, accessed April 10, 2007. As noted in that article: "The words of the KJV are, for many in America, the very words of God. Were God to speak aloud in the English language, he would certainly use the phrases and rhythms of the KJV. Since the early Puritan exiles made their home in New England, its language has been that of church, of holiness, of weighty and serious public discourse. Their writings are liberally sprinkled with allusions to and quotations of the Bible. The KJV's acceptance of governmental authority was also helpful to separatists who suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar position of being the state church, far away from the King and his bishops in their own 'city on a hill.'"

(9.) David Daniell, The Bible in English (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2003), 642.

(10.) Brackney, Baptists, 24-25, noted: "If early Baptists took the bible seriously, they also took it specifically. Practically speaking, it was Baptists who popularized the English Bible as a manual for the Christian life." He added: "No other issue better illustrates this textual preoccupation than the case for immersion as the proper mode of baptism."

(11.) See Eric Fenn, "The Bible and the Missionary," in The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. S. L. Greenslade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 384-88, for a discussion of the place of the Bible in both Protestant and Catholic missionary efforts following the Reformation. He noted the formation of the Society of Jesus (1540) and the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda (1662) as specific indications of renewed emphasis on encouraging the faithful to remain within the confines of the Church and its Bible (384). As he wrote, "the chief objective was to get people into the Church (or back into the Church if they had fallen victim to heresy) so that they might be exposed through the worship and discipline of the Church to the saving facts of the Gospel as enshrined in Holy Scripture" (384).

(12.) Ibid., 385.

(13.) Ibid., 386.

(14.) Ibid., 387.

(15.) Ibid. Fenn chronicled the growth of missionary and Bible Societies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, finding in the combination of these two types of societies the "pattern of the modern missionary movement ... a group of determined men in charge of missionary recruitment, finance and propaganda, together with equally determined men dedicated to the task of supplying the Church with the basic necessity of its work, the Holy Bible in the vernacular" (387-88).

(16.) Daniell, Bible in English, 621.

(17.) Ibid. See also McBeth, The Baptist Heritage, 183-87; Fenn, "Bible and Missionary," 393-94; and William Cathcart, "Carey, William, D.D.," in The Baptist Encyclopedia: A Dictionary (Philadelphia PA: Louis H. Everts, 1881), 182-84.

(18.) Brackney, Baptists, 35. See also H. C. Goerner, "Bible Translation and Distribution," in The Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, Vol. 1 (Nashville TN: Broadman, 1958), 166-67.

(19.) Daniell, Bible in English, 637. See also Brackney, The Baptists, who chronicled the Baptist apologetic interest in correcting this translation/interpretation well into the twentieth century. Baptists were not the only ones on the American religious landscape convinced of the correctness of this interpretation/translation. Alexander Campbell founded the Disciples of Christ and offered his own translation where "immersion" as a translation of baptizy was a prominent feature (see Daniell, Bible in English, 648-49).

(20.) Brackney, Baptists, 26. See also Daniell, Bible in English, 637-38; Lynn E. May, Jr., "Bible Society, American and Foreign," in The Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Broadman, 1958), 165-66.

(21.) See William Cathcart, "Bible Union, The American," in The Baptist Encyclopedia, (Philadelphia, PA: Louis H. Everts, 1881), 98-99.

(22.) Sakae Kubo and Walter Specht, So Many Versions? Twentieth Century English Versions of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 28. See also Sheeley and Nash, Bible in English Translation, 64.

(23.) See Sheeley and Nash, Bible in English Translation, 64-65.

(24.) Kubo and Specht, So Many Versions, 34-39.

(25.) The prominent of translation committees does not mean that individuals did not also continue to offer their translations and versions of the Bible during this time. J. B. Phillips's The New Testament in Modern English (1958), Kenneth Taylor's The Living Bible (1971), and Eugene Peterson's The Message (1993) all met with popular (and in the case of Phillips, scholarly) acclaim, as well as influencing the Bible reading and publishing landscape. But the real challenge to the KJV as the Bible used in pulpit and pew came from the translations produced through the committee process.

(26.) See Sheeley and Nash, Bible in English Translation, 23-30, for a quick overview of translation philosophies. See also Kubo and Specht, So Many Versions, 13-19.

(27.) Space and other considerations prevent a full listing of Baptists involved in the many major Bible translation projects that characterized the last half of the twentieth century.

(28.) See Sheeley and Nash, Bible in English Translation, for an overview of the landscape of Bible translation and publication at the end of the twentieth century.

Steven M. Sheeley is professor of religion and assistant vice president for academic records and advising Shorter College, Rome, Georgia.
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Author:Sheeley, Steven M.
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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