Thomas Wayment on the KJV

Why do Latter-day Saints regard the King James Version as the official English translation of the Bible for the Church? It’s a question that has been asked many times by different people, especially since there are translations in modern English that have a better textual basis in Greek manuscripts. In a recent co-post at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, Thomas Wayment discussed why Latter-day Saints use the King James Version (KJV). What follows here is a copost to the full interview.

Thomas Wayment offered some explanations for why Latter-day Saints have traditionally used the KJV:

I think the major reason the early church used the KJV was the result of cultural influence and access.

Had the Restoration occurred in other parts of the United States in 1830, we might now be using the Geneva Bible.

He added thoughts as to why this had a long-term impact on the Church:

I think that over the course of our nearly 200 year history there have been intentional and unintentional efforts to use the King James Version as the official Bible translation of the English speaking church. As far as I can tell, Joseph Smith cemented the decision to use the KJV when he adopted a KJV style in his English rendering of the Book of Mormon.

By doing so the Book of Mormon and the KJV effectively became cousins—and to the modern ear they sound similar in English. …

I believe that the core reasons are mostly tradition and the KJV’s direct relationship to the Book of Mormon. 

It’s been a mix of events and choices that led to the KJV becoming the official English translation of the Bible used in the Church today.

An added difficulty in a transition away from the KJV has to do with copyright. As Wayment explained:

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face today is that of which translation we would pursue—and whether purchasing the copyright would be an option. We could, for example, begin using the NRSV or NIV, but we would need to own the right to print our own version with footnotes that target the Latter-day Saint community.

Some of the copyrights that the Church has purchased in other languages, such as the Spanish translation, which according to their website is based on the 1909 Reina-Valera copyright, are already dated and potentially available through public domain copyright. By using such an old Spanish translation, the Church has made a step forward from the English KJV by about 300 years,—but it has also left behind readings that are informed by modern critical editions and manuscript discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So, in my opinion, the real challenge relies on the acquisition of copyright and the hesitance to commission a new English translation.

He added, however, that “there is a sufficiently trained group of academics who could produce a new English translation that was entirely supported by the Church,” which could ease the issue of copyright. We already have an example in development down at BYU (the New Rendition), as well as the translation of the New Testament that Thomas Wayment published.

While a transition away from the KJV would have its difficulties, it still would come with a lot of positive aspects. Wayment explained: 

To claim that the KJV isn’t flawed is to reject the nearly 200 years of effort to correct it and bring it up to date with modern standards of translation. More recently, scholars have endorsed Bible translations that rely on critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek texts available today.

What this means is that scholars carefully collate the existing Greek and Hebrew manuscripts so that translators can compare the differences between them, weigh the likelihood that a reading or variant is spurious or not, and then signal to the reader passages that might contain corruptions, alternate meanings, or variant textual manifestations. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which had an update as recently as 2021, is perhaps the most broadly used of the Bibles that fall into this category. …

I think, however, that the major and profoundly foundational reason that English speaking Latter-day Saints may wish to consult a modern translation is that our Christian sisters and brothers rarely use the KJV translation. We no longer speak like them and instead we align ourselves with a very narrow group of Christians referred to in some circles as the King James-Only Movement. … 

Our English speaking missionaries speak another language when they talk about the Bible.

A related issue is that we often debate points of scripture that are easily clarified in modern translation.

I know that I personally have benefited from studying the Bible in modern translations like the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV—my favorite), New International Version (NIV), and the New American Bible (NAB). During scripture study, my wife and I tend to have one of us reading from the NRSV and the other from the KJV as a way to spot differences and seek for clarity while also remaining connected to the version that is used at Church. I also honestly think that the attachment to the KJV is a bit silly at times, particularly when it involves the argument that its translation is more inspired than other renditions and therefore more accurate, even with the faulty textual basis to the translation. It’s a bit like those who argue that LaJean Purcell Carruth’s work on transcribing the original shorthand notes behind the Journal of Discourses to create versions that are more accurate should be ignored because George Watts was somehow more inspired than the actual Church leaders in the liberties he took with what they said.

For more on Latter-day Saints and the King James Bible, head on over to read the full interview with Thomas Wayment at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.

19 comments for “Thomas Wayment on the KJV

  1. I have been enjoying Wayment’s transition for Latter-day Saints. Thank you for sharing this information about the KVJ. These are things U did not know

  2. One challenge in switching Bible translations is that the Book of Mormon (and beyond) not only uses KJV language, it assigns specific meaning to it. For example, it uses language from Isaiah 28 to say that God reveals information gradually over time. That still works in the NRSV:

    “Whom will he teach knowledge,
    and to whom will he explain the message?
    Those who are weaned from milk,
    those taken from the breast?

    For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little.”

    Truly, with stammering lip
    and with another tongue
    he will speak to this people

    But the translators of the New English Translation decided this was a description of life under the foreign occupiers the Lord would send:

    Who is the Lord trying to teach?
    To whom is he explaining a message?
    To those just weaned from milk!
    To those just taken from their mother’s breast!

    Indeed, they will hear meaningless gibberish,
    senseless babbling,
    a syllable here, a syllable there.

    For with mocking lips and a foreign tongue
    he will speak to these people.

    Given the challenges, I think a new translation by LDS scholars would be best for members. I love Wayment’s New Testament translation, especially for Paul’s letters.

    On the other hand, on my mission I occasionally had to assure people the Bible I was reading from was a standard translation (given the time and place, either KJV or Louis Segond). The assumption was that if we had our own translation, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, then it couldn’t be trusted. I’m not sure how much of an issue that is 30+ years later though.

  3. The biggest plus for the KJV is the quality of language. Even though it may be the right move to go with a better translation (at some point) I’d be saddened by the loss of the KJV as a foundation for good language.

  4. I do love the elegance of the KJV, Jack. It has a special place in my heart as the language of scripture. But, I’ve found that there are modern translations that also are elegant. That’s actually part of why I prefer the NRSV over the NIV. It’s closer to the KJV while still being more straightforward.

  5. I think RLD’s post illustrates the issue with using other translations. The translation tend to be whatever the individual translating it wants it to be. Thus the translation becomes a little easier to read because it uses more modern English than the KJV but not necessarily a better translation.

  6. Relevant quote from the interview to Ojiisan’s comment:

    I have often heard interested Latter-day Saints characterize Bible translation as biased or problematic due to the goals and aims of the translators and their sponsoring communities.
    It is my experience that few statements could be further from the truth. It is true that translations are initiated due to concerns about the way a translation renders the name of God or whether one prints the word Jehovah or Yahweh. And those are indeed biases, but they are not the type of biases that would preclude the modern reader from reading those translation.

    A Bible translation is a major effort, and the people who spend their lives translating are deeply committed to it.

  7. Yes, bible translators are deeply committed. However, the thought of a translation for the COJCOLDS by LDS scholars under the overall direction of correlation is scary to me.

  8. One thing that JI’s comment brings out is that some people would see any church-produced translation as necessarily compromised by the influence of a faceless committee, and information about how review boards and other standard publishing institutions work would not mollify them. While we may have better critical editions today and access to more manuscripts and several more centuries of scholarship to build on, there’s also much less confidence in the possibility of arriving at a definitive answer about difficult passages in the text. Instead of a single reading, textual criticism often leaves one considering a range of possibilities, each of which could be translated multiple ways, and in every case the translators of a Bible for general use would have to choose just one of them, inviting criticism from every side that the translation ignores manuscript evidence or modern revelation or whatever it is the critic finds most compelling. It seems like an an unwinnable situation for the translator and one where few people would be happy with the result. While I think the Church has the expertise available to produce a translation, I think practical considerations point to using something like the NSRV instead.

  9. Jonathan,

    Maybe that’s one reason why Joseph Smith translated the BoM instead of a scholarly committee. No textual criticism if it came from God.

  10. Once introduced to the RSV-2nd Catholic Edition, most of our customers at our little Catholic bookstore like that translation. It was preferred even over the New American Bible (the official American Bible, not fully Vatican approved). Both Popes John Paul II and Benedict Vi preferred the using the RSV in their writings for English audiences. We used the Ignatius Study Bible (which currently only covers the NT) for our little Bible Study. Things may have changed, but these experiences were from my journey across the Tiber and back again in the early 2000s.

  11. I prefer English Standard Version myself.
    The biggest problem that I have with the KJV is that it’s based off of the Textus Receptus as its source for Greek, and that did not use the best copies of Greek texts in existence at the time. So even if it’s a great translation of that Greek, it’s not great Greek to begin with.

  12. Chad Neilsen:

    Right. I am definitely going to translate something in a way that is inconsistent with what my current understanding is. … not!

    And if you buy his statement then how do you reconcile the varying translations of the same passage?

    He of course has a vested interest in telling readers that newer translations are a good thing.

  13. There are still limits on how far a translation can diverge. I’m interested in knowing just how far off or how terrible you think it would be to have a translation that favors Latter-day Saint understandings of the scriptures.

    There are also ways to balance out the concerns about translating to an agenda. Committees of translators have the advantage of being less subjective to one person’s views, particularly if people from other faiths are included on the committee. It would be very possible for the Church to arrange that.

  14. Not certain I follow the question. I am not espousing another translation that favors LDS teachings.

    The point of your original post seemed to be that we would be better off using a different translation than the KJV. My point is simply that as shown by RLD’s comment when you get additional translations you get differing interpretations which may or may not be correct. What makes one translation better than the other. If you have to choose one translation from RLD’s comment above which do you pick? Do you even ask yourself why there are differing translations or do you just pick the one you like best?

    And along those lines why am I necessarily better off looking at either of those two translations than the KJV. In each case the person doing the translating is simply picking what she/he/they likes best and if you have a committee of similarly believing individuals the result will not be significantly different. They will pick what they like best. Accordingly why am I better off using their translation of what they think is better than the KJV?

    As quoted by you Wayment says “A Bible translation is a major effort, and the people who spend their lives translating are deeply committed to it.”

    I would think that the same can be said about the effort that went into the translation of the KJV so i am not certain that is particularly meaningful.

  15. The two big difference with the KJV verses most of the other common translations on the market are that:

    1) The English language has drifted in the last 400+ years, so even if it was the highest quality translation available at that time, the language has changed enough that it may not communicate the ideas of the text as easily or correctly to a modern audience as a more recent translation.

    2) A translation is only as good as the text that is being used to translate from. The KJV used a Greek and Hebrew text that was popular but questionable even it its time. We’ve had 400 years or research into trying to understand what is the original text of the books in the Bible since then, including some major ones like the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    Those to me are the biggest value adds of a modern translation. I’m fond of the NRSV because it is thought of as a gold standard for reliance on the best available critical texts. I also do find value in it being a relative of the KJV in elegant language choices, but I find most modern translations to be more accessible than the KJV.

    To your point about biases of translators, I also like the NRSV because it had an ecumenical translation committee that helped to mitigate a lot of the biases you mention. (The NIV does have some issues due to it being an Evangelical translation committee rather than an ecumenical one, which is why I mentioned that if the Church commissioned a Bible translation it would be good to include scholars from other faiths in an earlier comment.)

  16. Ojiisan, you make a good case for not treating any Bible translation as authoritative, including (and I would say especially) the KJV. It has all the problems of fallible translators plus the disadvantages of being 400 years old. The only difference is its errors are what we’re used to. Some of them we’re even aware of (those noted in footnotes of the LDS edition). Others not so much.

    Realistically, few of us have the time to read Come Follow Me assignments 3-4 times in different translations so we can get a full spectrum of what it might mean. My default is still the KJV, mostly out of habit…except for Paul’s epistles where I go straight to Wayment’s translation and finally feel like I’m getting something out of them. But when I really want to understand a passage I will look at several translations. And for talks, if the KJV is awkward or obscure I’ll use something else just because people have to get what I’m saying the first time.

  17. Forgive me for adding my experience with Catholics and Catholic customers in particular. Nevertheless, when our friends were confronted with a choice between Luke 1:28 “ ….hail highly favored…” from the New American Bible – Revised Edition approved by American bishops or “hail full of grace …” from the Revised Standard Version – Second Catholic edition , most of our friends and customers chose the latter. I’m old and conservative Protestant raised so I cling fast to the KJV and it has served me well as a Latter-day Saint. If I want to take a peek I have a shelf full of other translations, but it would be my RSV- 2nd Catholic Edition that would take down. Besides, it has the Apocrypha.

  18. Good point Bob…I suspect we’re all VERY attached to our childhood translations of Luke 1 and especially 2. “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes” (NET) just doesn’t feel like Christmas.

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