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.