Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Quest for a Baptist Bible: The Rise and Demise of the American Bible Union, 1850-1883

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

The Quest for a Baptist Bible: The Rise and Demise of the American Bible Union, 1850-1883

Article excerpt

The American Bible Union formed in 1850 for the purpose of producing a new English Bible translation--one that would supplant the King James Version and correctly translate the Greek word baptizo as "immerse." Although accomplished, the translation sank quickly into obscurity.

This paper examines the antecedents that formed the society, persons who contributed to and in some cases hurt the process, the resultant Bible translation, and ultimately the society's dissolution. Despite a limited shelf life, the society energized nineteenth-century Baptists, and its contributions resonate to the present day.

Precursors to a Baptist Bible

Baptist interest in Bible translation has been observable from Baptist infancy. The third initial of the famous JLJ church, the first Particular Baptist church, belonged to Henry Jessey, a man whose constant companions were the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament. He called one his "Sword and Dagger" and the other his "Shield and Buckler." (1) Jessey completed a revision of the entire King James Bible sometime before his death. Alas, the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660 resulted in Jessey's imprisonment. He languished there until a few months before his death on September 4, 1663. His translation was never published, and no manuscript has been discovered to date.

Joseph Stennett, a Seventh Day Baptist minister in London known for his numerous published hymns, produced a new translation of the Song of Solomon and Psalm 45 in 1700, with a second edition in 1709. (2) Stennett was the first Baptist to translate and publish parts of the Bible into English.

It is possible that the first Baptist to produce a full English New Testament was William Whiston, the eccentric mathematician and translator of The Works of Josephus. His connection to Baptists is tenuous. He toyed with Arianism yet stayed within the Anglican Church until late in his life when he adopted Baptist teachings. Thus, he was calling himself a Baptist around the time he offered his Primitive New Testament in 1745. (3)

If not Whiston's Testament, then certainly the first Bible produced by a Baptist is attributed to Nathaniel Scarlett, a London bookseller. Scarlett took a page from John Smyth and Roger Williams on confining one's commitment to one religious group: Scarlett was successively a Methodist turned Universalist turned Baptist. The last two groups are detectable in his 1798 The Dramatized New Testament. Scarlett became the first English translator of the New Testament to use the word "immerse" for the Greek word baptizo. (4)

Alexander Campbell turned out the first Baptist-influenced translation of the nineteenth century, The Sacred Writings, published in 1826. Campbell affiliated with Baptists from about 1813 to 1830 before breaking away to join the Restoration Movement. (5) But before he left the Baptist ranks he published his own New Testament. He sought to eliminate Calvinist interpretations found in the KJV, which he characterized as "willful mistranslations." (6) Campbell's Baptist connections continued through his membership in the American Bible Union. He would later translate Acts of the Apostles for the ABU New Testament.

From 1834 to 1838 the five-volume Comprehensive Commentary on the Holy Bible was produced, with the top of the title page containing the parenthetical heading [Baptist Edition], The text of the KJV was surrounded by comments from Thomas Scott, Matthew Henry, and Philip Doddridge. The editors were William Jenks and Joseph A. Warne. The latter, a Baptist pastor, re-edited these scholarly notes for a Baptist audience. Warne expunged words, sentences, and paragraphs, and substituted other material to suit Baptist views. (7)

David Bernard edited and published a revision of the KJV in 1842 that became known as Bernard's Bible. One reason for the revision was his belief that important words in the KJV were left untranslated, specifically baptizo. …

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