(An earlier form of this study was published in Baptist Biblical Heritage, volume 2, no. 1, Spring 1991, pp. 5-8. It appears here in revised and updated form)
Aesop had his fables, the brothers Grimm had their fairy tales, and certain self-styled “defenders of the faith” have their doctrine of an infallible English Bible translation.
To hear some fellows tell it, you might suppose that Baptists historically and almost universally have rejected the final authority of the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, and have instead clung to the belief in an infallible, inspired, and perfectly preserved English translation of the Bible as the final and absolute standard of their beliefs. The truth be told, this substitution of the King James Version for the Bible in the original languages as the standard of our doctrine and beliefs is a modern-day phenomenon, contrary to Baptist history, and one never embraced by leading theologians, pastors or missionaries in the forefront of Baptist orthodox at any time.
Let the record show that Baptists have always and overwhelmingly accepted the original Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek as the standard to which all translations must conform, and the standard by which all may be examined and corrected. Wherever it is evident that a translation departs from the standard of the Hebrew or Greek, the translation must yield to the supreme and final authority of the original. In this Baptists are in full agreement with the King James Translators themselves who declared their view of translation revision and final authority.
[B]ut rather let us bless God from the ground of our heart, for working this religious care in him [i.e., King James I] to have the translations of the Bible maturely considered of and examined. For by this means it cometh to pass, that whatsoever is sound already… the same shall shine as gold more brightly, being rubbed and polished; also, if any thing be halting, or superfluous, or not so agreeable to the original, the same may be corrected, and the truth set in place (Miles Smith, The Translators to the Readers in original KJV edition)
What is sauce for other translations is sauce for the KJV as well. Some Baptists in the present day have stumbled into the essentially Roman Catholic error of believing a translation could be inspired and could then sit in judgment on the original Hebrew and Greek. The Roman Catholic Church, at least since the time of the Reformation, has officially declared that Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation was inspired and infallible and that the Hebrew and Greek must be corrected to conform to the Latin! (See Roland Bainton, Erasmus of Christendom, p. 135; John Gill, Body of Divinity, p. 13).
While commending the KJV for its many excellencies, and often employing it as a sufficiently accurate representation of the infallible Hebrew and Greek words of God, Baptists have nevertheless repeatedly pointed out its occasional inaccuracies and defects. And this is no recent phenomenon. To find the first Baptist to raise his voice in objection to inaccuracies in the KJV requires a journey back to the year 1614 A. D., a mere three years after the King’s new translation was issued from the press. Let us hear the account.
There was a citizen of London, Leonard Busher by name, a Baptist by conviction (being a bold advocate of believer’s immersion as the only valid baptism) and one familiar with the Greek New Testament, who suffered much persecution and financial privation for his faith, including exile in Holland for much of his life. Not a great deal is known about Busher personally, but from his published writings, he appears to have championed pre-millennialism and world-wide evangelism, and was decidedly a friend of the Jews, who were, like Busher himself, much persecuted. Busher was also a strong advocate of soul-liberty or liberty of conscience. As such, he was the first author ever to put into print a tract defending religious liberty as an essential right of every human being. His tract, Religious Peace: or, a Plea for Liberty of Conscience, was published in London in 1614, and re-issued there in 1646. In that tract, Busher laments the sufferings he had endured for Christ’s sake, and how these sufferings prevented his publication of additional writings. We quote a paragraph—
Another reason why so many good people are now deceived, is because we that have most truth, are most persecuted; and therefore most poor. Whereby, we are unable to write and print, as we would, against the adversaries of truth. It is hard to get our daily food with the labours of weak bodies and feeble hands. How then should we have to defray other charges, and to write and print? I have, through the help of God out of his word, made a scourge of small cords, wherewith antichrist and his ministers might be driven out of the temple of God. Also a declaration of certain false translations in the New Testament [emphasis added]. But I want wherewith to print and publish it. Therefore it must rest till the Lord seeth good to supply it. (Edward Bean Underhill, editor, Tracts on Liberty of Conscience and Persecution 1614-1661, p. 72)
Here, then, within three years of the publication of the KJV in 1611, this persecuted saint of God has in the name of truth and on his very limited resources of time and money compiled a listing of errors and mistranslations in the then-new English Bible that needed to be remedied by retranslation. Since this tract was, as far as is known, never published, we can only guess at those things to which Busher took objection, though it is not unlikely that it centered on certain ecclesiastical terms the King expressly commanded the translators to employ.
When King James approved the translation project proposed to him at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 by Puritan John Rainolds (or Reynolds), he submitted a list of 15 specific guidelines which the translators were obligated to follow. Number three stated,
3. The old ecclesiastical words were to be kept, viz., the word church not to be translated congregation, etc. (W. F. Moulton, The History of the English Bible, 5th ed., p. 196)
Since Baptists historically have objected to church in the KJV instead of the more accurate congregation or assembly, baptize instead of immerse, bishop instead of overseer, etc., we may assume it was these (at least) that Busher had in mind.
We need not guess about the reasons behind the Baptist revision of the KJV proposed and actually carried out in the 1640s and 1650s by Henry Jessey, M. A. Henry Jessey (1601-1663), whom Charles Spurgeon commended as “a man of great weight, both as to character and learning,” (The Metropolitan Tabernacle, Its History and Work, p. 17), was one of the pre-eminent Baptists of London in the mid-1600s. He was raised Anglican and attended Cambridge University for six years, graduating Master of Arts in 1624. While a student at Cambridge, Jessey experienced the new birth. He received, in 1627, Episcopal ordination and became a pastor.
Proclaiming Gospel principles, Jessey saw numerous conversions under his preaching, but he also saw significant numbers of those converts drawn away to Baptist congregations. This compelled him to study the issue of Biblical baptism. Open to receive the divine truth of Scripture, Jessey first became convinced that immersion alone was the proper mode of baptism, and then three years later that believers alone, not infants, were the proper subjects of baptism. Convinced by the Bible of Baptist principles, Jessey received believer’s immersion at the hands of leading London Baptist Hanserd Knollys (1599?-1691) in June of 1645. He thereafter pastored Baptist churches in London until his imprisonment and death.
As to Jessey’s academic attainments and his Bible revision, William Cathcart wrote:
He was a man of great learning; he had extensive knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Chaldee. It was the ambition and labor of his life to produce a new translation of Scriptures, which was about completed when the restoration of Charles II poured a deluge of evils over the Non-Conformists of that country, and made worthless the labors of Mr. Jessey in revising Scriptures. (Baptist Encyclopedia, vol. I, p. 600)
Jessey was arrested upon the restoration of the Stuarts to the throne of England, was imprisoned, and died in captivity for his faith. (I must emphasize that both Leonard Busher and Henry Jessey were real sufferers for the faith, unlike the KJV translators, for whom Adventist Benjamin G. Wilkinson falsely claimed, “The translators of the King James, moreover, had something beyond great scholarship and unusual skill. They had gone through a period of great suffering. They had offered their lives that the truths which they loved might live,” a statement so manifestly false that Wilkinson’s republisher, D. O. Fuller, was compelled to correct it in a footnote! See Which Bible?, 5th edition, p. 258, and Baptist Biblical Heritage, 1:3, Fall 1990).
A biography of Jessey was issued anonymously in 1671, though the author is now known to have been one Edward Whiston, a close associate of Jessey. This biography, The Life and Death of Mr. Henry Jessey, which I was able to read through entirely during a visit to the Cambridge University library, gives a flood of additional detail on Jessey’s revision of the KJV, and the attitude of English Baptists as a group toward the Anglican-sponsored KJV.
First, as to Jessey’s view of Scripture—
[T]he holy Scriptures were his guide, and directory, and it might be said of him as it was of the Apostles, he was mighty in the Scriptures …
The Hebrew and Greek Testaments he often called the one his Sword and Dagger, and the other his Shield and Buckler, in a word they were his Meditation, Discourse, Practice, and Study, yea few did more thoroughly study the Scriptures, in all points than he. (pp. 42, 43; spelling and punctuation have been revised in quotes from the biography to conform to modern usage)
Indeed, so gripped by Scripture was Jessey that he ultimately attained such mastery of it that,
Whosoever began to rehearse a place, he could go on verbatim with the preceding and following context; whoever inquired after a Scripture, he could presently name the book, chapter, and verse, so that he was not undeservedly called by one “a living concordance.” (p. 62)
Second, as to his linguistic attainments, and why he counted the study of languages so highly:
His first labor was to understand them [i.e., the Scriptures] fully in the languages in which they written, which is as the key to unlock the door and lead us in. Besides the Hebrew and Greek, he searched into the Syriac and Chaldee dialects… .He endeavored so much to become proficient master in all these, as that he made good use of them, in his ordinary expounding of Scripture, for he rested not in making such entrance for himself into the mysteries, but would have the doors opened as wide as might be to others, that might enter in also; which he endeavored many ways as well by essay towards the bettering of our English translations [emphasis added], as for the translating of the holy Scriptures into modern languages. (pp. 43-44)
Of course, it must be assumed that Jessey was proficient in Latin as well, that being the language of the universities and of all scholarship in his day.
[Part 2: What it was that Jessey and the 17th century English Baptists found objectionable in the KJV.]
Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.