Read Part 1.
Naturally enough, we would like to know specifically what it was that Jessey and the 17th century English Baptists found objectionable in the KJV, and our curiosity is soon satisfied by his biographer, who gives a sampling of the kinds of things Jessey sought to remedy with a revised translation. Speaking of Bible translating in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Jessey’s view of it, Edward Whiston wrote:
He acknowledged in the first place touching that work, that since the Reformation the Lord hath stirred up in this and other Protestant countries diverse and learned and (some of them) godly men to advance it. And many of these in King James’ time, had they been as well conscientious in point of fidelity, and godliness, as they were furnished with abilities [emphasis added] they would not have moulded it to their own Episcopal notion rendering episkopen (the office of oversight) by the term bishop, Acts 1:20, etc. as they do in 14 more places. (p. 44)
Did Jessey acknowledge that all translations would fall short of the perfections of the original language Scriptures?
[H]e said, upon review, he must be forced to grant that even the best translations are many ways faulty which may be asserted without disparagement to the skill of the worthy translators, there being in the original texts a depth that only by degrees can be perfectly fathomed. And hence the most learned men have seen cause of revising their translations again and again, and still rectifying and amending what themselves had translated and published, as did Tremellius, Junius, and Beza among the reformed, and Pagininius [and] Montanus among the Romanists. (pp. 44-45)
What is the standard by which translations are to be judged, or what makes a translation commendable?
All translations are to be esteemed more worthy and of greater authority by how much they bear the more lively impression of truth from the Original Fountain itself, unto which form of words it is our duty principally to hold fast, and to contend for the same as it was first delivered. (p. 48)
It was further noted that the English language is only imperfectly equipped to convey the sense and meaning of the original Scriptures.
Tis to be lamented that our language is not copious and significant enough to bear the true import of every word (the sacred languages being so full) and that we study not (with prayer) to find it out. We add marginal explanations when our own expressions are not fully comprehensive; and upon occasions we do tell the unlearned, it is thus or thus in the original, but not designing to impose it on their ignorance, or lord it over their conscience. And we acknowledge that because this diversity of rendering the texts hath been a stumbling to many, and an occasion of reproach to others, it is our duty to endeavor to have the whole Bible rendered as exactly agreeing with the Original as we can attain [emphasis added]. (p. 45b)
Here, then, is the clear testimony of a pre-eminent Baptist of the 1600s that the final authority for our faith is the Scriptures in the original tongues of Hebrew and Greek, and not any translation in any language since they all come short of conveying fully and perfectly the complete sense and meaning of the originals. Those who would in our day lord it over our faith by imposing on us the KJV translation as the final authority are propagating a doctrine which neither the Scriptures honestly interpreted will bear, nor our learned Baptist ancestors embraced, but which is in all essentials the old Roman Catholic claim of an infallible translation (in their case, the Latin Vulgate) repurposed and applied to an English translation.
The work of correcting and improving the KJV so as to bring it into closer harmony with the truth of the originals became a consuming labor for Jessey.
[T]his holy and faithful man Mr. Jessey labored very much for diverse years, and made considerable progress therein, and engaged his soul so much in the work, that he often cried out, “O that I might see this done before I die!” (Ibid.)
Jessey consulted with many learned men while engaged in his work of revising the KJV, and wrote letters to them in which he spoke of the “desire in many that love the truth, to have a more pure, proper translation of the originals than hitherto …” (p. 46b)
He was by no means alone among devout men of God in recognizing the presence of defects in the KJV when compared with the originals. Obviously, some measure of dissatisfaction with the KJV was widespread in that day. It is notable that during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, a number of Puritan divines prosed a formal revision of the KJV
The Long Parliament seriously thought of a new revision. A bill was introduced in April 1653, to the effect that a committee, consisting of Drs. Owen, Cudworth, and several other scholars, be appointed to review King James’s Version under the supervision of Dr. Thomas Goodwin, Dr. Tuckney, and Mr. Joseph Caryl. (Philip Schaff A Companion to the Greek Testament and Revised Version, p. 329)
Jessey’s biographer set things in proper perspective when he wrote,
It is no dishonor to the translators to affirm that it is now 50 years and more since the translation was finished, and that the knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek hath been improved even to admiration since that time, so consequently a translation might be undertaken and made to be more perfectly agreeing with the original, by learned men, who coming after, and standing as it were on the heads of the former have the advantage of seeing further than they could. (pp. 48-49)
Among the inaccuracies of the KJV particularly noted by Jessey’s biographer (no doubt reflecting Jessey’s own opinions) are “Easter” instead of “Passover” (Acts 12:4), “bishopric” for “charge” (Acts 1:20), and “robbers of churches” for “robbers of temples” (Acts 19:37). He adds, “Many places which are not falsely, may be yet better rendered, or more consonant to the text,” (p. 50), citing especially Isaiah 9:3; John 15:2; Jeremiah 50:5; Genesis 39:9, 11; he notes an improper omission in the KJV in Ecclesiastes 8, an unitalicized addition to I Corinthians 1:2, and the use of “St.” as a designation of the Gospel writers (pp. 50, 51, 52, 53). He says further that “In many places though the translation be right in the main, yet there may be still cause of bettering it” (p. 53), noting the non-literal “God forbid” which frequently occurs in the KJV, plus various “harsh expressions,” “obscure words,” and “Hebraisms,” to say nothing of inaccuracies in chapter and verse division. He summarizes by saying, “in these and many more particulars, too tedious to be here comprised, Mr. Jessey proposed to amend our late translation” (p. 56).
Jessey himself declared that in more than 800 places the KJV’s margin was more accurate than its text (pp. 59, 60), and commended Ainsworth’s new translation with annotations of the Pentateuch, Psalms and Song of Solomon (1627, 1639) wherein some 500 mistakes in the KJV were remedied.
Henry Jessey was no backwater, obscure figure among Baptists. His sentiments on the authority of the original Hebrew and Greek over the English version, and the necessity for accuracy’s sake of revising and emending the KJV were reflections of the general beliefs of Baptists in his day. Truth moved him to the laborious task of Bible revision, revealing the depth of his conviction.
Jessey left his revision complete (or nearly so), but unpublished. What became of his manuscript, I have been unable to discover. It is not in the collection of the British Museum. Perhaps it is lying on some obscure shelf at Cambridge University, or maybe at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where one of his chief collaborators taught. If it still exists, its discovery and publication would be of great interest in the context of the current controversy.
The view of Baptists in the 1600s is dead center in the historic view of Baptists in the centuries since, namely that the original Scriptures are the final authority in all matters of Biblical doctrine and belief, not any translation in any language, be it ever so good. Every translation is subject to correction and improvement to conform more closely to the sense and meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek words. In summary, I can do no better than to quote from the Second London Confession (Baptist) of 1677, which reflects precisely the view of Jessey (and Busher earlier):
The Old Testament in Hebrew (which is the native language of the people of God of old) and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations) being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical [i.e., authoritative]; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them. (William Lumpkin Baptist Confessions of Faith, p. 251)
Let the mouths forever be stopped which claim infallibility for the KJV English and repudiate the Hebrew and Greek. Whatever these people may be, they are certainly neither defenders of Biblical truth nor Baptists in any historical sense regarding Bible translation.
Note on sources of information:
Some account of the life Leonard Busher can be found in Champlin Burrage, The Early English Dissenters, vol. I, pp. 276-280, vol. II pp. 257-259; his tract on liberty of conscience with a valuable introduction is in Edward Bean Hill, Tracts on Liberty of Conscience and Persecution 1614-1661, pp. 2ff.
Besides the brief biographical sketch in Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopedia noted in this essay and Edward Whiston’s 1671 biography quoted extensively by us, the life of Henry Jessey is given in lesser or greater detail in Thomas Crosby, History of the English Baptists, vol. I, pp. 307-321; David Benedict, A General History of the Baptist Denomination (1813 edition), vol. I, p. 212; J. M. Cramp, Baptist History, pp. 356-360; and Thomas Armitage, A History of the Baptists, p. 472.
Supplementary note: Jason G. Duesing in 2012 published a new edition of Edward Whiston’s biography of Henry Jessey under the title Counted Worthy: The Life and Work of Henry Jessey (Borderstone Press. ISBN 978-1-936670-07-9), which is supplemented with over 100 pages of Jessey’s own writings. Because the original biography has been reset, the pagination in Duesing edition differs from those cited by me from Whiston’s 1671.
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.