The King James Version (KJV) of the Bible has been used by English-speaking Latter-day Saints since the time of Joseph Smith. However, our commitment to the 400-year-old translation places us in a minority within the United States—and even differs from how the Church translates the Bible in other languages. In this interview, New Testament scholar Thomas Wayment explains why U.S. Latter-day Saints use the King James Version and what might be involved in publishing a new translation.
Read more about the use of the King James Version in the Church in The Bible and the Latter-day Saint Tradition.
Table of Contents
- Why use it?
- Modern translations
- Widespread use
- J. Reuben Clark
- Continued use
What is the general history of the King James Version?
The King James Version and its history are well documented, and perhaps the most interesting of the recent discussions of its history is that of Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible.
I mention that because the history of the King James Version is not a matter of dispute, but rather a matter of theorizing and asking questions about its supposed elegance, its impact on American Christianity and literature generally, and its place in the churches today.
For the reader hoping for a skeletal outline, the King James Version was officially commissioned in 1604 with the intent to dislodge existing translations then in circulation in England. A team of clergymen, political figures, and scholars of Greek and Hebrew coalesced around the idea that existing translations available in English had certain deficiencies that needed remedy.
The teams working on the translation were divided into six groups, and the names and training of the participants are well known today. They were given careful guidelines and instructions about how to translate, and in order to avoid some of the encroachment of Puritan ideas in their translation, they worked on a model of formal equivalence, which is the concept that the original language sentence structure, grammar and syntax would strongly influence the translation they produced in English so that the English reflects the word order and syntactic structures of the original.
Such an effort often leads to a stilted modern language translation, but some believers find confidence in the fact that the original language word order controls, at least to some extent, what they are reading in English.
Why did early Latter-day Saints use the KJV?
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.
When Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery purchased a copy of the King James Version in preparation to translate the Bible, they inadvertently made that particular translation—the KJV translation available at the local bookstore—forever connected to a particular revelation about the Bible.
I use the word revelation where others would use translation because the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) is not a translation in the modern sense of the word, but rather an engagement with the English text through revelatory means.
To return to the question at hand, 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.
What are some of the landmark modern translations of the Bible?
I think that a reader who is familiar with the King James Bible would benefit from gaining more familiarity with modern efforts to revise the KJV. Briefly, both American and British scholars began working on a major revision of the KJV in the late nineteenth century. Their efforts were rooted in concerns about the way the KJV rendered the name of God in the Hebrew Bible, the way certain passages of scripture were translated, and other consistent concerns about the KJV and the quality of its translation.
Their effort—the Revised Version (or RV)—is an effective translation, and its American counterpart, the American Standard Version ASV and later the Revised Standard Version (RSV), is also useful in understanding the concerns that scholars had with the KJV.
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.
Other important modern Bibles that a reader would benefit from consulting are the New International Version (the NIV) and the English Standard Version (ESV), which were created to address concerns among Evangelical Christians about the quality of other available translations.
Frequently, when I am asked questions about modern translations, the questioner conflates translations and printings of the Bible. For example, I am often asked about the Jewish Annotated New Testament, which is an excellent resource for the modern reader. It is, however, a printing of the NRSV text with notes created by capable scholars. This is true for a number of other major printings of modern translations.
For the modern reader, it is helpful to look for a few key terms when thinking about a modern translation:
- First, check the front matter to make sure that the Greek and Hebrew texts were drawn from critical editions of those texts. Additionally, a reader will want to know whether the Dead Sea Scrolls informed the Hebrew text.
- Second, a reader will want to determine whether the English (or other language) translation belongs to a specific faith community like the KJV did originally and its descendants.
- Finally, the front matter will contain important information about the notes found at the bottom of the page.
These will help the reader determine if the provided notes are a good place for the types of information she is seeking. Some notes contain manuscript information, some target questions about history, and others detail rhetorical and syntactic information.
What are some advantages of recent translations?
Hopefully I have addressed some of this in the preceding question, but a few additional thoughts might be helpful. From my time working on the New Testament and the Bible generally, 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.
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 continued advocacy for the KJV limits our effectiveness and ability to connect with other Christians who are also deeply committed to the Bible.
Additionally, the text and translation of the KJV cannot withstand—and has not withstood—the careful scrutiny of scholarship over the past four hundred years.
How widespread is use of the KJV in the US?
Today, Latter-day Saints stand with some Baptists, Methodists, and Anabaptists in asserting the priority of the KJV translation. Additionally, while others advocate for exclusive use of the KJV, we fall into a category—a rather slim category—of believers who also claim that the KJV was inspired.
We are now nearly alone in our advocacy of the KJV, and it is important to also point out that the KJV is not used by our Latter-day Saint sisters and brothers who use church products printed in other languages. The church translation committee and employees have had to navigate the difficult space of translating Joseph Smith’s revisions to the KJV into other target languages that use a different Bible translation for which many of the Prophet’s revisions make little or no sense because his revisions were so closely tied to the KJV.
What was J. Reuben Clark, Jr.’s role in codifying use of the KJV?
The question of J. Reuben Clark Jr.’s efforts to solidify the use of the KJV for the church is a sticky one, and one that I have attempted to address briefly in my chapter.
For the reader who is looking for an executive summary of the issue, I would say in this space that J. Reuben Clark Jr. relied upon scholarship of a generation previous to his own day, and he used the arguments of scholars of that day to make claims about the KJV.
Some scholars of his da— and particularly a generation before him—would have stood by him in his arguments for the use of the KJV. Today, however, those arguments are no longer sustainable due to new discoveries, new research, and continued careful and sustained work on the Bible.
I haven’t felt that Clark’s comments have restricted my work or the work of my colleagues, but from time to time someone will raise this question as a way of understanding the conversation today.
Why do Latter-day Saints still use the KJV?
Obviously, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not continued to use the KJV in non-English speaking areas of the church. The majority of Latter-day Saints do not read from the KJV or its equivalent, but the English speaking saints have shown a tenacity to hold to the KJV.
I believe that the core reasons are mostly tradition and the KJV’s direct relationship to the Book of Mormon. There is precedent for change as has been done in Spanish and other languages.
I think an additional challenge—and one that I did not raise in my chapter—is that the Church has not relied on its language scholars to produce an English translation.
Scholarly translation has been done by other denominational Christians, but the Church has typically purchased the copyright to a foreign language translation and then the Translation Department has added the necessary footnotes and other reading helps to that translation.
This appears to be the model going forward, but there is a sufficiently trained group of academics who could produce a new English translation that was entirely supported by the Church.
What would be hard about switching to a new translation?
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.
Do other Latter-day Saint scriptures use archaic language?
This is something about which I have little to no experience. In my work on five early foreign language translations of the Book of Mormon, I did find that there was a definite attempt to translate the text using archaic language.
A group of students and myself ran a series of test passages through some early Book of Mormon translations and found that they were attempting to make sense of archaic English.
A good test passage is the first verse of the Book of Mormon, which reads, “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father….”
The word “goodly” appears to function in the sentence as an adjective, but its form is an adverb in modern usage. The use of “goodly” as an adjective, to my understanding, is an archaic form. The modern translations that I have consulted shift it to the equivalent of “good parents,” but some early ones used the adverb.
There are numerous examples of this, and I have little understanding of how the Translation Department navigates these issues.
How is the dominance of the KJV shrinking in the Church?
To answer this I will only be able to give my opinion. We now belong to a rather small group of Christians who advocate for the use of the King James Version. As a result, 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. A good example of this is found in Philipppians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
The KJV translation given here is confusing because it uses “which,” thus creating ambiguity in its antecedent. This rendering can lead to confusion because it sounds as though the doing of all things can strengthen me. The word translated as “which” is a simple relative pronoun in Greek and should be rendered in English, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Wayment translation) or “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (NIV).
By the way, this is also a case where the King James Version uses an inferior textual tradition in its translation, so this verse is an example of two KJV issues. In other words, our conversations about the Bible can improve dramatically, and one consequence of our reliance on the KJV is that we will continue to discuss topics related to the translation of the Bible which have been solved in modern language editions.
Finally, our scholars who are trained in the Bible and related fields need to adapt to different communities—a scholarly one and a ward or branch, who use different translations. In their wards and stakes they will use the KJV, but in their research and writing they will encounter modern translations of the Bible.
This multilingual approach is effective at times, but it also sets us apart as those who will not join the larger Christian community by embracing the Bible of American Christianity or other English speaking areas. This almost necessary bilingual scholarship is already required for many saints when they speak to anyone outside their faith community about their beliefs, and for many saints the task of learning this other language has proven to be too great an obstacle, in my opinion.
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About the interview participant
Thomas A. Wayment is a professor of comparative arts and letters as Brigham Young University. He joined the faculty of Religious Education in June of 2000 after completing a PhD in New Testament studies at the Claremont Graduate School, and he later joined the faculty of Comparative Arts and Letters at BYU in 2018. His recent research interests focus on Christian literary papyri, Oxyrhynchus, and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. He served as the publications director of the Religious Studies Center from 2013 until 2018.
- Come Follow Me 2023: New Testament Resources
- Thomas Wayment Translates New Testament
- How Was the New Testament Canonized?
- Let’s Talk About the Translation of the Book of Mormon
- How Did Joseph Smith Produce Ancient Scripture?
King James Version Resources
- The Bible and the Latter-day Saint Tradition (University of Utah Press)
- Why the King James Version?: From the Common to the Official Bible of Mormonism (Dialogue) [PDF]
- The King James Bible and the Restoration (BYU RSC)
- Why Bible Translations Differ: A Guide for the Perplexed (Religious Educator)
- The King James Bible and the Future of Missionary Work (Dialogue) [PDF]
- “As Far as It Is Translated Correctly”: Bible Translation and the Church (Religious Educator)