Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

14 Mar 2012

Dean Burgon: Father of the KJV-Only Movement

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In a recent post, I suggested that the beginning of the King James-only movement can be traced to the publication of the Revised Version NT in 1881. The KJV had been the standard English version of the Bible for over 200 years, when the Church of England decided that a revision was needed. The committee of scholars who produced the revision was given a number of guiding principles, the first of which was, “To introduce as few alterations as possible into the text of the Authorized Version consistently with faithfulness.”


Generally, the revision committee followed the style of the KJV while updating the more archaic English. But they were quite bold in their departure from the Greek text behind the KJV, the Textus Receptus (TR). Here they generally followed the Greek NT being prepared by two members of the revision committee, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, whose own Greek NT was simultaneously published in 1881. While the TR had its origins in the Latin-Greek NT prepared by Erasmus in 1516 that was based on a few late medieval manuscripts (seven, in the case of Erasmus), the critical (or eclectic) text of Westcott and Hort was based on the earliest manuscript evidence available in the late 19th century.

Though there was criticism of the English language updating of the KJV in the Revised Version (RV), it was the changes introduced by the departure from the TR that provoked the strongest opposition. The dissent was led by John William Burgon, Dean of Chichester. He reviewed the RV in a series of articles in the Quarterly Review from 1881 and 1882, which were then published in 1883 under the title The Revision Revised. Contrary to what some believe, Burgon, unlike all modern KJV-only advocates, did not argue for the perfection of the TR. Burgon is quite unequivocal: “Once for all, we request it may be clearly understood that we do not, by any means, claim perfection for the Received text. We entertain no extravagant notions on this subject. Again and again we shall have occasion to point out (e.g. at page 107) that the Textus Receptus needs correction” (Revision Revised, p. 21, fn. 2).


Burgon argued for what he called the Traditional Text of the church, by which he was referring to the Greek text found in the majority of the later medieval Byzantine manuscripts and which was generally represented by the TR. Although Burgon thought the TR needed some minor correction, he did not believe it was very far from the original writings, and thus he strenuously objected to the extent of the textual changes introduced in the RV. If these changes introduced into the RV were, in fact, to be accepted as genuine improvements, bringing the RV text closer to the original writings, this would mean that God had somehow failed in preserving the NT text down through the ages. Burgon’s view of preservation was particularly tied to his High Church Anglicanism and apostolic succession, in that the correct text is to be found in what the Church through its bishops has preserved. He observed: “The Church, remember, hath been from the beginning the ‘Witness and Keeper of Holy Writ’…. The Church, in her collective capacity, hath nevertheless—as a matter of fact—been perpetually purging herself of those shamefully depraved copies which once everywhere abounded within her pale” (Revision Revised, pp. 334-35). The “Witness and Keeper of Holy Writ” is a reference to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, to which Burgon subscribed.

It was Burgon’s championing of the Traditional Text over the “grossly depraved” Westcott and Hort text (Revision Revised, p. 109) and Burgon’s view of preservation that have become the foundational principles for KJV-only advocates. But as we have noted, Burgon did not hold to the perfection of the TR, which most of his followers now insist on. And although he decried the changes in the RV, Burgon was careful to insist that these textual changes did not result in any doctrinal differences between the KJV and the RV: “Let it be also candidly admitted that, even where (in our judgment) the Revisionists have erred, they have never had the misfortune seriously to obscure a single feature of Divine Truth” (Revision Revised, p. 232). Unfortunately, KJV-only advocates have not followed their mentor in this “judgment,” but universally insist that modern versions which fail to follow the TR are guilty of perpetuating doctrinal error, and that includes every English version of the Bible since the KJV.

In a future post I will explain the development of the KJV-only movement from the time of Burgon.

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