Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

28 Mar 2012

The KJV-Only Movement Comes to America

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In previous posts (here, here, and here), I have argued that the beginning of the KJV-only movement can be traced to the publication of the 1881 revision of the KJV, the Revised Version (RV), and the opposition to it by Dean Burgon, which was set forth in his 1883 volume, The Revision Revised.

Even with the criticism of Burgon and others, the RV was initially well received in England and America. Two Chicago papers, the Tribune and Times, published the entire NT on May 22, 1881. Three million copies of the RV were sold the first year. But as time went on, it became clear that it would not displace the favored place of the KJV in the hearts of most English-speaking people. As Charles Spurgeon perceptively observed, the RV was “strong in Greek, weak in English.”

Though the RV was initiated by the Church of England, a group of 34 American scholars assisted in the project. They disagreed with some of the translation decisions, and these were placed in an appendix to the RV. In 1901 the Americans produced their own edition of the RV incorporating the American preferences, which eventually became known as the American Standard Version (ASV).

The KJV-only movement in America is unfortunately associated with fundamentalism, though early fundamentalism was clearly not KJV-only. The name fundamentalism was not coined until 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws, but the founding documents of the movement can be traced to a series of 12 volumes produced between 1910 and 1915 titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth. The 90 essays quote from the KJV but also from the RV (or its American edition). The essay on “The Inspiration of the Bible” by James M. Gray affirms: “Let it be stated further in this definitional connection, that the record for whose inspiration we contend is the original record—the autographs or parchments of Moses, David, Daniel, Matthew, Paul or Peter, as the case may be, and not any particular translation or translations of them whatever. There is no translation absolutely without error, nor could there be” (3:10).

One of the contributors to the Fundamentals was a converted lawyer named Philip Mauro. He wrote three essays, one of which is titled Life in the Word (vol. 5). Like other contributors, Mauro occasionally quotes the RV approvingly. However, by 1924 Mauro had a dramatic shift in his thinking as seen in the publication of his book Which Version? Authorized or Revised? The material in Mauro’s book is not particularly original, but simply a rehashing of Dean Burgon’s arguments. Whereas Mauro previously quoted the RV approvingly, now he strongly condemns it for making “36,000 changes” in the KJV and asks the question, “On what authority” (p. 5). Here we see the common assumption of all KJV-only proponents: the KJV possesses some sacrosanct authority whose text is immutable.

Mauro correctly observes that by 1924 it had become clear that neither the RV nor the American edition, the ASV, were going to offer any real competition to the popularity of the KJV. So although Mauro’s book demonstrates the presence of KJV-only sympathies in the USA in the early part of the 20th century, the dominance of the KJV meant there was not much for the KJV-only advocates to be concerned about. As we will see in a future post, it is the appearance of new English versions of the Bible that provided new energy for the KJV-only movement.

3 Responses

  1. Mike Sproul

    But Burgon was not KJVonly in any modern understanding of that term. He was far from it. He firmly believed that the KJV had errors as did the TR. He believed a full revision was needed and when he did Textual criticism on passages he agrees almost word for word with Maurice Robinson’s Greek Text. Burgon was much closer to the modern position of Majority Text. DA Waite’s positions and the modern Dean Burgon society are far apart. This is not a defense of Burgon, but he wasn’t KJVonly in the modern sense of that word. In fact, if you read many of his quotes to a modern KJVonly enthusiast, without telling them the name of the author, they would brand him a heretic.


  2. Bill Combs

    “But Burgon was not KJVonly in any modern understanding of that term.”

    If you read my earlier posts, you know I said that Burgon was not KJV-only in a technical sense, but I would not agree with your statement above. He viewed the English text as so sacrosanct that he would not allow any real changes.

    “I speedily made the further discovery that the Revised English would have been in itself intolerable, even had the Greek been let alone.” P. xii

    “It may be confidently assumed that no ‘Reevision ‘ of our Authorized Version, however judiciously executed, will ever occupy the place in public esteem which is actually enjoyed by the work of the Translators of 1611,—the noblest literary work in the Anglo-Saxon language. We shall in fact never have another ‘Authorized Version.’” P. 113.

    “As some- thing intended to supersede our present English Bible, we are thoroughly convinced that the project of a rival Translation is not to be entertained for a moment. For ourselves, we deprecate it entirely.” P. 114.

    We have no way of knowing, but I would guess that Burgon would, were he alive today, condemn the NKJV. That may not make him technically KJV-only, but practically it amounts to about the same thing.

    (1) On the one hand, Burgon says the TR is not technically perfect. (2) On the other hand, he says there is no real way to revise the KJV.

    Majority text folk point to (1); KJV-only folk point to (2).

  3. John

    I have to agree with Mike. The impression I got from reading Burgon’s book was not that Burgon felt that the AV did not require revision, but that the translators of the RV had done a poor job of it.

    I don’t think we can say that Burgon was the father of the KJV only movement in America. That title belongs to Benjamin G. Wilkinson and his book Our Authorised Bible Vindicated 1930. David Otis Fuller, Which Bible? 1970 was the main person responsible for bringing this controversy into the Fundamentalist camp.