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The History of KJV Onlyism

Seldom do friends agree in totality on every subject.  I have friends who prefer Popeye’s to Chick-Fil-A.  I have friends who prefer Star Trek to Star Wars.  I even have friends who cheer for LSU!  THIS DRIVES ME CRAZY!  Why?  Because, I’m a control freak, and everyone should see everything as I do.  However, I’ve learned that I cannot demand conformity of my friends without fundamentally altering the relationship.  Therefore, deeper research and healthy debate take the place of petty bickering and caustic separation.  Occasionally minds are changed, at times convictions are strengthened, but always relationships are valued and reinforced.

         Thus, we are led to the subject matter at hand – an article written on a topic that has caused unnecessary division for decades[1], coauthored by two friends who don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue, and published in a spirit of humility and optimism.  In this second[2] of three articles regarding the KJV debate, Matthew Lyon[3] and I will attempt to lay out the history of this controversy by outlining the rise of KJV Onlyism, the initial rejection of this new doctrine among most independent Baptists, and its’ eventual widespread acceptance among them.

         True friends dialogue, disagree, but ultimately decide to remain friends.  We hope that this will continue to be the case as we attempt to look into the history of this important issue.

Getting Started

Today, among independent Baptist churches[4], the King James Version of the Bible is typically the only translation thought to be the faithful, inspired Word of God.  All other translations are seen as corrupted, flawed, or downright perverted.  While there is some variety among so-called “King James Only (KJVO) advocates,” including adherence to the collection of Greek manuscripts underlying the KJV (known as the Textus Receptus, or TR), KJVO has become one of the defining marks of IFB churches for the last 35 years.  Some would have us believe that this is the historic Baptist tradition, held firmly throughout the centuries, making it a permanent fundamental of the faith.  Others would say that a departure from the KJV is tantamount to leaving orthodoxy and necessitates ecclesiastical separation.  We challenge this notion and practice by asking a simple question.  What is the historic Baptist view of bibliology and of particular translations, and from whence did this KJVO doctrine arise?

Historic Baptist View 

One of the earliest expressions of Baptist faith is the 1677/89 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith.  This detailed account of Baptist faith is one of the most thorough and profound explanations of what early Baptists believed, and is still very influential to this day among Baptists.  Under the chapter “Of the Holy Scriptures” this historic summary of Baptist doctrine reads: 

The Old Testament in Hebrew…and the New Testament in Greek…being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and Providence kept pure in all Ages, are therefore authentical: so as in all controversies of Religion, the Church is finally to appeal to them.  But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God…therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar [common] language of every Nation.

Three things should be noted here: 

  • 1) The Bible was inspired only in the original languages. 
  • 2) The inspired Bible in the original languages has been kept pure by God throughout history.
  • 3) The Bible should be translated into every language for the common people.

The writers clearly distinguished between the inspired Bible in Greek and Hebrew and subsequent translations.  Thus, they would not have held to anything like the KJV-Only positions, as they tend either to claim that the KJV is itself inspired or to treat it as if it is (as if it has no errors – something that the KJV translators themselves say in their preface cannot happen except under inspiration).

Origins of King James Version Debate

         In the 1600s and 1700s, the KJV and the Greek manuscripts behind it, were practically undisputed.  There were few other options in the English-speaking world, and none compared with the quality of the KJV.  However, in 1881, two biblical scholars, B.F. Wescott, Bishop of Durham; and Irish theologian F.J.A. Hort, produced a new Greek text of the New Testament, commonly known as the Wescott-Hort Text (W-H) – and a new English translation, the Revised Version (RV).  The W-H text used newly found manuscripts that, though few in number, were much older than the manuscripts behind the TR. (This text, and those following it were referred to as the Critical Text, as opposed the Traditional Text/Textus Receptus.) The new work sparked a strong reaction from many, especially the Anglican Dean of Chichester, John Burgon.  Burgon published his opposition in The Revision Revised,(1883), which argued that the new text and new version were inferior to the TR and the KJV.  While Burgon’s response could be considered the official beginning of the KJV-Only movement, he did not see either the KJV or the TR as perfect, stating: “Once for all, we request it may be clearly understood that we do not, by any means, claim perfection for the Received Text….Again and again we shall occasion to point out that the Textus Receptus needs correction” (Revision Revised, p. 21, n. 2).  This was a common stance, even for Baptists.  

The RV was not very well received; it paled in comparison to the quality of the KJV, and though many believed the TR (and thus the KJV) had minor errors, there was little call to replace the revered old translation.  Prominent Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon expressed it this way: “Do not needlessly amend our authorized version. It is faulty in places, but still it is a grand work taking all in all, and it is unwise to be making every old lady distrust the only Bible she can get at” (Commenting and Commentators, p. 31).[5]  

KJVO Debate Renewed

The debate launched by Burgon receded for many decades, since there was little alternative to using the universally beloved KJV.  That changed in the 1940s, when the RV was updated and released as the Revised Standard Version.  One of the most notable proponents of the KJV/TR was a Presbyterian theologian, Edward F. Hills, who published The King James Version Defended in 1956, the same year the RSV was completed.  As new translations arrived, the debate became more heated: first the RSV in 1946/1952, then the New American Standard Bible in 1963/1971, and then especially the New International Version in 1973/1978 – which, in its 1984 revision would become the first English Bible translation to outsell the KJV.

Independent Baptist Defense of KJVO

Independent Baptists’ reaction to the RSV was minimal at first.  In fact, John R. Rice, a national independent Baptist leader, sold copies of the 1946 RSV New Testament in his paper The Sword of the Lord.  He continued to sell it until it became apparent that translation issues in the Old Testament threatened fundamentalist beliefs, such as the translation of Isaiah 7:14 and its reference to the virgin birth. 

As the new translations began to multiply in the 1960s and 70s, two defenders of the KJV/TR rose to prominence: David Otis Fuller (Which Bible?, 1970) and D.A. Waite (The Case for the Received Text of Hebrew and Greek Underlying the King James Version Bible, 1971) who joined together to create the Dean Burgon Society in 1978.  While they argued that the TR was a superior New Testament text and that the KJV was a faithful and accurate translation of that text, they never said that the KJV was inspired or perfect.  They maintained a more traditional Baptist position, affirming their belief that “the Bible in the autographs, or original manuscripts themselves as written, is the product of plenary and verbal inspiration. And hence is both inerrant and infallible in all areas of which it speaks.”  They also affirmed belief “in the Biblical doctrine of the Divine Preservation of those original language texts in accurate copies or apographs” (The Case for the King James Bible, Waite, p. 29).  But they rejected any call to change or modify the KJV, thus placing them, practically speaking, in the KJV-Only tradition that is better reflected by another man, Peter Ruckman.

Ruckman may be considered the founder of the modern KJV-Only position.  He began publishing defenses of the KJV in the 1960s and took a much more extreme view than men like Burgon.  He argued that the KJV itself was perfect and that the TR, while superior to all other texts, was ultimately inferior to the KJV itself.  This meant that God’s Word was not preserved Greek and Hebrew manuscripts but through an English translation: the King James Version.

This was not a popular independent Baptist position in the 1970s, as reflected by John R. Rice, who as editor of the colossal Sword of the Lord, was probably the most influential independent Baptist leader until his death in 1980.  He stated in a book chapter titled “Be a Fundamentalist but Not a Nut!”:

If I say that the American Standard Version of the Bible is a good version (though we prefer the King James Version) I get letter from ardent extremists saying that the King James Version, even the translations, is perfectly done without error; that in his preference for certain Greek manuscripts. Origen perverted the Scriptures, that Wescott and Hort, perhaps the leading scholars who agreed on the Greek manuscripts from which the American Standard Version was translated, were deliberate deceivers.  They strain at gnats and swallow camels” (I Am a Fundamentalist, 1975, p 70).

Rice goes on to attack Ruckman and his followers, denouncing them as untrustworthy in all matters:  

When Peter Ruckman sets out to say that only he and a few others in the world are right on the matter of manuscript evidence for the Bible and says that in the King James Version the translation itself was inspired of God and is without error and that all other translations, even the American Standard Version, are perversions; when he says that…all are modernists or hypocrites or ignorant who do not agree that the King James Version—even the translation—is inspired perfectly, then we know that that arrogant attitude, that calling of good men by bad names, shows the man cannot be trusted in doctrine.” (Ibid., 74).

Rice believed that “the various translations contain, together, the eternal, unchangeable Word of God…A perfect translation of the Bible is humanly impossible…there are no perfect translations.  God does not inspire particular translations” (Our God-Breathed Book–The Bible, 1969, 376).

         Rice was not the only prominent independent Baptist to reject the KJV-Only position.  Lee Roberson, pastor of mega-church Highland Park Baptist Church, and President of Tennessee Temple University, both of which ran more than 4,000 students, was receptive of other versions.  He allowed faculty to teach from the Critical Text and use other versions in the classroom.  He also supported the translations of the New King James Version, allowing his professor of Hebrew, James D. Price, to become the executive editor of the Old Testament (King James Onlyism: A New Sect, 2006, Price, p. xiii).

         When the NKJV was published in 1982, the editors released a pamphlet which included a list of contributors to the translation.  These included several independent Baptists, A.V. Henderson, pastor of Temple Baptist Church, Detroit, MI (J. Frank Norris, and G.B. Vick also pastored there), and Curtis Hutson, president of the Sword of the Lord.  Hutson had been chosen to lead the Sword after Rice’s death in 1980, and he continued to support Rice’s opposition to KJV-Onlyism – at least until the publishing of the NKJV (Why the New King James Version? 1982, 31-33).

         Jack Hyles, a close friend and associate of Rice for over twenty-two years, also valued other versions of the Bible, at least until the 1980s.  In Hyles’ commentary on Revelations he repeatedly corrects the King James Version and the TR, such as in his note on Revelation 8:13, which reads “an angel flying” in the KJV.  Hyles argued that “The word ‘angel’ here should be ‘eagle’” following the Critical Text and the RV.

The Rise of a NEW Doctrine

         These examples show that KJV-Onlyism was not the standard for independent Baptists at least until the 1980s.  Only at that point did it gain prominence, partly through the elevation of Ruckman’s teaching, the explosion of the NIV in 1984, and the conversion of national leaders like Jack Hyles to the viewpoint.  

Though Hyles’ had worked with Rice and held a non-KJVO stance himself, after Rice’s death he quickly and dramatically pivoted and became very harsh toward that position.  In a 1984 sermon he declared: “It bothers me when people say, ‘We believe that the Bible, in the original manuscripts, is the Word of God.’ If that’s true, we have no Bible. Did you hear what I said? We have no Bible.”  In the same sermon, having already rejected the traditional Baptist position on Bible translations, he further rejected his mentor John R. Rice’s position (and even calling his faith and fundamentalism into question): 

You say, “I don’t like your preaching.” I don’t give a flip. I don’t like your liberalism either. I don’t like your compromise. I don’t like your dirty NIV Bible. I don’t like your dirty ASV Bible. I don’t like your dirty New ASV Bible, or your Revised Standard Version of the Bible. I’m trying to say, anybody that’s got any sense to understand this Bible, and you can understand it, you’ve got the Holy Spirit that lives on the inside of you, and He said, He will lead you into all truth. So maybe you liberals ought to have a bigger Bible.

Hyles’ acerbic language and KJV-Only teaching reflected Peter Ruckman’s language.  With Hyles as the most dynamic and influential pastor at that time in large portions of independent Baptist fundamentalism, the KJV-Only position moved from the edges of independent Baptist life to the very center.  

         Many independent Baptists attempted to retain both the earlier “inspired TR” position of the 1970s while also accommodating the more extreme “inspired KJV” position of Ruckman and Hyles.  One example of the compromise was in Curtis Hutson’s successor at the Sword of the Lord, Shelton Smith.  On March 6, 2009, Smith wrote in the Sword:

The Bible was inspired once (when it was written in Hebrew and Greek.)  That is how we received it from Heaven.  As the centuries have come and gone, the Lord has marvelously and miraculously preserved His inspired word for us today.  Let us be clear on this.  We have His inspired Word in the Hebrew Masoretic Text of the Old Testament and the Greek Textus Receptus text of the New Testament.

This position reflects both the early Baptist position of 1689, as well as the TR-only position of the 1970s.  However, Smith offers a modern effort to combine both the perfect, inspired original preserved manuscripts and the perfect, inspirited KJV – without giving up either position.  He did this through an equivocal use of the word “preserved.”  Instead of applying to Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, he now applied it to an English translation.  He made this leap by insisting that the KJV is a perfect translation: 

We have his inspired Word preserved for us in English in the King James Bible…Remember there is no conflict between the Hebrew/Greek text and the English Bible, because they are all the perfect Word of God.  Any perception of a problem is our lack of understanding and not a problem with the text. As I hold the King James Bible in my hands, if it is not the inspired Word of God, then what is it?

So then…

         It should be fairly clear that the KJV-Only tradition is not uniform, and that it was not a central part of the independent Baptist tradition until the 1980s.  While this has no direct bearing on whether it is an accurate position or not, it does require us to distinguish between the KJV-Only position and the distinctives of historic independent Baptists, as it was never a distinguishing characteristic of that group until a little more than 35 years ago.  

Conclusion

         We deeply desire that Baptist brethren may remain friends, even though we may use different translations of the inspired Word of God.  We hope to remain in the tradition of independent Baptists who, prior to 1980, used differing translations and had varying views of the original texts.  We believe firmly that demanding conformity on an issue that is so new to the Christian faith is unwise and is counterproductive to the advancement of the gospel.  We suggest that ecclesiastical separation over this issue has weakened the American church and subsequently weakened her ability to evangelize the nations.  We want you to use a translation of the Bible you believe to be trustworthy while affording others the same privilege.  In short, we want to remain friends.  We must dialogue, disagree, but ultimately decide to stand together against the advancement of the enemy and strive together for the sake of the gospel.  In doing so, we will not only please our Master in Heaven, but we will accurately fall in line with the historic Baptist position on biblical inspiration and Bible translations.

I’d love to hear from you.  Do you have other historical documentation regarding the King James Only debate?  Can you document other well-known independent Baptist leaders speaking about this issue prior to 1980?  I’d love to continue the dialogue.  Feel free to comment below… 


[1] LEAVE IT ALONE!  Why even address this issue?  The answer is simple.  Over the last 35 years good men and solid churches have been bullied into theological conformity at the threat of separation and isolation.  If someone didn’t agree with the newly established KJV-Only position they would be mocked at conferences, black-balled in missions agencies, and separated from in pastoral fellowships.  This contemporary doctrine has become a litmus test for cooperation among “independent” Baptists.  This has aided in the splintering of a once-great-movement of God. It’s time we ask ourselves 3 questions.  Was the division caused by the KJV-Only advocates pleasing to the Lord Jesus?  From whence did this doctrine arise?  What are we going to do about it going forward?

[2] Here is the first of three: http://joshuateis.com/2019/10/31/are-we-ready-a-question-for-those-who-love-the-kjv/

[3] Matthew Lyon is a dear friend and passionate historian.  Matt has received his ThM in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary, has earned his PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, and serves as the Sr. Pastor of the Chesapeake Baptist Church in Maryland.  He is also the host of History & Hope Podcast that can be found here!

[4] That is, Baptist churches unaffiliated with any formal denominations or organizations, and who originated with churches that left the Southern Baptist Convention in the middle of the 20th century.  These churches, often called IFB, or Independent Fundamental Baptists, should also be distinguished from other independent Baptist associations, like the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), who, while they share many characteristics with IFB churches, are not typically KJV Only.

[5] It was (and is) common for defenders of the KJV to appeal to the long history of the version and its positive use by Christians as evidence that is should continue to be the only “Authorized Version.” This was not a new argument; it was used by the Roman Catholic Church to defend their own “Authorized Version” the Latin Vulgate as the only allowable Bible.  The Vulgate was translated by St. Jerome in the 5th century, and in 1545, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent declared “the old Latin Vulgate Edition, which, in use for so many hundred years, has been approved by the Church, be in public lectures disputations, sermons and expositions held as authentic, and that no one dare or presume under any pretext whatsoever to reject it” (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, p. 18).

The final article (Bible for the Common Man) in this series will be coauthored by my friend Mark Ward who wrote the fascinating book AUTHORIZED: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible.  You can pick up a copy of his book here.  It will be released soon, at which point I hope to move on to other theological and ministerial topics of interest and take a long break from the KJV conversation.

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10 Comments

  • Reply
    Virginia Heyne
    November 25, 2019 at 7:48 pm

    Most of my life has been spent in IFB churches and KJVO was the standard. I do appreciate your blog posts on this matter and have a dear friend that is adamant about only using the KJV with no sense of how to reach the unsaved that don’t understand the king’s english. I’ve seen many, many people come to know Jesus through the use of the NIV and other translations. This is all that matters – that people come to know Jesus. I still use the KJV, but I know that other translations have their place in reaching unbelievers.

  • Reply
    Nathan W
    November 25, 2019 at 7:54 pm

    “it became apparent that translation issues in the Old Testament threatened fundamentalist beliefs,”
    This seems to be the heart of the issue. Prominent evangelicals such as Hyles began teaching theology that was heavily based on the specific wording of the KJV. Many IFB (and a few other denominations) were indirectly taught that the specific words of the KJV translation were not only inspired, but also theologically important.
    Because of this focus, evangelicals used an absurd criteria to evaluate new translations. Rather than see if the translation best represented the original teaching, they instead checked to see if the translation best represented their own theology.
    Gail Riplinger’s books, such as New Age Bible Versions, were extremely popular among IFB circles, despite the terrible scholarship. The focus of these types of books was more about how new versions were doctrinally different from the KJV (rather than seeing if they were better translations, and the doctrines needed modifying).

  • Reply
    Richard A Kaszak
    November 25, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    Very good and balanced article.

    Prepare for incoming!!

  • Reply
    Larry
    November 25, 2019 at 10:14 pm

    Just a minor point but the old Testament was written in two language Hebrew and Aramaic.

  • Reply
    Stuart
    November 25, 2019 at 10:31 pm

    Could add Billy Graham and his influence and quotes? He used the Kjv to begin with and was one of the 20th century’s biggest influencers for evangelism.

  • Reply
    Marty Fletcher
    November 25, 2019 at 10:57 pm

    Great article! One resource that’s helped me on this issue is “One Bible Only?” by Kevin Bauder of Central Baptist Seminary, Minneapolis. Mark Ward’s book is also very helpful and easy to read. Looking forward to the next post!

  • Reply
    David Talley
    November 26, 2019 at 12:39 am

    My context: I’ve been the pastor a small IFB church for over 14 years. Our church is also a member of the GARBC. Constitutionally (from 1975) our church is required to use the KJV only in the pulpit and also in teaching Sunday School. More than half our congregation use some other English version. I still use the KJV most of the time in most contexts. But, I almost never use it when speaking to the unchurched. Early in my ministry I saw too many people’s eyes glass over (like I had switched languages on them) when I quoted the king’s English to them. All that to say, I appreciate the spirit of your article.

  • Reply
    Seth Alcorn
    November 27, 2019 at 12:35 am

    Josh,

    I have devoted more time in study to this subject than I would like to admit and honestly from personal relationships perspective it has costs us dearly since we walked away from the KJVO position. One thing I found that was of great interest to me is that the KJVO movement actually was started by a man named Benjamin G. Wilkinson in the 1930’s. He was a 7th Day Adventist and pushed KJVO because the KjV favored his Adventist doctrinal position. A Baptist named David Otis Fuller took his work and plagiarized it but hid the fact that he was an Adventist. The rest is history. Gary Hudson documents this on YouTube. I believe it is on the C&A answers or something like that. Thanks for the words brother,
    Seth

  • Reply
    David Dickerson
    November 27, 2019 at 6:59 pm

    Good article. Thanks for being brave enough to publish. I have found a wealth of material from Dallas Theological on translations to help. Daniel Wallace is one such scholar on the matter. I highly recommend his work if you want cited facts instead of opinion alone. There is in general a lack of understanding of church history in IFB circles. Also, many of them refuse to teach Greek to pastoral students. This lends to the misrepresentation of translations. Especially what happened during the rise of the Byzantine empire.

  • Reply
    Aaron
    November 27, 2019 at 11:50 pm

    You wrote, “The W-H text used newly found manuscripts that, though few in number, were much older than the manuscripts behind the TR”. About how many manuscripts do you think stand behind the TR?

    Also, keep reading that 1689LBC

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