The following essay by George P. Marsh is reproduced from his Lectures on the English Language (4th ed., New York: Charles Scribner, 1861), pp. 617-43. The page numbers are inserted into the text in square brackets.



The revised version of the Bible, now in general use wherever the English tongue is spoken, was executed by order of King James I., and was completed and published in the year 1611.

Its relations to the English language are, for a variety of reasons, more important than those of any other volume; and it may be said, with no less truth, that no Continental translation has occupied an equally influential position in the philology and the literature of the language to which it belongs. The English Bible has been more universally read, more familiarly known and understood, by those who use its speech, than any other version, old or new. In the sixteenth century, the English people was more generally and more thoroughly protestantized than any other nation, and, of course, among them the Bible had a freer and more diffused circulation than it had ever attained elsewhere; for though, in individual German States, the reformed religion soon became the exclusive faith of the people, yet those States formed but a portion of the Germanic nation. Although, therefore, the philological as well as the religious influence [p. 618] of Luther’s translation was very great, yet it only indirectly and incidentally affected the speech of that great multitude of Teutons who neither accepted the creed of Luther, nor made use of his version.

Again: the discussion of the principles of the Reformation and of their collateral results, as a living practical question, connected not only with men’s hopes of a future life, but, through civil government, with their dearest interests in this, was longer continued in England than in any other European State. The puritan movement kept the debate alive in Great Britain long after the wordy war was ended, and men had resorted to the last argument of Kings, in the Continental nations. From the year 1611, the Bible in King James’s version was generally appealed to as the last resort in all fundamental questions both of church and state; for even those Protestant denominations, which gave the greatest weight to tradition, allowed the paramount authority of Scripture, and admitted that traditions irreconcilable with the words of that volume, were not of binding force. From the accession of Elizabeth, therefore, and more especially from that of James, until the Acts of Uniformity, early in the reign of Charles II., for a time extinguished the religious liberties of England, the theological and political questions, which most concerned man’s interests in this world and his happiness in that which is to come, were perpetually presented to every thinking Englishman, as points which he not only might, but must, decide for himself at his peril, and that by lights drawn, directly or indirectly, from the one source of instruction to which all appealed as the final arbiter. For these reasons, the Bible became known to the mind, and incorporated into the heart and the speech, of the Anglican people to a greater extent than any other book ever entered [p. 619] into the life of man, with the possible exception of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Homeric poems, and the Arabic Koran.

Although particular points in the authorized version were objected to by the more zealous partisans on both sides of the controversy respectively, and though the English Prayer-Book continued to employ an older translation in the passages of scripture introduced into that ritual, yet the new revision commended itself so generally to the sound judgment of all parties, that in a generation or two, it superseded all others, and has now, for more than two centuries, maintained its position as an oracular expression of religious truth, and at the same time as the first classic of our literature—the highest exemplar of purity and beauty of language existing in our speech.

Those who assent to the views which have been so often expressed in these lectures, respecting the reciprocal relations between words, individual or combined, and mental action, will admit that the influence, not of Christian doctrine alone, but of the verbal form in which that doctrine has been embodied, upon the intellectual character of the Anglican people, can hardly be over-estimated. Modern philologists, Europeans even, have not been the first to discover the close relation which subsists between formulas, the ipsissima verba of the apostle, and the faith he proclaims. The believing Jew reads the Pentateuch not only in its original tongue, but, as he supposes, in a form approximating to the very inflectional and accentual utterance with which its revelations fell from the lips of Moses; and the pious Moslem allows no translation, no modernization, of the precepts of the Prophet, but contends that the inspired words of the Koran have survived, unchanged, the lapse of twelve centuries. There is little doubt that the immutability of form in the [p. 620] sacred codes of these nations is one of the most important among the causes which have given their religions such a rooted, tenacious hold upon the minds and hearts of those who profess them; and the same remark applies, with almost equal force, to the modern Greeks, who, in their religious services, employ the original text, and to the Armenians, who use a very ancient translation of the New Testament. In like manner, the strict adherence of the Popish church to the Vulgate, and to ancient forms of speech, in all the religious uses of language, is one of the great elements of strength on which the Papacy relies.

The Hebrew and the Arab, the Brahmin and the Buddhist, the Oriental and the Latin Christian, inherit, with the blood of their ancestors, if not precisely the popular speech, at least the sacred dialect of their legislators and their prophets; but the Greek and Latin languages were too remote from the speech of the Gothic nations, to have ever served as a vehicle for imparting popular instruction of any sort among those tribes. Hence, the earliest missionaries to the Germanic and Scandinavian nations learned to address them in the vernacular tongue: portions, more or less complete, of the Scriptures, and of other religious books, were very early translated into the Northern dialects; and every man, who adopted Christianity and the culture which everywhere accompanied it, imbibed its precepts through the accents of his own particular maternal speech. Accordingly, though English Protestantism has long had its one unchanged standard of faith, common to all who use the English speech, yet Protestant Christianity, from the number and diversity of the languages it embraces, has no such point of union, no common formulas; and this is one of the reasons why the [p. 621] English people, with all their nominal divisions, and multitudinous visible organizations, have not split up into such a wide variety, and so extreme a range of actual opinion, as the Protestants of the Continent. Whatever theories, therefore, may be entertained respecting the evils of a rigorous national conformity to particular symbols—whatever views may be held with regard to the growth, progress and fluctuations of language—both the theologian and the philologist will admit, that a certain degree of permanence in the standards of religious faith and of grammatical propriety is desirable. The authorized version of the Bible satisfies this reasonable conservatism on both points; and it is, therefore, a matter of much literary as well as religious interest, that it should remain intact, so long as it continues able to discharge the functions which have been appointed to it as a spiritual and a philological instructor.

I do not propose any inquiry into its fidelity, simply as a presentation of the doctrinal precepts of Christianity, both because such a discussion would here be inappropriate, and because the general accuracy of the version is so well established, that it is hardly questioned by those who are most zealous for a revision of its dialect. Its relations to our literature and the social and moral interests of the Anglican family, considered simply as a composition, are, however, a subject well worthy of examination. In the first place, then, the dialect of this translation was not, at the time of the revision, or, indeed, at any other period, the actual current book-language, nor the colloquial speech of the English people. This is a point of much importance, because the contrary opinion has been almost universally taken for granted; and hence very mistaken views have been, and still are, [p. 622] entertained respecting the true relations of the diction of that version to the national tongue. It was an assemblage of the best forms of expression applicable to the communication of religious truth that then existed, or had existed in any and all the successive stages through which English had passed in its entire history. Fuller, indeed, informs us that when a boy, he was told by a day-laborer of Northamptonshire, that the version in question agreed nearly with the dialect of his county; but, though it may have more closely resembled the language of that shire, and though it certainly most nearly approximated to the popular speech in those parts of the realm where English was best spoken, yet, when it appeared, it was by no means regarded as an embodiment of the everyday language of the time. On the contrary, its archaisms, its rejection of the Latinisms of the Rhemish Romanist version, and its elevation above the vulgarisms of the market and the kitchen, were assailed by the same objections which are urged against it at the present moment.

The position of the revisers and of their public was entirely different from that of Luther and the German people, when the great Reformer undertook the task of giving his countrymen the Bible in their own tongue; and, accordingly, very different principles were properly adopted by the German and the English translators. German bibles indeed existed before Luther, but they were too strongly marked with dialectic peculiarities—too incorrect and too much tinctured with Romish opinion—to serve even as the foundation of a revision; and they had not been widely enough circulated to have diffused among the people any familiar acquaintance with the contents of the sacred volume. The aim of Luther was to give to the high and the low of the Teutonic race access to [p. 623] the authority on which he based his doctrines, in a form for the first time generally intelligible, and scrupulously faithful to the original text. He had before him no repository of a sacred, and yet universally understood, phraseology; and, as a teacher of the people, he could only make himself comprehended by using the dialect, which was the familiar everyday speech of the largest portion of the people of his native land. Hence, as he says himself, he composed the phraseology he adopted, out of the living vocabulary, which he heard employed around him in the street, the market, the field and the workshop, and formed a diction out of elements common to the speech of the whole Germanic race. The translation of Luther was, no doubt, most readily intelligible in the provinces where he had acquired his own vernacular; but it was so thoroughly idiomatic, so penetrated with the fundamental spirit of the Teutonic speech, that it soon obtained a wide circulation, and was easily understood in provinces whose popular dialect appeared to be very discrepant from that of Luther. Low-German retranslations of this version, indeed, were published, but they did not long continue in use; and for nearly three centuries Luther’s text has been the only one employed in religious teaching in Protestant Germany, however widely the local speech may differ from it. To secure its first introduction to masses ignorant of the Bible and without a consecrated dialect, it was necessary that it should be clothed in words most readily intelligible to those whom Luther desired to reach; but, that extreme familiarity of diction is not a permanent necessity in religious instruction, is shown by the fact that that version, and with it the High-German dialect, have become almost the sole vehicle for the [p. 624] dissemination of Protestant Christianity wherever any branch of the Teutonic tongue is spoken.

Not only is the High-German translation universally read, but, with few exceptions, pulpit and catechetical instruction is conveyed in High-German throughout the Platt-Deutsch or Low-German provinces; and we learn from Kohl, that even in the Frisic districts, where classical German is almost a foreign tongue, the peasantry both comprehend the High-German of their pastors, and habitually employ its vocabulary themselves in relation to all religious topics, though not able to converse in it fluently on other subjects.

The translators, or rather the revisers, of the English Bible of 1611 and the British people stood, as I have said, in a totally different relation to each other. These translators were not the teachers of a new doctrine: the public they addressed were not neophytes or strangers to the contents or the phraseology of the volume now again to be spread before them. England had been Protestant, already, for almost three-fourths of a century; and there were comparatively few of the English people who had not been taught the precepts of that faith, and made familiar with its oracles in their very cradle, through the translations of Tyndale, Coverdale and others, which were made the basis, and furnished the staple, of the new recension. Hence the doctrines and the diction of the New Testament, which they found nearly unchanged in that recension, had become almost a part of their very consciousness; and there was no occasion to exchange, for a more common or a more artificial speech, the forms of words in which they had already learned whatever of most sacred Protestantism and the Protestant Bible had to teach [sic].Wycliffe and his school in the fourteenth, [p. 625] Tyndale early in the sixteenth, Coverdale, Cranmer, the Genevan, and other translators at a later period in the same century, had gradually built up a consecrated diction, which, though not, as it certainly was not, composed of a vulgar vocabulary, was, nevertheless, in that religious age, as perfectly intelligible to every English protestant as the words of the nursery and the fireside.

In fact, with here and there an exception, the difference between Tyndale’s New Testament and that of 1611, is scarcely greater than is found between any two manuscript copies of most modern works which have undergone frequent transcription; and Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s, Cranmer’s, the Bishops’, the Genevan, and the standard version, coincide so nearly with each other, both in sense and in phraseology, that we may hear whole chapters of any of them read without noticing that they deviate from the text to which we have always been accustomed. When, then, we study our Testaments, we are in most cases perusing the identical words penned by the martyr Tyndale, nearly three hundred and fifty years ago; and hitherto the language of English protestant faith and doctrine may fairly be said to have undergone no change.

I remarked that the dialect of the authorized version was not the popular English of the time, but simply a revision of older translations. It is almost equally true, that the diction of Wycliffe and of Tyndale was not that of the secular literature of their times. The language of Wycliffe’s Testament differs nearly as much from even the religious prose writings of his contemporary and follower, Chaucer, as does that of our own Bible from the best models of literary composition in the present day; and it is a still more remarkable [p. 626] and important fact, that the style, which Wycliffe himself employs in his controversial and other original works, is a very different one from that in which he clothed his translation. This circumstance seems to give some countenance to the declaration of Sir Thomas More, otherwise improbable, that there existed English Bibles long before Wycliffe; and hence we might suppose that his labors and those of his school were confined to the revision of still earlier versions. But although English paraphrases, mostly metrical, of different parts of the Bible were executed at the very commencement of our literature, yet there is no sufficient ground to believe that there were any prose translations of such extent and fidelity as to serve for a basis of revision; and the oldest known complete translation of the Old Testament, the earlier text in the late Oxford edition of the Wycliffe versions, has very much the aspect of a first essay.

This, down to the twentieth verse of the third chapter of Baruch, is believed to have been the work of Nicolas de Hereford, a coadjutor of Wycliffe—the remainder of the Old Testament, and the whole of the New having been, as there is good cause to believe, translated by Wycliffe himself. 1 Purvey’s recension, executed very soon after, is a great improvement upon Hereford, who closely followed the Latinisms of the Vulgate; but Purvey founded his diction upon that of Wycliffe, and the philological difference between the two is by no means important.

[p. 627] The difference between the version of Wycliffe and that of Tyndale was occasioned partly by the change of the language in the course of two centuries, and partly by the difference of the texts from which they translated; and from these two causes, the discrepancies between the two versions are much greater than those between Tyndale’s, which was completed in 1526, and the standard version which appeared only eighty-five years later. But, nevertheless, the influence of Wycliffe upon Tyndale is too palpable to be mistaken, and it cannot be disguised by the grammatical differences, which are the most important points of discrepancy between them. If we reduce the orthography of both to the same standard, conform the inflections of the fourteenth to those of the sixteenth century, and make the other changes which would suggest themselves to an Englishman translating from the Greek instead of from the Vulgate, we shall find a much greater resemblance between the two versions than a similar process would produce between secular authors of the periods to which they respectively belong. Tyndale is merely a full-grown Wycliffe, and his recension of the New Testament is just what his great predecessor would have made it, had he awaked again to see the dawn of that glorious day, of which his own life and labors kindled the morning twilight. Not only does Tyndale retain the general grammatical structure of the older version, but most of its felicitous verbal combinations, and, what is more remarkable, he preserves even the rhythmic flow of its periods, which is again repeated in the recension of 1611. Wycliffe, then, must be considered as having originated the diction and phraseology, which for five centuries has constituted the consecrated dialect of the English speech; and Tyndale as having given to it that finish and perfection, which have so admirably adapted it to the [p. 628] expression of religious doctrine and sentiment, and to the narration of the remarkable series of historical facts which are recorded in the Christian Scriptures. 2 If we compare Tyndale’s New Testament with the works of his contemporaries, Lord Berners and Sir Thomas More, or the authorized version with the prose of Shakespeare, and Raleigh, and Bacon, or other writers of the same date, we shall find very nearly, if not quite, as great a difference in all the essentials of their diction, as between the authorized version and the best written narratives or theological discussions of the present day. But, in spite of this diversity, the language of the authorized translation, as a religious dialect, is and always has been very familiar to the English people; and I do not hesitate to avow my conviction that if any body of scholars, of competent Greek and Hebrew learning, were now to undertake, not a revision of the existing version, but a new translation founded on the principle of employing the current phraseology of the day, it would be found much less intelligible to the mass of English-speaking people than the standard version at this moment is. If the Bible is less understood than it was at earlier periods, which I by no means believe, it is because it is less studied; and the true remedy is, not to lower its tone to a debased standard of intelligence, but to educate the understandings of the Anglican people up to the [p. 629] comprehension of the purest and most idiomatic forms of expression which belong to their mother tongue.

The general result of a comparison between the diction of the English Bible and that of the secular literature of England is, that we have had, from the very dawn of our literature, a sacred and a profane dialect, the former eminently native, idiomatic, vernacular, and permanent, the latter composite, heterogeneous, irregular, and fluctuating; the one pure, natural, and expressive, the other mixed, and comparatively distorted and conventional.

It is unfortunate that the unwise economy, which has been too often observed in reprinting the scriptures, should have, in the common editions, omitted the Translators’ Address to the Reader; though it must be allowed that that address by no means acknowledges the full extent of the obligations which the revisers were under to earlier laborers in the same field. The reason of this silence was that the older translations were in every man’s hands, and the fact that the new edition was but an adaptation of them was too notorious to need to be stated in detail; but it is nevertheless singular, that not one of the former English versions should have been referred to by name. The revisers content themselves with this general statement: “We never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath beene our endeavor, that our marke.” And most successful were they in attaining to that mark, in embodying in their revision the result of the labors of many generations, and of hundreds of scholars, and in making it a summing up of the linguistic equations solved in three centuries of Biblical exposition, an [p. 630] anthology of all the beauties developed in the language during its whole historical existence.

Such is the general history and character of the received version. But what are its relations past and present to the language, of which it is the purest and most beautiful example? I have said its diction was not the colloquial or literary dialect of any period of the English language. It is even now scarcely further removed from the current phraseology of life and of books than it was two hundred years since. The subsequent movement of the English speech has not been in a right line of recession from the scriptural dialect. It has been rather a curve of revolution around it. Were it not carrying the metaphor too far, I would say it is an elliptical curve, and that the speech of England has now been brought by it much nearer to that great solar centre, that focus of genial warmth and cheerful light, than it was a century ago, when hundreds of words in its vocabulary, now as familiar as the alphabet, were complained of as strange or obsolete. 3 In fact the English Bible sustains, and [p. 631] always has sustained to the general Anglican tongue, the position of a treatise upon a special knowledge requiring, like any branch of science, a special nomenclature and phraseology. The language of the law, for example, in both vocabulary and structure, differs widely from that of unprofessional life; the language of medicine, of metaphysics, of astronomy, of chemistry, of mechanical art, all these have their appropriate idioms, very diverse from the speech which is the common heritage of all. Why, then, should theology, the highest of knowledges, alone be required to file her tongue to the vulgar utterance, when every other human interest has its own appropriate expression, which no man thinks of conforming to a standard, that, because it is too common, can hardly be other than unclean?

There is one important distinction between the dialect of the scriptures, considered as an exposition of a theology, and that of a science or profession. The sciences, all secular knowledges, in fact, are mutable and progressive, and of course, as they change and advance, their nomenclature must vary in the same proportion. The doctrine of the Bible, on the other hand, is a thing fixed and unchangeable, and when it has once found a fitting expression in the words of a given language, there is in general no reason why those words should not continue to be used, so long as the language of which they form a part continues to exist. There are many words in the English Bible which are strictly technical, and never were employed as a part of the common dialect, or for any other purpose than the particular use to which they are consecrated in that volume; there are others which belong both to the appropriate expression of religious doctrine, and to the speech of common life, and of these latter, some very few have become obsolete, so far as their popular, [p. 632] every-day use is concerned; but they still retain in religious phraseology the signification they possessed when introduced into the English translation.

Now the same thing is true with reference to all other knowledges which possess special nomenclatures. There are in law, medicine, chemistry, the mechanic arts, many words always exclusively appropriated to the service of those arts; others, once familiar and common, but which no longer form a part of the general vocabulary of the language, and which are at present restricted to scientific and professional use; and here the phraseology of the scriptures, and that of other special studies, stand in precisely the same relations to the common language of the people. Each has, and always must have, a special dialect, because it is a speciality itself, and has numerous ideas not common to any other department of human thought and action. And not only is this true of the language of science, and of art, but of the dialect which belongs to all the higher workings of the intellect. No man acquainted with both literature and life supposes that the speech of the personages of Shakespeare’s tragedies, or of the actors in Milton’s great epic, was the actual colloquial phraseology of their times; and it is as absurd to object to the language of the scriptures, because it is not the language of the street, as to criticise Shakespeare and Milton, because their human and superhuman heroes speak in the artificial dialect of poetry, and not in the tones of vulgar humanity.

To attempt a new translation of the Bible, in the hope of finding within the compass of the English language a clearer, a more appropriate, or a more forcible diction than that of the standard version, is to betray an ignorance of the capabilities of our native speech, with which it would be in vain to reason, [p. 633] and I suppose no scholars, whose opinions are entitled to respect, seriously propose any thing beyond a revision, which should limit itself to the correction of ascertained errors, the introduction of greater uniformity of expression, and the substitution of modern words for such as have become either obsolete, or so changed in meaning as to convey to the unlearned a mistaken impression.

The most general objection to any present attempt at revision has been well stated by Trench, namely: that “we are not as yet in any respect prepared for it; the Greek and the English which should enable us to bring this to a successful end, might, it is to be feared, be wanting alike.” In fact I doubt whether any impartial scholar has ever examined any of the modern attempts at revision, without finding more changes for the worse than for the better, and there is one particular in which, so far as I have looked into them, they all sin alike. I refer to the use of the tenses. Revisers have attempted to establish a parity between the tenses of the Greek and English verbs which can hardly be made out, and so far is this carried in some of them, as for example, in the Gospel of John, as revised by five English clergymen, by far the most judicious modern recension known to me, that an American cannot help suspecting that the tenses are coming to have in England a force which they have not now in this country, and never heretofore have had in English literature.

In a lecture on the principles of translation, I laid down the rule, that a translator ought to adopt a dialect belonging to that period in the history of his own language, when its vocabulary and its grammar were in the condition most nearly corresponding to those of his original. Now, when the version of Wycliffe appeared, English was in a state of [p. 634] growth and formation, and the same observation applies, though with less force, to the period of Tyndale. The Greek of the New Testament, on the other hand, was in a state of resolution. It had become less artificial in structure than the classical dialect, more approximated to modern syntactical construction, and the two languages, by development on the one hand, decay on the other, had been brought in the sixteenth century to a certain similarity of condition. Besides, the New Testament Greek was under the same necessity as early English, of borrowing or inventing a considerable number of new terms and phrases to express the new ideas which Christianity had ingrafted on the Jewish theology; of creating, in fact, a special sacred phraseology; and hence there is very naturally a closer resemblance between the religious dialect of English, as framed by the Reformers, and that of the New Testament, than between the common literary style of England and the Greek of the classic ages. It will generally be found that the passages of the received version, whose diction is most purely Saxon, are not only most forcible in expression, but also the most faithful transcripts of the text, and that a Latinized style is seldom employed without loss of beauty of language, and at the same time of exactness in correspondence. 4 Whatever questions may be raised respecting the accuracy with which particular passages are rendered, there seems to be no difference of opinion among scholars really learned in the English tongue, [p. 635] as to the exceeding appropriateness of the style of the authorized version; and the attempt to bring down that style to the standard of to-day is as great an absurdity, and implies as mistaken views of the true character and office of human language, and especially of our maternal speech, as would be displayed by translating the comedies of Shakespeare into the dialect of the popular farces of the season.

There is another consideration, the force of which can hardly be fully apparent except to persons familiar with philological pursuits, and especially with the scriptural languages, and with early English. The subjects of the Testaments, Old and New, are taken from very primitive and inartificial life. With the exception of the writings of Paul, and in a less degree of Luke, there is little evidence of literary culture, or of a wide and varied range of thought in their authors. They narrate plain facts, and they promulgate doctrines, profound indeed, but addressed less to the speculative and discursive, than to the moral and spiritual faculties, and hence, whatever may have been the capabilities of Hebrew, and of classical Greek for other purposes, the vocabulary of the whole Bible is narrow in extent, and extremely simple in character. Now, in the early part of the sixteenth century, when the development of our religious dialect was completed, the English mind, and the English language, were generally in a state of culture much more analogous to that of the people and the tongues of Palestine, than they have been at any subsequent period. Two centuries later, the native speech had been greatly subtilized, if not refined. Good vernacular words had been supplanted by foreign intruders, comprehensive ideas and their vocabulary had been split up into artificially discriminated thoughts, and a corresponding multitude [p. 636] and variety of terms. The language in fact had become too copious, and too specific, to have any true correspondences with so simple and inartificial a diction as that of the Christian Scriptures. Had the Bible then, for the first time, appeared in an English dress, the translators would have been perplexed and confounded with the multitude of terms, each expressing a fragment, few the whole, of the meaning of the original words for which they must stand; and, whereas, three hundred years ago, but one good translation was possible, the eighteenth century might have produced a dozen, none altogether good, but none much worse than another. We may learn from a paragraph in Trench what a different vocabulary the Bible would have displayed, if it had been first executed or thoroughly revised at that period. One commentator, he says, thought the phrase “clean escaped ” a very low expression; another would reject “straightway, haply, twain, athirst, wax, (in the sense of grow,) lack, ensample, jeopardy, garner, passion,” as obsolete; while the author of a new translation condemns as clownish, barbarous, base, hard, technical, misapplied or new-coined, such words as beguile, boisterous, lineage, perseverance, potentate, remit, shorn, swerved, vigilant, unloose, unction, vocation, and hundreds of others now altogether approved and familiar.

From what I have said, it will of course be understood, that I see no sufficient present reasons for a new translation, or even for a revision of the authorized version of the Bible; but there are certain considerations, distinct from the question of the merits of that version, which ought to be suggested. The moral and intellectual nature of man has few more difficult practical problems to resolve than that of tracing and following the golden mean between a passion for [p. 637] novelty and an ultra-conservative attachment to the time-honored and the old. Both extremes are inherently, perhaps equally mischievous, but the love of innovation is the more dangerous, because the future is more uncertain than the past, and because the irreverent and thoughtless wantonness of an hour, may destroy that which only the slow and painful labor of years or of centuries can rebuild. The elements which enter into the formation of public opinion on great questions of church and state are so very numerous, and their mutual relations and influences are so obscure, that it is difficult to control and impossible to predict the course of that opinion. In. free states, ecclesiastical and political institutions are of themselves in so mutable a condition, that any voluntary infusion of disturbing ingredients is generally quite superfluous, and under most circumstances not a little hazardous. Intimately connected with the changes of opinion on these great subjects are the changes constantly going on in language, and which so many circumstances in modern society are accelerating with such startling rapidity. Fluctuations in language are not merely a consequence, they are yet more truly an indication, and a cause of corresponding fluctuations in moral and intellectual action. Whoever, therefore, uses an important word in a new sense, is contributing to change the popular acceptation, and finally the settled meaning, of all formulas in which that word is an element. Whoever substitutes for an old word of well understood signification a new vocable or phrase, unsettles, with the formulas into which it enters, the opinions of those who have habitually clothed their convictions in those stereotyped forms, and thus introduces, first, doubt, and then, departure from long received and acknowledged truth. Experience has taught jurists that in the revision or amendment of statutes, [p. 638] and in sanctioning and adopting by legislative enactment current principles of unwritten law, it is a matter of the first importance to employ a phraseology whose precise import has been fixed by a long course of judicial decisions, and it has been found impossible in practice to change the language of the law, for the purpose of either modernizing or making it otherwise more definite, familiar or intelligible, without at the same time changing the law itself. Words and ideas are so inseparably connected, they become in a sense so connatural, that we cannot change the one without modifying the other. Every man who knows his own language finds the modernization of an old author, substantially a new book. It is not, as is often pretended, a putting of old thoughts into a new dress. It is the substitution of a new thought more or less divergent from the original type. Language is not the dress of thought; it is its living expression, and it controls both the physiognomy and the organization of the idea it utters.

A new translation of the Bible, therefore, or an essential modification of the existing version, is substantially a new book, a new Bible, another revelation; and the authors of such an enterprise are assuming no less a responsibility than that of disturbing, not the formulas only, but the faith of centuries. Nothing but a solemn conviction of the absolute necessity of such a measure can justify a step involving consequences so serious, and there are but two grounds on which the attempt to change what millions regard as the very Words of Life, can be defended These grounds, of course, are, first, the incorrectness of the received version, and secondly, such a change in the language of ordinary life, as removes it so far from the dialect of that version, that it is no longer intelligible without an amount of special philological [p. 639] study out of the reach of the masses who participate in the universal instruction of the age.

Upon this latter point, I can only recapitulate what I have already said, in expressing my decided opinion that the diction of the English Bible in general cannot be brought nearer the dialect of the present day, without departing from the style of the original, in the same proportion as it is made to approximate to more modern forms, and a more diversified vocabulary. At the same time, it is not to be denied, that modern criticism has established some better readings of the original text, detected some unimportant misinterpretations of undisputed readings, and pointed out some deviations from idiomatic propriety of expression in the English of our version. None will dispute that the removal of all such blemishes would be highly desirable, but there is little reason to suppose that such an improvement is practicable at the present moment, or that the attempt could now be made, without the hazard of incurring greater evils than those which, by any large body of competent judges, are now believed to exist. That there is any special present necessity for a revision cannot be seriously pretended, and a strong, perhaps I should say, a decisive objection against a present attempt to revise, is the state of existing knowledge with respect both to the ancient and the modern languages concerned in the translation. There is no sufficient reason to doubt, that at the end of this century the knowledge of biblical Greek and Hebrew will be as much in advance of the present standard, as that standard is before the sacred philology of the beginning of the century; and there are, on the other hand, the strongest grounds for believing that English in its history, its true significance, its power, will then be better understood, and more ably wielded than at this day it is, [p. 640] or can be. The critical study of English has but just commenced. We are at the beginning of a new era in its history. Great as are its powers, men are beginning to feel that its necessities are still greater. There is among its authors, an evident stretching out for additional facilities of expression, and as a means to this end, a deeper reaching down into the wells of its latent capabilities, and hence, as I have so often remarked, a more general and zealous study of those ancient forms of English, out of which was built up the consecrated dialect of our mother-tongue. A revision of the English Bible, then, is at the present time not merely unnecessary, but, with reference to our knowledge of language, wholly premature, and whatever is now done in this way will assuredly be thrown aside as worthless, whenever changes in the English speech, or the discovery of important errors in the received translation, shall make the want of a better a real want.

The present is an unfavorable moment in some other respects. The acuteness of German criticism, the speculations of German philosophy and theology, have given rise to a great multitude and diversity of opinions, not on questions of verbal interpretation merely, but of doctrine also, which are but just now beginning to be openly and freely discussed in this country and in England, and the minds of men are now perhaps more unsettled on these topics than they have been at any time for three centuries. It is highly improbable, that, leaving the question of competency aside, a sufficient number of biblical scholars could be found even within the limits of any one Protestant denomination in either country, whose theological views so far harmonize, that they would agree in new forms of expression upon points now under discussion; and, of course, between them and scholars [p. 641] of other denominations, the discrepancy would be still wider, so that every sect, however few in numbers, which feels the want of a revision, would be under the necessity of framing one for itself. There seems, however, to be some reason for believing, that when the excitement growing out of the novelty of the discussions which are going on, in lay as well as clerical circles, shall have subsided, there will be a more general concurrence of opinion, both in denominations and between them; and then there is room to hope that increased harmony and increased knowledge may conspire to give the English Bible a greater perfection in point of accuracy and of expression, and at the same time a catholic adaptation to both the future speech and the future opinion of English and American Protestant Christianity.

The objections against a multitude of sectarian translations are very serious. The dialect of the English Bible is also the dialect of devotion and of religious instruction wherever the English language is spoken, and all denominations substantially agree in their sacred phraseology, with whatever difference of interpretation. There are always possibilities of reconciliation, sympathies even, between men who, in matters of high concernment, habitually use the same words, and appeal to the same formulas; whereas a difference of language and of symbols creates an almost impassable gulf between man and man. When, therefore, we have, not different churches only, but different Bibles, different religious dialects, different devotional expressions, the jealousies of sectarian division will be more hopelessly embittered, and the prospect of bringing about a greater harmony of opinion and of feeling among English-speaking Protestants proportionally darkened.

At this day, there could be no harmony of action on this [p. 642] subject between different churches. Even Trench, a man of a liberal spirit, seems to reject the plan of uniting for this purpose with those not embraced in the organization of his own church, though he admits, that, with the exception of the “so-called Baptists,” they might advantageously be invited to offer suggestions—to be decided upon, apparently, by a body of which they are not to be members. Those who proclaim views of such narrow exclusiveness have no right to expect, that theologians who dissent from them on questions of ecclesiastical government will be more charitable than themselves, and it is not probable that scholars, who are not of the English church, will be very prompt to offer suggestions upon such terms. So long as this sectarian feeling— for it can be appropriately designated by no other term— prevails on either side, there can be no union upon conditions compatible with the self-respect of the parties; and unless better counsels prevail, whenever revision comes, English and American Protestantism will have not one Bible, one standard of religious faith, but many.

Besides the inconveniences of such a state of things, to which I have just alluded, there is the further evil, that each one of the new revisions will be greatly inferior to what the joint labors of scholars of different denominations might produce. Whatever crude and hasty opinions 5 individuals may adopt with respect to the superior learning and ability of their own religious communions, it is very certain that neither the English church, nor any other Christian sect, possesses, within its own limits, so full a measure of knowledge and talent, that in such a work as the revision of the English Bible, [p. 643] it can afford to dispense with the co-operation of other denominations; and the ecclesiastical body which cuts itself off from other branches of the church, by attempting that work without at least an earnest effort to secure such co-operation upon equal and honorable terms, may justly be deemed schismatic.

In a brief discourse like the present, the arguments on this question can be hinted only, not detailed; but I think we may justify the general conclusion, that as there is no present necessity for a revision, so is there no possibility of executing a revision in a way that would be, or ought to be, satisfactory even to any one Protestant sect, still less to the whole body of English-speaking Protestants. To revise under present circumstances, is to sectarianize, to divide the one catholic English Bible, the common standard of authority in Protestant England and America, into a dozen different revelations, each authoritative for its own narrow circle, but, to all out of that circle, a counterfeit; it is a practical surrender of that human excellence of form in the English Bible, which, next to the unspeakable value of its substance, is the greatest gift which God has bestowed on the British and American people.


1. The preface to the Oxford edition of the Wycliffite versions very satisfactorily disposes of most of the questions connected with the authorship of the different translations which appeared in the fourteenth century, though the internal evidence in support of the opinion, which ascribes to Wycliffe the completion of Hereford’s translation of the Old Testament does not seem to me very conclusive. Much information on the translations of the sixteenth century will be found in the Historical Account prefixed to Bagster’s Hexapla, London, 1841, and the authorities there referred to.

2. The first of the Rules prescribed to the revisers by King James was this: “The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishops’ Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the original will permit.” The fourteenth Rule was: “These Translations to be used, when they agree better with the text than the Bishops’ Bible, viz., Tyndale’s, Matthew’s, Coverdale’s, Whitchurch, Geneva.” Fuller, Church Hist., book x., sec. iii. § 1. But the Bishops’ Bible, and, indeed, all the others named, were founded upon Tyndale; and, especially in point of general diction, depart very little from his rendering.

3. In Lecture XII., p. 263, I remarked that scarcely two hundred words occurring in the English Bible were obsolete. In examining the vocabulary for the purpose of making that estimate, I used a Concordance which did not extend to the Apocrypha, and the remark should have been limited accordingly. Booker’s Scripture and Prayer-book Glossary, which I was not able to consult before p. 263 was printed, contains, besides phraseological combinations, about three hundred and eighty-eight words and senses of words, alleged to be obsolete. Of these, more than one hundred belong to the Apocrypha and the Prayer-book, and among the remainder, there are not less than thirty, such as, loth, whit, stuff, fret, beeves, haft, with, maul, (as a noun,) summer, (as a verb,) &c., which in the United States are as familiarly understood, in their scriptural senses, as any words in the language. We may therefore, take the number of Bible words and special meanings now so far obsolete in this country that other words are habitually used instead of them, at about two hundred and fifty. But of these, many are of familiar etymology or composition, and therefore, though disused, readily intelligible, and others are well understood, because they are used in other books still very generally read, so that the number which there is any sufficient reason to regard as really forgotten, does not probably exceed my estimate.

4. The difference between a Latinized and an idiomatic English style is very instructively exemplified in the versions of Hereford and Purvey, and, in a less degree, in Wycliffe’s New Testament as compared with the later text. There is a somewhat similar distinction between the Rhemish translation and the Protestant versions of the 16th century, the advantage in almost every instance being with the more idiomatic style, in point of both clearness of expression and accuracy of rendering.

5. An old and just definition of opinio, is assensus rei non exploratae, and there is a vast deal of sectarian religious opinion in all Christian denominations, which cannot lay claim to any higher logical value.

I append here some related remarks from Marsh’s later book, The Origin and History of the English Language: and of the Early Literature it Embodies (New York: Charles Scribner, 1862):

“One of the most important effects produced by the Wycliffite versions on the English language is, as I have intimated, the establishment of what is called the sacred or religious dialect, which was first fixed in those versions, and has, with little variation, continued to be the language of devotion and of scriptural translation to the present day.” (p. 365)

“The works of Langlande and of Wycliffe, especially the latter, introduced into English a considerable number of words directly or indirectly derived from the Latin. They produced a still greater effect on the common speech of the land, by popularizing very many Latin and Romance words, which there is reason to think, had never before acquired a familiar currency, but had been confined to the dialect of books, or at least to the conversation of the regularly educated classes.” (p. 370)