Due to the exclusive usage of the KJV in fundamentalist churches, KJV-onlyism infiltrated fundamentalism through KJV-inspired and KJV-superior advocates. Numerous fundamentalists have attempted to distance their movement from KJV-onlyism. Fred Moritz pointed out that R. A. Torrey and Charles Spurgeon read and preached from versions other than the KJV. William Combs provided Torrey and William Bell Riley as two examples of fathers of fundamentalism who did not subscribe to the KJV-onlyism. Larry Pettegrew cited numerous fundamentalist leaders before and during the 1920s, and added John R. Rice and Stewart Custer as combatants against KJV-onlyism in the second half of the century. Such citations fail to tell the entire story. The KJV-only issue did not rise to prominence until after fundamentalists and evangelicals split in the 1950s over the ministry of Billy Graham. In the height of the KJV-only movement, select KJV-only leaders occupied prominent positions in fundamentalism.
The Majority Position
The most influential fundamentalists opposed KJV-onlyism. Through Bob Jones University, Bob Jones, Jr. created a legacy of fighters against KJV-onlyism. His father founded the school with the policy of using the KJV in the pulpit and the classroom. He faced few battles concerning Bible translation because of the KJV’s overwhelming popularity in the English-speaking world until the middle of the twentieth century. The KJV had such a profound influence on him that his prayers reflected its Victorian English. Before the rise of significant controversy concerning the KJV, Bob Jones, Jr. proclaimed that the KJV does not always accurately translate the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. He admitted that the KJV contains verses not included in the oldest extant manuscripts. He assumed that fundamentalist preachers would still preach from the KJV.
Responding to the rise of KJV-onlyism, Jones demonstrated that he understood inerrancy applies only to the original manuscripts. He called the KJV-only movement a “heresy” and “blasphemy.” At the same time, he confessed his personal attachment to the KJV: “The King James Version is by far the loveliest translation of the Scripture in the English language.” He refused to use another version in either his study or the pulpit. He opposed KJV-onlyism while still promoting the exclusive use of the KJV.
Bob Jones Jr.’s faculty stood beside him. Stewart Custer argued against the dictation theory to support the conservative view of inspiration. He located “the final court of appeal in all theological disputes” in the original manuscripts, not the Received Text. He contended that Christians possess God’s Word even though scholars dispute a small number of the words in the extant manuscripts. He could make such a claim because textual criticism provided Christians with a high degree of certainty concerning most of the words contained in the original manuscripts.
Since BJU was the flagship school of fundamentalism, Jones’ views impacted the leaders of fundamentalism. His son, Bob Jones III, became the third President of the university after receiving two degrees from BJU. Les Ollila received his B.A. at BJU before serving as President at Northland Baptist Bible College for eighteen years. David Doran, the President of Detroit Baptist Seminary, also received his B.A. at BJU. Sam Horn, the President of Central Seminary in Plymouth, Minnesota, received three degrees from BJU. Gary Anderson, the President of Baptist Mid-Missions, received two degrees from BJU. Bud Steadman, the executive director of Baptist World Mission, did so also. Jones’ grandson Stephen Jones, the current President of BJU, received three degrees from the university. Bob Jones, Jr. influenced key BJU students to oppose KJV-onlyism.
Through The Sword of the Lord, John R. Rice promoted a modified theory of inerrancy. Rice believed that infallibility and verbal inspiration applied to the original manuscripts. He proclaimed that by virtue of the translation task no translation can be inspired. To support such a claim, he focused on the direct quotations God gave the authors of Scripture. He stated, “God gave the matter, the truth, the thought, and in the Bible and [sic] God gave the very words in which these thoughts are expressed. Spiritual things, thus, are revealed in spiritual words.” In order to explain Paul’s personal requests in his epistles, Rice nuanced the dictation theory by allowing for a human element which God verbalized to the authors of Scripture. Rice’s acceptance of the dictation theory led him to write that Luke did no research in the composition of his Gospel, but rather relied on direct revelation.
Rice desired to claim to possess the Word of God, so he exposed the similarities between translations showing that the vast majority of the original text was established. At the same time, Rice echoed the preservation argument of KJV-onlyism. He maintained that the preservation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:35 referred to Jesus’ actual words, not the meaning of his words. Rice employed problematic logic. According to his reasoning, the Gospel authors could not have summarized Jesus’ sermons. Jesus must have spoken in Greek, not Aramaic—except in regard to the few Aramaic occurrences in the Gospels. John 21:25 must be interpreted to refer to additional unrecorded actions of Jesus, not unrecorded words.
Not possessing the influence on education which Jones had, Rice impacted the fundamentalist populace. At its height, The Sword of the Lord boasted over 300,000 biweekly subscribers. Rice spread orthodox content concerning inerrancy, but he undermined that content with his faulty reasoning leaving his followers vulnerable to the arguments of KJV-onlyism. After Rice’s death, his friend—Jack Hyles— abandoned Rice’s view concerning translations. Rice’s newspaper added to its position concerning inerrancy that the preserved manuscripts are the ones from which the KJV was translated.
The Minority Position
A minority of fundamentalists claimed special privilege for the KJV. Peter Ruckman argued for the KJV-inspired position. He believed that the KJV is inerrant, inspired, and infallible. He proposed that the KJV translators corrected errors in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts they employed. Therefore, the KJV could be called inerrant just like the original manuscripts. Ruckman did not appreciate the recent work in textual criticism evidenced in the translations produced in the twentieth-century. Instead, he placed “Scholarship Onlyism” as the only other option to KJV-onlyism. Other fundamentalists recognized Ruckman as the most confrontational and polarizing proponent of KJV-onlyism. Ruckman needed another figure to make his views attractive to mainstream fundamentalists.
Jack Hyles spread Ruckman’s views. As pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, Hyles led the church to become a megachurch boasting the highest Sunday school attendance in the world. In the beginning of his ministry, he did not attach inspiration or inerrancy to the KJV. In his study through Revelation, he employed the phrase “better translated” five times as he explained the KJV’s rendering of the biblical text. As his ministry progressed, he became convinced of the KJV-inspired position. In his sermon “Logic Must Prove the King James Bible,” he supports his claim that the KJV is “the real Bible” by pointing to its enduring nature in the face of numerous other translations which represented passing fads. He not only opposed the NIV, but also formal equivalent translations like the NASB and the NKJV. He spoke out against the arguments made by Stewart Custer against KJV-onlyism.
Hyles was persuaded of Ruckman’s position due to pragmatic concerns. He needed to have “the pure Word of God” in his possession. He was a practitioner, not a scholar. He could not prove the reliability of the biblical text through textual criticism, but he could defend an established canon through the arguments of KJV-onlyism. He contended for the reading of 1 John 5:7 which included clear statement of the trinity based on the KJV’s rendition of the verse, not based on manuscript evidence. KJV-inspired arguments allowed Hyles to proclaim that he and his congregation possessed a pure Bible.
Donald Waite contended for the KJV-superior variant of KJV-onlyism. He believed the KJV represented a correct translation from the preserved texts. While admitting that he had never found an error in the KJV, he called the originals—not a translation—inerrant. He found the KJV’s superiority to rest in its use of the preserved manuscripts—the Masoretic Text and the Textus Receptus. He seemed to indicate that another accurate English translation could be produced if translators returned to the same manuscripts with which the KJV translators worked and employed a formal equivalence translation strategy. Choosing to focus on his own ministry The Bible for Today, Waite lacked a leadership role within fundamentalism.
Pensacola Christian College spread Waite’s views. Defending the KJV as the best English version, Pensacola emphasized infallibility. The school applied infallibility to the manuscripts used to produce the KJV. Dell Johnson and Theodore Letis argued that inerrancy represented an unhelpful term. Inerrancy concentrated on theoretical manuscripts, not extant ones. Johnson and Letis accused scholars of switching from a focus on infallibility to one on inerrancy in order to gain academic acceptance by employing textual criticism. Pensacola held an orthodox position concerning inerrancy, but the leaders of the school did not care to discuss that issue.
In 1998, Arlin Horton—the President and founder of Pensacola—promoted three videos produced by the school designed to explain the KJV’s superiority over other English Bibles. In The Text is the Issue, Johnson and Letis argued that the KJV translators employed the preserved manuscripts in producing their translation. They distinguished their position from that of KJV-only advocates who claim God re-inspired the KJV. They recognized that the KJV was revised a few times, but such revisions did not harm the text because the revisers consulted the same manuscripts which the original KJV translators used.
Pensacola disseminated its KJV-superior position to popular fundamentalism. The three videos Pensacola produced in the late 1990s harnessed the power of visual media. Pensacola possessed attractive weather. The college could offer students more affordable education than could the other major fundamentalist schools. Those factors helped Pensacola maintain an enrollment of over 4,000 undergraduate students. Pensacola influenced students and the churches in which the students held leadership positions. The school also produced homeschool materials through its A Beka Book brand. Though little primary education dealt with Bible translation, A Beka’s popularity among homeschooled fundamentalists provided credibility to Pensacola’s translation position.
Motivations for KJV usage
Most fundamentalists employed the KJV as a result of other commitments than adherence to KJV-onlyism. First, fundamentalists resisted change. They refused to change in a plethora of areas even as cultural change had accelerated. Many fundamentalist churches engaged in similar church programs and evangelism strategies in 2013 as they engaged in the 1970s. First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana continued its bus ministry. Though many set aside that program, tracts and door-knocking remained staples of fundamentalist evangelism. Most fundamentalist church calendars still consisted of Sunday school and Sunday morning worship along with a Sunday evening and a Wednesday night service. While evangelicals adopted Contemporary Christian Music to spread their message, most fundamentalist churches remained faithful to the same style of music they enjoyed decades ago. If fundamentalists demonstrated quick adoption of new translations, they would have betrayed their tendency to preserve what had worked.
Also, fundamentalists found other Bible versions unsatisfactory. Before the 1960s, only two major alternatives to the KJV had been produced. Released in 1901, the ASV appealed to fundamentalists’ desire for a literal reading of Scripture. Although most of his quotations came from the KJV, Rice used the ASV. Richard V. Clearwaters, the founding President of Central Conservative Baptist Seminary, recognized the ASV’s usefulness in studying the original languages. The KJV represented an easy-to-remember translation because its translators opted for eloquent wording over conciseness. Since the ASV could not compete with the KJV’s beauty, most American churches did not even consider shifting their official Bible translation to the ASV.
The RSV possessed far greater potential to become the preferred English Bible. However, it stirred fundamentalists’ anger, not their sympathies. The uproar centered on the RSV’s rendering “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14 instead of “virgin” as in the KJV. Scholars found the translation “virgin” to be an unlikely meaning for the Hebrew word in its original context. Fundamentalists saw that the rendering “young woman” called into question the legitimacy of Jesus’ fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23. Rice concluded from his analysis of Isaiah 7:14: “The new Revised Standard Version we do not recommend because it was translated by modernists who had a bias against the deity of Christ.” Hyles called the RSV translators “liberals.” This one verse brought every other verse in the RSV into question in the minds of fundamentalists.
The Lockman Foundation introduced the NASB in 1960. Fundamentalists responded to it in a similar way in which they reacted to the ASV. They appreciated the NASB’s commitment to literal translation. In 1974, Custer proclaimed that the NASB was the only translation other than the KJV he recommended. He found the translation strategies of other versions too free. Bauder claimed he and other fundamentalists welcomed the release of the NASB. Fundamentalists who favored the Majority Text did not appreciate the privilege the NASB gave to Minority Text manuscripts. Most fundamentalists in the pew did not see the textual differences between the KJV and the NASB as the determining factor. Instead, they recognized the NASB’s lack of beauty and struggled to read it aloud. As a result, few fundamentalist churches embraced the NASB as their official version.
Though the closest translation to the KJV, the NKJV received significant criticism from fundamentalists. The translators produced the text of the NKJV from the same manuscripts used to produce the KJV. KJV-superior advocates pointed out that the NKJV supplied textual criticism material derived from consulting Minority Text manuscripts. In Mark 16, the NKJV noted that the long ending was missing in Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. KJV-superior advocates highlighted weaknesses in the NKJV’s translation strategy. By replacing “thee” and “thou” with “you,” the NKJV did not distinguish between second person singulars and plurals like the KJV could. KJV-inspired proponents also despised the NKJV. It created confusion between the one inerrant English version and one which introduced errors to that version. The arguments of KJV-onlyism against the NKJV prevented widespread adoption of the NKJV within fundamentalism.
The NIV received acceptance in broader Christian circles by becoming the best-selling American version in 1986. Nevertheless, it did not appeal to fundamentalists. Fundamentalists valued literal translation. The NIV’s dynamic equivalence upset them. The NIV made its commitment to textual criticism more apparent than other translations. It clearly indicated that the long ending of Mark and the story of the adulterous woman in John 7:53-8:11 were not present in the earliest manuscripts. Fundamentalists rejected the NIV.
Some fundamentalists attempted to portray themselves as open-minded to the NIV. Bauder claimed the NIV “was welcomed as a faithful yet readable alternative, even by many people within fundamentalism.” Bauder presented no proof of even one fundamentalist church or institution which adopted the NIV as its official translation. The church at which he served as a leader continued to preach from the NKJV in 2013. Northland International University switched to the NIV in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It exclusively employed the KJV into the twenty-first century. President Matt Olson started using the NKJV for a short time before opting for the NIV. The switch to the NIV provided evidence of Northland’s repudiation of fundamentalism. Around the same time, the school removed in music and dress rules characteristic of fundamentalist colleges. It even formed a CCM band to promote the school to churches outside fundamentalism. In reality, church and institutional use of the NIV was taboo in fundamentalism.
Twenty-first century versions like the ESV and the HCSB received little criticism along with little immediate adoption from fundamentalists. Both translations struggled to provide a reason to provoke fundamentalist usage. Conservative evangelical scholars—particularly those of a Calvinistic theological bent— dominated the ESV translation oversight committee. Published by a division of LifeWay Christian Resources, the HCSB struggled to gain popularity outside of Southern Baptist circles. Neither version employed one fundamentalist translator or received an endorsement from a prominent fundamentalist. In the end, most fundamentalists found more problems associated with switching to another version than with sticking with the KJV.
Finally, fundamentalists determined that the use of the KJV encouraged evangelism by maintaining unity within the movement. Fundamentalists valued evangelism only behind orthodox theology. Bob Jones, Sr. founded BJU, but he saw evangelism as his main calling. Rice claimed that Jones’ evangelistic campaigns resulted in “tens of thousands of converts.” Revealing his priorities, Rice kept record of over 20,000 people who made professions of faith through the ministry of The Sword of the Lord. As in many of his publications, Rice concluded
The Sword Book of Treasures with a sinner’s prayer and a card to fill out if the reader accepted the gospel message.
At first, Hyles represented a model fundamentalist preacher. He pursued church growth through evangelism. He focused on believers winning others to Christ in their homes. He claimed to make every service he conducted an evangelistic service by ending with a salvation appeal. He encouraged every church to implement a visitation program for the purpose of evangelism. As Hyles developed KJV-only beliefs, fundamentalists hesitated to speak out against him because they admired his commitment to evangelism.
The majority of twenty-first century fundamentalist churches and institutions still used the KJV as their official translation. BJU continued to employ the KJV as “the campus standard in the classroom and in the chapel pulpit.” Marantha Baptist Bible College used the KJV out of deference to some of its supporting churches. Fundamentalists desired to avoid unnecessary conflict concerning Bible versions because such controversy would distract the movement from evangelism.
Fundamentalism’s passion for evangelism helped open the movement to other Bible versions. An increasing percentage of fundamentalist churches adopted the NKJV or the NASB as their official church translation in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Fundamentalists began to see that prospective converts struggled to understand the KJV. The Awana program simplified Bible memorization for unchurched children by encouraging the use of the NKJV. Doran designed a popular tract—God’s Bridge to Eternal Life—with Scriptures in either the NASB or the KJV. Evangelism led many fundamentalists to continue to use the KJV, and it also led many to modify their version preference.
KJV-onlyism infiltrated fundamentalism through KJV-inspired and KJV-superior advocates. However, such views never dominated the movement. Bauder is justified to call KJV-only advocates “hyper-fundamentalists.” The exclusive usage of the KJV in most fundamentalist churches cultivated fertile ground for the KJV-inspired and KJV-superior positions. For that reason, the struggle concerning the KJV occupied a prominent place in the history of American fundamentalism whereas it represented little more than a footnote in the history of American evangelicalism. The twenty-first century tendency of fundamentalists to employ modern translations like the NKJV and NASB did not represent a renunciation of fundamentalism. Instead, it indicated that fundamentalists perceived such translations as accurate, tested, and useful for evangelism.
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William W. Combs, “Errors In The King James Version?,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 4, no. 1 (1999): 162–63.
Larry D. Pettegrew, “Fundamentalism and the King James-Only Position,” in One Bible Only?: Examining Exclusive Claims for the King James Bible, ed. Roy E. Beacham and Kevin T. Bauder (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001), 187–89.
Leland Ryken, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 211.
Bob Jones Sr., Things I Have Learned : Chapel Talks at Bob Jones University (Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University Press, 1986), 174–75.
Bob Jones Jr., How to Improve Your Preaching, (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1945), 26.
Bob Jones Jr., Cornbread and Caviar (Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University Press, 1985), 179.
Stewart Custer, Does Inspiration Demand Inerrancy?: A Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration in Light of Inerrancy (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1968), 84.
John R. Rice, “Our God-Breathed Book: The Bible,” in A Coffer of Jewels (Murfreesboro, TN: Sword of the Lord, 1963), 31.
John R. Rice, Verbal Inspiration of the Bible and Its Scientific Accuracy (Wheaton, IL: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1943), 7.
Rice, “Our God-Breathed Book: The Bible,” 17.
John R. Rice, “Christianity a Miracle Religion,” Sword of the Lord, November 16, 1936, 2.
Rice, “Our God-Breathed Book: The Bible,” 32–33.
Viola Walden, John R Rice: The Captain of Our Team (Murfreesboro, TN: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1990), 527.
Peter S. Ruckman, The Christian’s Handbook of Manuscript Evidence (Pensacola, FL: Pensacola Bible Institute, 1970), 124.
Peter S. Ruckman, Why I Am Not a Calvinist (Pensacola, FL: Bible Baptist Bookstore, 1997), xi.
Douglas K. Kutilek, “The Background and Origin of the Version Debate,” in One Bible Only?: Examining Exclusive Claims for the King James Bible, ed. Roy E. Beacham and Kevin T. Bauder (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001), 47.
Hyles, “Logic Must Prove the King James Bible.”
D. A. Waite, Defending the King James Bible (Collingswood, NJ: The Bible for Today, 1992), 245–46.
The Text Is the Issue, VHS (Pensacola, FL, 1997).
Arlin Horton, “From the President,” PCC Update, Fall 1998, 3.
The Text Is the Issue.
Other Bible versions were available like Weymouth’s New Testament and The Bible: An American Translation by Edgar Goodspeed and J. M. Powis-Smith. Produced by individuals, these translations could not compete with the KJV, which was produced by a committee of scholars.
Rice, “Our God-Breathed Book: The Bible,” 17.
Richard V. Clearwaters, The Great Conservative Compromise (Minneapolis: Central Seminary Press, n.d.), 192.
Robert Alter, “The Question of Eloquence in the King James Version,” in The King James Bible and the World It Made, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey (Baylor University Press, 2011), 146.
Peter J. Thuesen, In Discordance with the Scriptures : American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 149.
John H. Walton, “Isa 7:14: What’s In A Name?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 30, no. 3 (1987): 291–92.
Rice, “Our God-Breathed Book: The Bible,” 32.
Hyles, “Logic Must Prove the King James Bible.”
Stewart Custer, “Twisted Translations,” Faith for the Family, April 1974, 192.
Kevin T. Bauder, “The Issues at Hand,” in One Bible Only?: Examining Exclusive Claims for the King James Bible, ed. Roy E. Beacham (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001), 14.
The Text Is the Issue.
Hyles, Keep Your Stinkin’ Feet Out of My Drinking Water.
Daniel Radosh, “The Good Book Business,” The New Yorker, December 18, 2006, 56.
Custer, “Twisted Translations.”
Bauder, “The Issues at Hand,” 14.
John R. Rice, ed., The Sword Book of Treasures (Wheaton, IL: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1946), 176.
Walden, John R Rice: The Captain of Our Team, 480.
Rice, The Sword Book of Treasures, 352.
Jack Hyles, How to Boost Your Church Attendance (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 8.
“Statement About Bible Translations.”
Robert W. Milliman, “Translation Theory and Twentieth-Century Versions,” in One Bible Only?: Examining Exclusive Claims for the King James Bible, ed. Roy E. Beacham and Kevin T. Bauder (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001), 153.
Kevin T. Bauder, “Fundamentalism,” in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, ed. Andrew David Naselli and Collin Hansen, Kindle edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), location 660.