KJV Only?

How a translation became a litmus test for orthodoxy

Jeff Straub July 5, 2011




This year marks the 400th anniversary of one of the most important pieces of English literature ever released. Arguably, no other book has had the widespread influence and lasting significance of the King James Version (KJV or AV) of the English Bible. Its American title is derived from King James (Stuart) the First of England (James VI of Scotland). His initial idea was for a new common Bible version, but there is no evidence that he ever authorized it for use in all English churches. Given the prevailing politics, with the Puritans agitating for religious freedom, it is unlikely that he would have attempted a formal declaration. Nevertheless, the new translation became the dominant English version and held that position for most of the next three centuries.

But with its celebrity status comes some interesting history. In the late 19th century, John William Burgon and some of his associates argued for the KJV against the Revised Version—not because the KJV was a superior English translation but because the underlying Greek text was a better Greek text than the RV used (the Westcott and Hort text).

Since the 1960s, some Christians have been debating the continued usefulness of the Authorized Version and the underlying Greek text for regular use in the life of the church. The battle over Bible versions in general, and the battle for the KJV in particular, has been a significant issue within some segments of American Protestantism. At the worst, some have come to regard American Christian fundamentalism as closely associated with the “KJV 1611.” The debate has reached the point where non-fundamentalists think the movement is cultish, and some laypeople within fundamentalism itself think that God is the One Who personally “authorized” the KJV as the Bible for the English-speaking world.

The defense of the KJV takes two approaches. Some argue that the KJV 1611 is the most accurate rendering of the original manuscripts for the English-speaking world, a position still held by some GARBC pastors. Other advocates (called KJV-only in this article) are more dogmatic, with many colorful figures advocating a range of peculiar views, for example, that the KJV is the perfect Word of God, able even to correct Greek and Hebrew manuscripts themselves. Both of these views will be examined in this article.

Early Defenders of the KJV

Because of the populist nature of the KJV-only movement within fundamentalism, it is not entirely easy to determine when this began to surface within the large and rather amorphous movement of self-identified fundamentalists. No single academic institution seems to have initially championed this position. Moreover, when examining older fundamentalist institutions still adhering to that heritage, there is a mixture among the alumni with prominent defenders of the KJV-only position and prominent rejecters of the position. As a matter of history, the KJV-only movement cannot be traced to a particular school.

Doug Kutilek, a historian who opposes the KJV-only movement, suggests that the fountainhead for the modern emphasis on the KJV can be traced to an insignificant publication by a Seventh-day Adventist, Benjamin G. Wilkinson, who wrote Our Authorized Bible Vindicated in 1930, objecting to the Revised Version (RV 1881) and its American cousin, the American Standard Version (ASV 1901). Wilkinson’s book came to the attention of Jasper James Ray, a Baptist Bible teacher in Oregon who took up the defense of the KJV 25 years later in the book God Wrote Only One Bible, which seemed to borrow heavily from Wilkinson.

Jasper Ray soon became aware of a more sophisticated defense of the KJV by a recent Harvard University PhD graduate, Edward Freer Hills, who wrote his dissertation on textual criticism and then produced the first edition of his The King James Version Defended (1956). Hills argued that God has providentially preserved His Word and that, therefore, the Scriptures should be treated in a way quite unlike all other ancient texts. He cited two others who would become well known among KJV advocates, Kirsopp Lake (1872–1946) and John William Burgon (1813–1888). Both suggested reasons why the Byzantine family of manuscripts (consulted by the translators of the ASV) should not be considered as accurate as the Majority Text (used for the KJV).

Ray and Hills were probably motivated by the recent publication of the Revised Standard Version (1952), a serious attempt to challenge the popularity of the KJV by updating the language and reflecting modern textual critical theories in some of the disputed passages. Hills had a great influence on later KJV defenders such as David Otis Fuller (1903–1988) and Peter Sturgis Ruckman (b. 1921).

Connections to the GARBC

David Otis Fuller was converted in a J. Wilbur Chapman meeting in 1916 and was baptized by prominent New York fundamentalist pastor Isaac Massey Haldeman. After graduation from both Wheaton College and Princeton Seminary, he became pastor of a fundamentalist Baptist church, succeeding Oliver W. Van Osdel at the influential Wealthy Street Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, Mich. Van Osdel left the Northern Baptist Convention, helped organize the Bible Baptist Union, and then helped organize the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) in 1932. Fuller was the second editor of the Baptist Bulletin (June 1935—May 1938) and would serve on the Council of Fourteen when it was organized in 1938.

A gifted student, Fuller carried on correspondence with the University of Chicago’s Edgar J. Goodspeed (1871–1962), a noted theological liberal who was involved in Bible translation. Fuller quizzed Goodspeed regarding major Christian doctrines—the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the deity of Jesus Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and His atoning death for sinful humanity. In essence, Fuller wanted to know Goodspeed’s fitness to translate the Scriptures.

In the course of the correspondence, and apparently in response to something Goodspeed had written to Fuller, Fuller indicated that he “preferred” the King James Version, and in later letters suggested to Goodspeed that a scholar who denied the essential claims of Christianity could not render an accurate translation from a doctrinal standpoint.

These early letters give some idea of how Fuller came to embrace a strong KJV position, which he articulated in Which Bible? nearly 40 years later. The resulting book was a compilation of articles from a variety of authors, living and dead, some of which were in print in other places, that attempted to prove Fuller’s views. Using his book to quote Ray (who had cited Benjamin G. Wilkinson) and Edward F. Hills (who had cited Burgon), Fuller wrote that to protect the Scripture for future generations of Christians, “there has been a gracious exercise of Divine providence in its [the Bible’s] preservation and transmission.”

But Fuller did not disclose that Wilkinson was a Seventh-day Adventist (a fact that would have concerned his fundamental Baptist audience), instead describing him as a man “all but unknown to the world of scholarship” who “taught for many years at a small and obscure Eastern college.” Fuller also sought to demonstrate the superiority of the KJV by championing the Textus Receptus and tried to show the deficiencies of the Westcott-Hort theories of textual criticism. These kinds of arguments became standard fare in pro-KJV literature following Fuller, but usually without Fuller’s sophistication.

Discussions in the Baptist Bulletin

Yet for the all rhetoric that Fuller could muster, the GARBC never endorsed his view of the KJV, even though the KJV was the Bible that most GARBC churches regularly used. In 1961, Charles T. Butrin published a series of articles that evaluated modern translations, with various recommendations for their usefulness to GARBC churches (these articles are available at www.Baptistbulletin.org). Butrin believed that “Americans [were] singularly blessed to have so many versions of the Scripture,” which he evaluated for readability as well as faithfulness to the message of the text. The author noted that some of the versions held a liberal bias, but he did not dismiss the use of modern versions out of hand, nor did he show undue deference for the KJV. Butrin’s position continues to be the norm among GARBC churches and Regular Baptist Press, though some individual pastors in the GARBC continue to embrace a position closer to Fuller’s. To be sure, Fuller’s book appears more scholarly and sophisticated than many of the subsequent defenses of the KJV. Fuller had a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, unlike many who came to embrace a KJV-only position. And Fuller attempted to maintain a higher level of Christian civility in his defense of the KJV.

By the mid-1970s the disagreement was openly discussed in the Baptist Bulletin. Editor Merle Hull introduced two opposing articles in the July/August 1974 issue, explaining to readers that the Council of Eighteen publications committee had suggested the idea, and that while the articles “do involve different viewpoints, this is not a debate.” The KJV view was advocated by D. A. Waite, director of The Bible for Today ministry and member of a GARBC church. His article, “In Defense of the New Testament Majority Text,” advocated a position that was falling out of favor among GARBC pastors, but his tone was respectful and scholarly.

The article ran right next to L. Duane Brown’s “Evaluating and Appreciating the King James Bible,” an article that showed appreciation for the KJV but did not advocate an exclusive use of the Majority Text. Brown suggested that several modern translations were helpful to pastors and church members, while other modern translations were dangerous. By this point the GARBC Council of Eighteen had already approved a list of modern translations to be used in materials published by Regular Baptist Press (see sidebar).

Ruckman and KJV-only Proponents

Peter Ruckman began writing about the KJV in the early 1960s. Ruckman was converted to a fundamentalist version of Christianity in 1949 after considering Zen Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. Having already earned his BA from the University of Alabama, he enrolled in Bob Jones University, where he completed requirements for the MA and PhD in four years. Ruckman then started Bible Baptist Church of Pensacola in 1974 with 17 people and remains the pastor today.

In 1965 Ruckman started the Pensacola Bible Institute and began to promote the KJV as the exclusive Bible for the English-speaking world. Eventually he would write several books on the issue and begin a monthly church newspaper the Bible Believer’s Bulletin, from whose pages he would launch fusillades of invective against those who refused to accept the AV as the “infallible living word of the Living God.” His primary target was fundamentalists who refused to adopt his narrow views. Ruckman became so prominent in the Bible translation issue that the movement often carries his name. To be a “Ruckmanite” in some corners of the KJV-only discussion is a rather pejorative term. Some strong advocates of a KJV-only position go out of their way to distance themselves from Ruckman’s views.

Ruckman believes that “the A. V. 1611” sometimes is “superior to any Greek text.” That is, when there is a discrepancy between the KJV and the manuscripts, even the Textus Receptus, then the KJV should be considered authoritative, a position he holds because he believes the KJV was “given by inspiration of God.” It is for reasons like this that many fundamentalist defenders of the KJV distance themselves from the extreme teachings of Peter Ruckman, who is also criticized for his strident language (he calls the NIV the “Nutty Idiot’s Version”). He still pastors in Pensacola and promotes the KJV, but his influence within mainstream fundamentalism has greatly diminished over the years.

Recent Developments

The battle for the KJV has now been raging in fundamentalism for more than 40 years. Despite numerous attempts by more sober-minded and linguistically trained fundamentalists to answer the charges and accusations of some of the most vociferous advocates of the KJV-only movement, there remains a robust, if narrow subculture within fundamentalism that identifies itself with “KJV-onlyism.”

Many readers will recall hearing of the 1996 sermon series Dell Johnson preached at Pensacola Christian College on the superiority of the KJV (the college has no connection with Peter Ruckman). The chapel messages were videotaped and mailed to many pastors, including many in GARBC churches. Additional messages in subsequent years were delivered at Pensacola, also videotaped and mailed around the world. The Pensacola videos were answered by a group of fundamentalist educators who produced a video response, Fundamentalism and the Word of God. On the video were theologians and New Testament scholars from fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones University, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, Maranatha Baptist Bible College, Clearwater Christian College, Northland Baptist Bible College, and Calvary Baptist Seminary. The video sought to present a united response, arguing that the KJV should not be a test of orthodoxy, and that many well-known fundamentalist leaders of the past used modern versions.

One of the most prolific writers and lecturers on KJV-onlyism is a former GARBC pastor, Donald A. Waite, who is currently the president The Dean Burgon Society and The Bible for Today. Waite is among the more educated men in fundamentalism with two earned doctorates, one, a ThD in Bible Exposition from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1955 and the other, in speech from Purdue in 1961. His position is a more temperate KJV view—similar in many ways to the position of David Otis Fuller. In Waite’s Defending the King James Bible (2nd ed. 1996), he argues that the KJV is superior to modern versions for four reasons: it used a better Greek text (the Textus Receptus); the translators of the KJV were better men than modern translators (in the sense of being devout and orthodox); the translation technique used by the KJV was better (Waite opposes dynamic equivalence); and the theology of the KJV is better than modern versions. Waite argues, for example that the bibliology of the KJV is better because it includes the longer ending of Mark.

William Grady is a more recent example of a defender of the KJV. Currently the pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church of Swartz Creek, Mich., he has self-published two books defending the KJV as the only acceptable English translation. First among his arguments against modern fundamentalist scholarship is that the men who affirmed modern versions were not “soul-winners.” What the connection between evangelism and textual criticism was Grady did not say, nor did he offer evidence that the men in fact were not interested in evangelism.

Many KJV-only fundamentalists have rejected Grady’s extreme views. In 2005, Grady was invited to preach in chapel at Crown College in Powell, Tenn. Grady used the opportunity to call for a renewal of Ruckmanism, criticizing fundamentalists who did not believe enough of the essential doctrinal truths (i.e., according to Grady, the infallibility of the KJV English Bible). Grady’s sermon caused host pastor Clarence Sexton to disinvite him from a later message at the host church. Grady later published another book criticizing the “Pseudo King James Onlyites” whom he defined as those “who promote the KJV in public while accepting the Textus Receptus as the higher authority in private.” Grady often criticized Hyles-Anderson College, where he graduated, and Jack Schaap, son-in-law of the deceased former pastor Jack Hyles (who had endorsed Grady’s first book). Examples such as these remind the reader that it is difficult to keep track of every path in the fragmented KJV-only movement.

Evaluating the KJV-only Movement

The various KJV-only positions are relatively new in fundamental circles, and go well beyond historic tenets of fundamentalism. True, fundamentalism has always been concerned with the Word of God as an authority, but that authority was never vested in a particular Bible translation, though much of fundamentalism has used and appreciated the KJV as a faithful rendering of the Greek and Hebrew in the English. As modern versions proliferated, some called attention to dangerous trends by theological liberals to mute key Bible doctrines but never discounted the value of modern versions themselves. Despite efforts by KJV defenders to find historical antecedents in earlier fundamentalism who appear to champion the KJV, the movement itself began in earnest in the latter half of the 20th century and really did not gain any significant momentum until the mid-1970s.

The KJV-only position is not a unified movement, with nearly as many variations of the position as there are men and women who have written to defend the KJV. The earliest endorsers, Wilkinson and Hills, were in no sense fundamentalists. David Otis Fuller was among the most sophisticated, maintaining that the KJV was the best translation from the best manuscripts. Peter Ruckman and William Grady are among the most extreme, arguing that the KJV is inspired and can be used to correct the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. In the end, the various KJV-only positions are badly divided. Advocates often spend a good deal of energy attacking variations among the positions.

Few people in the KJV-only movement have the academic training to address issues of textual criticism. While Edward Hills, Charles Surrett, and Thomas Strouse make an attempt to ground their arguments in real textual critical issues, most defenses of KJV-only ideas are confusing, poorly written, and weakly argued. These unsophisticated arguments seem to stir up the passions of uninformed Christians who fear that someone will take away their Bible.

The KJV-only position is not likely to die out any time in the near future. The Internet has allowed the most extreme forms of KJV-onlyism to become accessible to a worldwide audience, not simply in printed form, but in the availability of venues like YouTube where sermons can be shared with anyone who has an Internet connection. This may give the illusion to some that the KJV-only influence in fundamentalism is wider than it actually is. To be sure, there are plenty of fundamentalists who strongly prefer the KJV translation. But at the same time, there are serious concerns that the movement is being co-opted by hyper fundamentalism.

Jeff Straub (PhD, Southern Baptist Seminary) is professor of historical theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Minn. This article is condensed from a paper presented at a Baylor University conference. A full version of his paper will be published in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal.

For more information, please read The GARBC and Bible Translations