Correcting the Grammar of God: Noah Webster’s 1833 Bible


By C. Dowdell

© 2006


In The Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith summed up the central tension concerning biblical translations, noting: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly”(qtd. Stein 182). Along with the Bay Psalm Book (1640), John Eliot’s Algonquian language Bible (1663), and Joseph Smith’s Inspired Version (1867), Noah Webster’s 1833 translation of the Bible represented the continued efforts of Americans to balance “exegetical accuracy” to scripture  “with naturalness in the receptor language”(Scanlin 44-5).


General Publishing Statistics


During the years 1777-1820, 400 new editions of the Bible or the New Testament were produced in America. By 1830, over 300 more editions were produced. By 1850, another 715 American editions of the Bible and New Testament were published, bringing the total for the years 1777-1850 to 1415 different editions of the Bible and New Testament. During the same period, Britain published 550 different editions of the Bible and New Testament (Daniell 639-40). It is during this height of Bible publishing in America that Noah Webster, the celebrated author of the An American Dictionary (1828), decides to revise the KJV.


The Religious Flashpoint of Translation


            In the divisive environment of Jacksonian America, the issue of bible translations became an extremely heated debate. Between the years 1830-1898, the American public was offered Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon (1830), Shaker Philemon Stewart’s A Holy, Sacred and Divine Roll and Book; from the Lord God of Heaven, to the Inhabitants of Earth (1843), Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health (1875), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Women’s Bible (1895, 1898)(Gutjahr “State” 345ff). Alongside these so-called designer bibles, texts offering alternative or supplementary scriptural content to that of the Old and New Testaments, individuals such as Alexander Campbell (1826), Noah Webster (1833), Rodolphus Dickinson (1833), David Bernard (1842), Spencer Cone and William Wyckoff (1850), James Murdock (1851), Hezekiah Woodruff (1852), Leicester Sawyer (1858), and H. T. Anderson (1864) produced new translations of the King James Bible (Gutjahr “American Bible” 105). The combined effect of both the designer bibles and the new translations was to render the notion of a communal religious ideal improbable (Wosh 140).


The American Bible Society, Baptist Dissenters, and Noah Webster


Keenly aware of the potential divisiveness that such sectarian bibles posed for the establishment of a national evangelical consciousness, the American Bible Society (ABS), established in 1816 and responsible for printing close to sixty different versions of the KJV by 1850, took as its aim the dissemination of a decidedly non-sectarian Bible to the American public (Daniell 635). During their 1829 annual meeting the ABS announced their intention of placing a Bible in every American household over the next two years (Wosh 118). At the same meeting, a Baptist preacher noted that “the co-operation of different denominations of Christians, in the distribution of the Bible, without note or comment, has a happy tendency to allay party feeling, and to strength the cause of evangelical religion”(qtd. in Wosh 119). These two themes, the universal dissemination of bibles and the potential for non-denominational editions to ameliorate the political factionalism of the time, encapsulate the environment in which Webster’s bible was presented to the public.


Translating “without note or comment”


            Perhaps the largest opposition to the efforts of the ABS to produce a non-denominational bible was to their official mandate to translate bibles “without note or comment.” Staunch critics of the ABS such as the Hard Shell Baptists and future leader of the Disciples of Christ, Alexander Campbell, took issue with the society’s claim to produce a non-denominational Bible, a bible which, ultimately, reproduced the English bible (Gutjhar “American Bible” 187-8). Central to their criticism was the belief that the ostensibly non-sectarian perspective of the ABS was simply a subtly-cloaked denominational bias.


The Immersionist Controversy


            The Immersionist controversy sums up the debate between the ABS and its critics. The controversy concerns the correct translation of the Greek work baptizw (baptizo). The KJV translates this term as baptism. This rendering of the Greek word, however, fails to address the long standing doctrinal debate concerning how the sacrament of baptism should be administered (Gutjahr “American Bible” 100). Individuals who believe in infant baptism insist that baptizw (baptizo) means “to wash” and interpret God’s intentions as a cleansing act of grace performed on infant Christians. As such, Christians are understood to be infants waiting passively for God’s grace (Gutjahr “American Bible” 100). The Immersionists, on the other hand, believe that baptizw (baptizo) means “to dip” or “immerse” and interpret the sacrament as a voluntary adult action that links God’s grace to the individual adult’s willingness to repent and actively choose salvation. The KJV does not enter this debate, opting for the more vague and, ostensibly, non-denominational translation of baptism (Gutjahr “American Bible” 101).


Alexander Campbell’s Answer to baptizw (baptizo)


By the nineteenth century, certain groups demanded an answer to this theologico-linguistic quandary. Alexander Campbell was first to take a definite stand on this issue, translating every instance of the Greek baptizw (baptizo) as immersion in his 1826 translation of the New Testament, a translation which proved to be the best selling edition by any individual before the Revised Edition (1881) (Gutjahr “American Bible” 101-5).

The controversy over the correct translation of baptizw illustrates beautifully the way in which the ostensibly non-denominational stance of the ABS and its dissemination of the KJV “without note or comment” was itself, an implicitly denominational stance. Campbell makes this point himself when he bemoans the current trend in Biblical translations. He remarks that “each religious party had sought to secure the Bible within its own sectarian cell”(qtd. in Gutjahr “American Bible” 101). Importantly, Campbell did not view his translation as sectarian, but rather as a liberation from the sectarianism that marred translations such as the KJV (Gutjahr “American Bible” 105). In revealing similarity with Webster’s own design, Campbell felt that by returning to the original language of the New Testament, one could avoid sectarian issues (Gutjahr “American Bible”105). That is to say, Campbell viewed religious sectarianism itself as a product of linguistic divergence and biblical translations as a veritable Tower of Babel.


Webster’s Amelioration of Religious Sectarianism


Webster’s 1833 Bible needs to be situated within the religious factionalism of the 1830s. His insistence on producing a non-denominational Bible sought to curb the sectarian unrest among American Protestants while recovering the dignity of the KJV from the attacks of individuals like Campbell. Opting to avoid the baptism/immersion controversy, Webster’s Bible is “studiously neutral” in his translation, following the KJV in translating the Greek term as baptism (Norton 199): “But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it shall be accomplished”(Luke 12.50).


Publication of Webster’s Bible


In 1821, Webster proposed his plan to revise the KJV in a letter to Dr. Moses Stuart, professor at Andover; the faculty declined, arguing that the public would not admit a change to the KJV (Warfel 581). Webster then approached the American Bible Society for support, but is again turned down (Scanlin 48). Finding no support for his project, Webster laid aside his plan to complete his dictionary (Warfel 581). In 1832, at seventy years of age, Webster begins preparing his translation into a current American idiom (Unger 323). In October 1833, Webster’s The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, in the Common Version. With Amendments of the Language was published in New Haven, Connecticut by Durrie and Peck.


Poor Reception of Webster’s Bible


Sadly, unlike Campbell’s New Testament, Webster’s Bible proved to be a publishing disaster, a fact that can be explained partly by the fact that no clergyman would publicly endorse his translation. In fact, Webster’s Bible made so minute an impact on American society that it has become one of the rarest bibles ever produced (Unger 326). With the exception of its adoption by New Haven’s city schools, Webster’s Bible was so inconsequential that Webster was forced to authorize price reductions within the first three years: from $3 in 1833 to $1.50 by 1836 (Daniell 651; Scanlin 48).


Understanding the Importance of Webster’s Failure


Given the inconsequential nature of Webster’s translation, one might rightly ask why one would bother studying it. As David Daniell astutely remarks, Webster’s Bible is remarkable for what it doesn’t do (650). Despite its failure (and, indeed, because of its failure), Webster’s text is representative of several important trends in American religious culture during the antebellum period. Firstly, Webster’s timid revision of KJV is representative of larger efforts of evangelicals to ameliorate the increasing religious fragmentation and socio-political chaos of the antebellum period through the imposition of a non-denominational biblical translation. Secondly, the lack of public interest in Webster’s edition speaks to the continued dominance and preference for the KJV in America.


Impairing the Purity of the Language


            Webster’s translation of the KJV is based on two central assumptions. Firstly, like his dictionary, one of the most conspicuous things about Webster’s Bible is his insistence that purity of language fosters purity of character. Stemming from his assumption that proper English functions as both a marker and facilitator of civility, Webster regards the Bible as a crucial means of conveying grammatical propriety. He argues in the preface to his Bible that because the Bible is a text read by everyone and used in schools to teach children how to read and write, it “has no inconsiderable influence in forming and preserving our national language”(iv). Functioning as a standard not only of religious doctrine but of proper English, the Bible “ought to be correct in grammatical construction, and in the use of appropriate words”(iv).


Biblical Language and American Civility


Related to this point, is Webster’s second assumption. By “preserving our national language,” Webster’s Bible might promote a common identity amongst Americans. During the riotous and sectarian decades of the 1830s-40s, not the least of which involved inter-denominational enmity waged by individuals such as Campbell, Webster’s concerns seem especially prescient. The Bible, he insists, “is the chief moral cause of all that is good, and the best corrector of all that is evil in human society; the best book for regulating the temporal concerns of men, and the only book that can serve as an infallible guide to future felicity”(v).


The Non-Denominational Bible


True to Webster’s linguistic background, his attempts to assuage sectarian sentiment are grounded in clarifying the language of the KJV. Tellingly, despite their doctrinal differences, Webster’s attitude follows almost verbatim from Campbell’s own remarks in the preface to his translation. The overarching theme for both men was how to present the bible in the form most closely resembling the original language (Gutjahr “American Bible” 105). In his preface, Campbell writes: “A Living language is continually changing. Like the fashions and customs in apparel, words, and phrases, at one time current and fashionable, in the lapse of time become awkward and obsolete”(Preface, qtd. in Gutjahr 103).

Similarly, Webster explains the effect of obscure language on sectarian fighting, arguing that when words “have ceased to be a part of the living language, and appear odd or singular, [they impair] the purity of the language”(iv). The language of the scriptures “ought to be pure, chaste, simple and perspicuous” lest it “exposes the scriptures to the scoffs of unbelievers, impairs their authority, and multiplies or confirms the enemies of our holy religion”(iv). Webster understands that this purification of the language of the scriptures must be balanced against a certain degree of restraint, a restraint attentive to the various passages “on which the different denominations rely for the support of their peculiar tenets”(iv). Mindful of the incendiary nature of biblical translations during the period, Webster assures the reader that: “To avoid giving offense to any denomination of christians [sic], I have not knowingly made any alteration in the passages of the present version”(iv).


A Bible Accessible to All


            To promote such cohesiveness, Webster sought to produce a truly democratic bible replete with an egalitarian language that “will please all classes of readers”(iv). While his concern here is, on one level, with producing a bible that specialist and non-specialist alike can read, concern with producing a nonsectarian bible in light of the immersion controversy cannot have been far from his mind. Recognizing that a democratic government such as America’s cannot “prescribe what version of the scriptures shall be used in the churches, or by the people,” Webster is keenly aware of the need for all denominations to “use the same version, that in all public discourses, treatises and controversies, the passages cited as authorities should be uniform”(v).


Webster’s Reverence for the KJV


            Balanced between the need to clarify obscure language and the need to avoid offending denominational interests is Webster’s very obvious reverence for the language of the KJV. This balance is articulated clearly by Webster’s professed aim to “preserve, but, in certain passages, more clearly to express, the sense of the present [KJV] version”(iv). Webster was extremely devout man, brought up in the moderate Calvinism of the Congregationalist Church (Warfel 579). Since his conversion in the spring of 1808, Webster apparently kept his KJB with him always, correcting spellings and grammar, making notes in the margins, and substituting American terms for obscure and obsolete lexemes (Unger 324). Given his familiarity with the KJV, Webster’s edition of the Bible “in the Common Version”(i.e. KJV) is not so much a translation as a correction, a primarily linguistic revision (Norton 199). Webster’s anxiety about the most appropriate language for translation echoes earlier critiques of the KJV such as Thomas More, William Tyndale, and the makers of the Bishop’s Bible (Norton 199). Unlike his British counterparts, however, Webster felt that the KJV was, for the most part, correct. It is, perhaps, for this reason that Webster’s translation seems so light. Like the KJV, Webster assumes an equally conservative approach to linguistic revision, being “careful to avoid unnecessary innovations, and to retain the general character of the style”(iv).


Semantic Change and the Archaic Language of the KJV


            Webster’s main objection to the language of the KJV concerns the semantic changes that have occurred since 1611. He notes in his preface that while the KJV translators made “many alterations in the language”, the KJV is overwhelmingly the language of “the reign of Queen Elizabeth”(iii). While nothing negative is said about Elizabethan English, the implication of Webster’s comment is that Elizabethan English is somewhat out of step with the nineteenth-century American idiom (Norton 211).


Ensuring Linguistic Clarity


Underlying his distaste for Elizabethan diction, however, is a more practical concern. He argues “in the lapse of two or three centuries, changes have taken place, which, in particular passages, impair the beauty; in others, obscure the sense, of the original languages”(iii). His concern is that these semantic changes have caused some words to be misunderstood “by the common readers, who have no access to commentaries, and who will always compose a great proportion of readers”(iii). Most importantly in Webster’s mind, these semantic shifts “present a wrong signification or false ideas” to the reader, resulting in a misrepresentation of “the Word of God”(iii). This assumes, of course, that some purified version of language is capable of transparently expressing the word of God.


What’s Common about the Common Version?


            In his preface, Webster notes:


a version of the scriptures for popular use, should consist of words expressing the sense which is most common, in popular usage, so that the first ideas suggested to the reader should be the true meaning of such words, according to the original languages. That many words in the present version, fail to do this, is certain. My principal aim is to remedy this evil. (iii)


In this passage, Webster highlights the two key assumptions informing the scope of his linguistic revisions: the “sense which is most common in popular usage” and “according to the original languages.” In short, his emendations to the KJV will “better express the true sense of the original languages, and remove objections to particular parts of the phraseology” by revising the archaisms of the KJV in accordance with American idiom. While the term “original languages” clearly refers to the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament (both of which Webster checks against the KJV), there is something else at stake here, something that seeks to connect a more original language than Greek/Hebrew to Saxon English. In both his Bible and his dictionary, Webster shows a preference for “the genuine popular English of Saxon origin” which, as he notes, is “peculiarly adapted to the subjects” of the Bible and “in many passages, unit[es] sublimity with beautiful simplicity”(iii). Webster’s preference for a “peculiarly adapted” Anglo-Saxon does not, however, go unexplained. In the preface to his Dictionary, he explains this peculiarity by his theory of the affinity of languages.


An Affinity of Languages


As David Norton astutely notes, Webster’s etymological labours are directed towards illustrating the affinities of language (210-11). In the introduction to his dictionary, Webster takes seriously the notion of an original ur-language from which all existing languages have descended. Through Webster’s intensive etymological work (not to mention his fluency in apparently 13 languages), he has observed the “great number of words, consisting of the same or of cognate letters, and conveying the same ideas…found in them all.” The original language he references here is God’s gift of language to Adam. Citing Genesis, he notes that when God created Adam he already had the facility to speak. Upon reproval for eating the forbidden fruit, the Bible, according to Webster, tells how Adam and Eve “both replied to their Maker, and excused their disobedience.” From this narrative, Webster insists that God had furnished Adam “with both the faculty of speech, and with speech itself, or the knowledge and use of words.” It follows, therefore, that “language as well as the faculty of speech, was the immediate gift of God.”


Shemetic and Japhetic Language Groups


From here, Webster explains how different languages developed from the separate migrations of Noah’s sons, Shem and Japhet. The people of Shem settled the great plain north and west of the Persian Gulf. Derived from the original ur-language of Adam/Eve, their principal language was Chaldee, or Chaldiac (also called Aramean, Syriac, Hebrew, Arabic, Ethiopic, Samaritan, and Coptic). These languages, referred to by Webster as Shemitic or Assyrian (i.e. descendents of Shem), are distinct from the Japhetic languages. The descendents of Japhet peopled Asia Minor, northern Asia around the Caspian Sea, and Europe. Their principal language, also derived from the Adamic ur-language, gave rise to Teutonic, Celtic, and Saxon, referred to by Webster as Japhetic. The ultimate outcome of Webster’s theory is that the Japhetic languages of Celtic, Teutonic, and (most importantly) Saxon, are as old as the Shemetic languages of Syriac and Arabic (from which Hebrew, the first written language, is derived). As he notes in his introduction, “Saxon words constitute our mother tongue; being words which our ancestors brought with them from Asia…They are of equal antiquity with the Chaldee and Syriac.” The fact that Saxon is as old, if not older, than Hebrew, serves as justification for the “peculiarly adapted” purity of English translations.


Webster’s Revisions


While Webster is not the first to modernize the bible, he is, despite the noted inconsistency of his revisions (Norton 209ff), perhaps the most skilled lexicographer and linguist to do so (Unger 324). Given this background, it should come as no surprise that the majority of Webster’s revisions to the KJV involve grammatical corrections.  Webster’s Bible contains 111 word and phrasal changes for linguistic and grammatical reasons and 23 corrected mistranslations (Norton 207-8). The areas in which Webster revises the KJV are as follows:


Grammatical Corrections

            Webster’s incidental grammatical corrections include replacing which with who in reference to persons, replacing his with its in reference to plants or inanimate objects, and replacing shall for will and should for would. Perhaps the most dramatic grammatical error to warrant Webster’s attention is the KJV’s use of the subjunctive mood. Typically, the subjunctive mood of a verb denotes “an action or a state as conceived (and not as a fact) and therefore used to express a wish, command, exhortation, or a contingent, hypothetical, or prospective event (“Subjunctive” OED). In his preface to the Bible, Webster remarks that at the time that the KJV was being translated the subjunctive mood of the verb was “in more general use than it has been for the last century”(xiv). As with many of his more stylistic corrections, Webster’s linguistic model here is specifically an Augustan one, contrasting the KJV translators’ Elizabethan grammar with the contemporary standards of Joseph Addison (Norton 211-2). As he notes in his preface, the subjunctive form of the verb has “fallen into disuse, in the days of Addison…I have followed their example, as it is conformable to the most general use of the present age”(xiv). In revising the Elizabethan (over)use of the subjunctive, Webster betrays his willingness to revise the KJV according to a stylistic preference for Augustan grammatical standards, a willingness often guided by the “potentially dangerous” faculty of personal taste (Norton 203).

In relation to the KJV’s use of the subjunctive mood, Webster raises his second concern: its inconsistent use by the translators. The KJV’s preference for the subjunctive is “far from being uniformly used…[and] seems to have been guided by no rule”(xiv). Most egregiously, the KJV’s use of the subjunctive in the New Testament results in a mistranslation of the Greek indicative. The indicative mood of a verb typically states a fact as opposed to the possibility or wish that the subjunctive implies. The possible confusion that the KJV’s use of the subjunctive poses is illustrated by the passage from Matthew 4.6. In the KJV, the passage reads: “And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down”(KJV). In the KJV, it is unclear whether Matthew’s question, “If thou be,” asks whether Jesus is currently the Son of God (i.e. if thou art) or whether Jesus will, at some future point, be the Son of God (i.e. if thou shall be). Webster’s clarifies the confusion surrounding this theologically important passage by distinguishing between present fact and future possibility. In Webster’s translation, the passage reads as follows: “And saith to him, If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself, for it is written.” Webster’s concern with the incorrect use of the subjunctive mood is reflective of his larger desire to insure semantic clarity, to “[avoid] the use of words and phrases of equivocal significance,” through standardized grammatical practice (xv).


Errors of translation corrected


            Connected to Webster’s stylistic preference for Augustan English is his concern that the KJV translators “followed popular use [Elizabethan] instead of the original Greek”(xi). For example, in Luke 15.27 Webster criticizes the KJV translation of safe and sound, arguing that this is an instance of idiomatic Elizabethan English that is not justified by the Greek words, which merely denote well or in health. A similar example occurs in Webster’s revision of Gen 19.9 and Matt. 12.24, wherein the KJV translators render the original Hebrew/Greek words for man as the colloquial fellow. Webster is particularly offended by this mistranslation because it “it implies contempt, which may have been felt”(x). The “translator should not,” he insists, “add to the original what is not certainly known to have been the fact”(x). Humorously indicative of Webster’s generally inconsistent manner of revising the Bible, three entries later he notes of the passage “The door shall be opened”(Matt 7.7), that “The word door is not in the original, but is necessarily implied in the verb”(x).


“Some obscure passages, illustrated”(iv).


Reflective of his willingness to augment the meaning of the original Greek/Hebrew is Webster’s efforts to illustrate” certain “obscure passages.” Attempting to clarify the meaning of the Bible is open to accusations (as Webster was certainly aware) of arrogance. However, he makes some interesting claims. In his discussion of Proverbs 15.7: “The lips of the wise disperse knowledge,” Webster opts to replace the word disperse with diffuse. He justifies this by noting: “To disperse is to dissipate or scatter so as to destroy the thing. This cannot be the meaning of the author. He meant to say, spread or diffuse knowledge”(viii). Similarly confident of his own interpretation of scripture, he clarifies the meaning of a passage in Matt 23.24: Strain at a gnat. He argues that, in both the context of passage and the Greek original, the expression should be rendered “strain out a gnat, as by passing liquor through a colander or a filter. It is not a doubtful point. At may have been a misprint for out, in the first copies”(x).


Obsolete Words


            Perhaps the most obvious step in clarifying the language of the scriptures for nineteenth-century audiences is the series of verbal changes that Webster makes. Firstly, he removes all terms from KJV that have become obsolete by 1833. For example, he replaces part for deal (as in a tenth part of flour), capital for chapiter (the top of a column), and cows for kine.


Semantic Changes


            Secondly, Webster alters words in the KJV whose meaning has shifted significantly from 1611 to 1833. For example, the biblical term usury is replaced with the word interest. In 1830, usury denotes unlawful interest while the sense of usury in the KJV simply refers to compensation (unlawful or otherwise) for the use of money. Similarly, Webster revises the KJV term fornication, replacing it with lewdness. Webster argues that in modern law and usage, the term fornication has a far more limited technical meaning than signified in the bible. For example, the sense of the lexeme in 1833 is limited to sexual intercourse, while the 1611 sense of the term is extended to include adultery and other unsanctioned sexual acts.


Repairing the elegance of scriptural language


            In the introduction to Webster’s Bible he lists a series of revisions in which “some quaint and vulgar phrases which are not relished by those who love a pure style, and which are not in accordance with the general tenor of the language”(iii). Among these decidedly arbitrary stylistic changes he replaces the verb plague with the verb afflict, arguing that the former is “now too low or vulgar for a scriptural word”(viii). Similarly, he replaces spew with vomit, slew with killed, and master with teacher (viii-x).




            In what might justifiably be termed a bowdlerization of the Bible, Webster is intent on removing the many words and phrases potentially “offensive to delicacy”(iv). Connecting purity of mind to a purity of language, Webster justifies such expurgation by arguing that “purity of language is one of the guards which protect this virtue”(xvi). Principally, his desire is to prevent the alienation of children and females from the Bible. Moreover, euphemizing the Bible serves the purpose of focusing the reader’s attention on the content rather than the language of its delivery. He argues that the effect of vulgar and offensive phrases is “to divert the mind from the matter to the language of the scriptures, and thus, in a degree, frustrate the purpose of giving instruction”(xvi). Webster’s last point here is crucial, for he seeks to create a version of the Bible in which language become transparent to the message of God. That is to say, the language, transformed into the common idiom of the day, becomes unnoticed. Only then can the whole mind focus on the Word of God rather than the word of the translator. 

Prominent examples of Webster’s euphemizing include the replacement of “closed up the womb” with “made barren,” the replacement of “stink” with “odious” “putrefy” and “offensive,” the replacement of “whore” “whoredom” and whoremonger” with “lewd woman” “harlot” “lewdness” and “lewd person,” the replacement of “piss” with excretions,” and the replacement of “spilled it on the ground” in reference to Onan’s actions with “frustrated his purpose”(xvi; Marlowe).


The Lord’s Name in Vain


Related to Webster’s concern with protecting the purity of the Bible is his revision of the KJV’s use of the Lord’s name. Webster’s excises Would God, Would to God, God forbid, and God speed. Arguing again that the use of such terms is “not authorized by the original language,” he goes on to suggest that by inserting such phrases in the Bible, the KJV translators have “given countenance to the practice of introducing them into discourses and public speeches, with a levity that is incompatible with a due veneration for the name of God”(ix). To this end, he replaces Would God with O that and God forbid with Let it not be and I wish it not to be (ix).


Continued Dominance of the KJV in America


            Compared to the vast number of American editions of the KJV, new American translations were relatively small. Moreover, notwithstanding the pervasive influence of Joseph Smith’s translation, American translations like Webster’s 1833 Bible seem to have had almost no effect on the American public. Why did the American public not see the publication of an American Bible as a necessary corollary to their political and cultural independence from Britain?(Daniell 643). David Daniell provides the compelling suggestion that in an era of increasing social fragmentation, party politics, and religious sectarianism, the Bible, of all things, needed to remain “solid, unchangeable, revered, a true Sacred Text, that would not admit a single change”(654). It is perhaps for this reason that Webster’s own revision remains so true to the KJV. In attempting to clarify and improve upon the language of the KJV, Webster could not justify tampering with language of the Common Version, a version that, over two hundred years after its first publication, retained its status as the veritable Ark of the Covenant (Daniell 652). 


Suggestions for Further Reading


Chamberlain, William J. Catalogue of English Bible Translations: A Classified Bibliography of Versions and Editions Including Books, Parts, and Old and New Testament Apocrypha and Apocryphal Books. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.


Coxe, Arthur Cleveland. An Apology for the Common English Bible. Baltimore: J. Robinson, 1857.

Hatch, Nathan O. and Mark A. Noll, eds. The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Hills, Margaret. The English Bible in America. New York: American Bible Society, 1962.


O'Callaghan, Edward. A List of Editions of the Holy Scriptures and Parts Thereof. Albany, N.Y.: Munsell & Rowland, 1861.


Orlinsky, Harry M., and Robert G. Bratcher. A History of Bible Translation and the North American Contribution. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991.

Simms, Paris Marion. The Bible in America: Versions that have Played their Part in the Making of the Republic. New York: Wilson-Erickson 1936.

Works Cited


Daniell, David. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.


Gutjahr, Paul C. “The State of the Discipline: Sacred Texts in the United States.” 335-370.


Gutjahr, Paul C. An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.


Marlowe, Michael. Introduction. “Webster’s Revision of the KJV (1833).” 20 November 2005.

McCarl, Mary Rhinelander. "Eliot, John.” American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Wed Dec 14 2005.

Norton, David. “Noah Webster’s 1833 Bible.” Reformation 4 (1999): 197-229.


Scanlin, Harold B. “Bible Translation by American Individuals.” The Bible and Bibles in America. Ed. Ernest S. Frerichs. Atlanta: Scholars P, 1988. 43-82.


Stein. Stephen J. “American Bibles: Canon, Commentary, and Community.” Church History 64.2 (1995): 169-184.


Unger, Harlow Giles. Noah Webster: The Life and Times of an American Patriot. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1998.


Warfel, Harry R. “The Centenary of Noah Webster’s Bible” The New England Quarterly 7 (September 1934): 578-582.


Webster, Noah. An American Dictionary of the English Language…in two volumes. New York, 1828.


Webster, Noah, ed. 1833. The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, in the Common Version. With Amendments of the Language. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987.



Wosh, Peter J. Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.