A controversy more serious in its results upon the denomination was that which grew out of the question of the circulation of the Scriptures. In the year 1816, the American Bible Society was formed by delegates representing seven denominations of Christians. There had been local Bible Societies previous to this time. This organization was intended to be a national society, in which all American Christians might co-operate. Its formation was due to the success of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the organization of which in 1804 was directly owing to the agency of Rev. Joseph Hughes, an English Baptist. The Baptists of America were active in the work of the Society from the first, and contributed generously to its treasury. The object of the Society was avowed, at the time of its organization, to be "the dissemination of the Scriptures in the received versions where they exist, and in the most faithful where they are required." In accordance with this principle, for the first eighteen years of its existence the Society appropriated money from its funds for the printing and circulation of versions of the Scriptures in many languages, made by missionaries of various denominations.
Perhaps Doctor Judson's greatest service in the cause of missions was the translation of the entire Bible into the Burmese language. It was his life-work, and remains to this day the only version of the Scriptures in that tongue.1 All competent witnesses have borne testimony
1 It is true that in recent years copies of the Scriptures have been put in circulation in Burma in which baptizo and its cognates are transliterated or mistranslated; but these are not independent versions, only Pedobaptist revisions of the Judson Bible.
from the first to the faithfulness and elegance of his translation. The New Testament was printed at Moulmein in 1832, and the Old Testament two years later. Appropriations for this purpose were made by the American Bible Society. It was well understood on all hands, through official communications and otherwise, that the missionaries sent out by the American Baptists, in all their versions of the Scriptures endeavored to ascertain the precise meaning of the original text and to express that meaning as exactly as possible, transferring no words into the vernacular for which a proper equivalent could be found. In accordance with this principle, Doctor Judson's version rendered baptizo and its cognates by a Burman word meaning to immerse, or dip. During this same period appropriations were voted for the circulation of other missionary versions, made by other than Baptist missionaries, yet made on the same principle of translation, though they did not agree with Judson as to the meaning of baptizo. In 1835 the propriety of this course was for the first time questioned. In that year application was made to the Society for an appropriation to aid in printing and circulating a version of the Scriptures in Bengali, made on the principle of Doctor Judson.
This application was discussed in committee and in the full Board for many months. The Baptist members of the Board vainly urged that the Society had already appropriated eighteen thousand dollars for the circulation of Doctor Judson's version, with full knowledge of its nature; that this was the only version in Burmese in existence, and that the alternative was either to circulate this or deprive the Burmese of the gospel; and that the adoption of another rule introduced a new and necessarily divisive principle into the Society's policy. At length, by a vote of twenty to fourteen, the managers
rejected the application and formulated for the guidance of the Society a new rule regarding versions-that they would "encourage only such versions as conformed in the principle of their translation to the common English version, at least, so far that all the religious denominations represented in this Society can consistently use and circulate said versions in their several schools and communities." At its next annual meeting in May, 1836, the Society approved the action of the managers.
Of course this decision made it impossible for Baptists to co-operate with the Society except at the sacrifice of their self-respect. In April, 1837, a convention was held in Philadelphia, composed of three hundred and ninety delegates from twenty-three States, and the American and Foreign Bible Society was organized, Doctor Cone being elected president. Dr. Charles G. Sommers, of New York, was the first corresponding secretary, and William Colgate the first treasurer. From the first there was difference of opinion among the supporters of this Society on one question, namely, the making of a new version of the Scriptures in English. Baptists were practically a unit in maintaining that all new versions into foreign languages should faithfully render every word of the original by the corresponding word of the vernacular. But many Baptists doubted the expediency, and still more questioned the necessity, of making a new version in our own tongue. The discussion of this question went on until May, 1850, when, after long and warm debate, the Society voted to circulate only received versions in English, without note or comment.
In the following June the American Bible Union was organized. Its object was declared to be "to procure and circulate the most faithful versions of the Scriptures in all languages throughout the world." The principle of translation adopted by the Union was to render
every word of the original Scriptures into the vernacular word which would most nearly represent its meaning as determined by the best modern scholarship. This work was prosecuted with much energy, and revised versions of the Scriptures were printed and circulated in Spanish and Italian, Chinese, Siamese, and Karen. The Union also issued a version of the New Testament in English, in 1865, which has since passed through several careful revisions and is a most faithful, accurate, and idiomatic translation. It may still be had of the American Baptist Publication Society, and every Baptist should possess a copy; for, however much the King James' version may commend itself for use in public and private devotions, this more literal rendering is of the greatest service to one who would understand exactly what the New Testament teaches. From time to time parts of the Old Testament also have been published, and eminent scholars are now completing a translation, with notes, of the remaining books, under the auspices of the American Baptist Publication Society.2
Fierce denominational conflicts resulted from this division of effort among Baptists regarding the Bible work. Many continued from the first to co-operate with the American Bible Society, especially in the circulation of the received English versions. The remainder who took any interest in Bible work were divided in their affections between two organizations, and the participants of each waged a hot warfare against the others. At every denominational gathering the strife broke out. The newspapers of the denomination were full of it, and in time the churches became heartily tired and showed their sentiments by discontinuing their contributions. As the receipts dwindled and the work contracted, efforts were
2 The work at this time (1906) is being pushed forward, and it is hoped that another year will witness its completion.
made from time to time toward a reunion of the American and Foreign Bible Society and the American Bible Union, and one or both Societies tried to effect a union with the American Baptist Publication Society. These efforts, which continued from 1869 to 1880, and even afterward, proved complete failures.
Finally, the whole question of Bible work, as done by the Baptists, was referred to a Bible convention, in which the denomination at large should be represented; and such a convention was held at Saratoga in May, 1883. It was unanimously decided to recommend both the existing Bible Societies practically to disband, and to commit the Bible work on the home field to the American Baptist Publication Society, while that on the foreign field should be done by the American Baptist Missionary Union. This was felt on all hands to be a happy decision of the vexed question, and since that time the denomination has enjoyed a season of peace, at least as regards the question of its Bible work. ================
[Henry C. Vedder, A Short History of the Baptists, 1907, pp. 336-340. The title is supplied by the editor. — jrd]
Bible Controversy Index
Baptist History Homepage