Baptist History Homepage

History of the Baptists of Illinois
By Edward P. Brand

The Bible Controversy

[p. 128]
A matter which caused much excitement among Baptists the world over, back in the '30's and onwards, was the matter of Bible translation. It led to our separation from the American Bible Society. In a document issued by pope Gregory, May 8, 1844, sealed with his leaden seal, he said:
"We confirm and renew the decree . . . against the publication, distribution, reading and possession of books of the holy scripture translated into the vulgar tongue."
This was directed against the Bible Societies of Europe and America, and they might have exclaimed in the language of Adonizedek: "As I have done so God has requited me." For only a few years before the Societies had forbidden the translation of certain Bible words into any of the languages of the world where such translation had not already been made. In substance the Societies and the pope were in agreement.

When William Carey and his colleagues at Serampore made their Hindu translation of the Bible, they translated the scripture word "baptizo" by a Hindu word meaning to immerse. Their only alternative was to leave it untranslated. By and by the pedobaptist missionaries began to discover that their people objected to sprinkling as a substitute for baptism on the ground that it was not in scripture. But if it was not in scripture it ought to be! So about 1827 a protest was sent to the British Bible Society against aiding in the circulation of the Serampore versions. Through some of the Baptist brethren pressure was brought to bear on Mr. Carey to induce him to transfer the offending word and let it alone, or to translate it by one of the many words which it did not mean. But he steadily refused to abandon his principle of translating every word of scripture into the native tongue. He held that the command to baptize was the command to do a certain act, that the act was defined in the word used in the command, and that his duty as translator was to make the command as plain in the translation as it was in the original. So in 1833 the British Bible Society declared that they would no longer aid versions in which "baptize" was translated. They did not realize that in so far as they succeeded in abolishing the symbol
[p. 129]
they would abolish that which the symbol stands for, viz: Death to sin and resurrection to a new life.

In 1835 application was made to the American Bible Society in New York for aid in printing Carey's Bengali version, and after nine months' discussion the application was refused. It was the most embarrassing question the brethren ever had to settle. On the one hand was their knowledge of the meaning of the word; on the other hand was their denominational practice. They chose to stand by the latter. The work of the Society was to circulate the scriptures "in the received versions where they exist and in the most faithful where they may be required." And "faithful," so they decided, meant faithful to the "Church." The word being left untranslated "can be explained by each missionary according to the peculiar views of his denomination." But why not according to the peculiar views of our Lord Jesus Christ?

At a meeting of the British Bible Society a missionary explained that in the Tahitian version they had not translated the word "baptize," "What meaning has it in the Tahitian language?" asked a gentleman in the audience. "Just what meaning we please to assign to it, sir!" was the answer. The final decision of the American Bible Society was announced at their annual meeting, May 12, 1836. They refused to aid the printing of Judson's Burman Bible. The following day the Baptist delegates withdrew and organized provisionally a new Society. We have been doing our own Bible work ever since. April 27, 1837, three hundred delegates from Baptist churches met at Philadelphia, and organized the American & Foreign Bible Society. All this made a great stir at the time. Many who were not Baptists disapproved of the action of the Bible Societies. The "Independent"said:
"The Society plants itself squarely on the position of the "Church" of Rome, that the common people shall not be allowed every word of scripture, to read it with their own eyes, and draw from it what conclusions they think reasonable, but that a portion of the sacred oracles shall be doled out to them by their spiritual guides. . . . Gentlemen, it is not a right thing to do. The only question you have to ask is whether the translation is faithful to the Greek. If it is not, condemn it; if it is, publish it."
How can we account for this phenomenon of christian brethren strenuously contending fora translation which they dare not translate? In an edition of the gospel of John in the dialect of the Delaware Indians "baptizo" was boldly translated "sprinkle," but the Bible Society bastened to disown it. At a meeting of the board of managers
[p. 130]
of the Society one had the temerity to move that the board declare immersion an "unfaithful" version. It would have been an immense relief if it could have been done, but of course it was impossible. We may consider two things: First, the average man of us finds it difficult to acknowledge mistakes. Second, denominatiqnal interests are akin to vested interests. The very fact that one is contending to save such interest warps the judgment and prevents a judicial frame of mind. However, the board of managers did not justify their action on either of these considerations, but on the theory that the word is not translatable; that "bapto" means to dip, but "baptizo" has forgotten its origin. It cannot be so translated that from the translation alone its meaning shall be intelligible. This is in substance the papal theory, that scripture cannot be so translated as to be understood without a teacher. It is not true. It is a theory made in the interest of an ecclesiastical system. The Bible and every command and promise in it may be understood by every one. If it was otherwise it would be for us no charter of human liberty, or eternal blessing.

[Edward P. Brand, Illinois Baptists -- A History, 1930, pp. 128-130. -- jrd]

Return to Illinois Baptist Index Page
Return to American Baptist Histories
Return to HOME Page