The unfolding of Your words gives light;
It gives understanding to the simple.
Noah Webster Jr. (1758 – 1843) – probably the most famous American ‘dictionary guy’ – lived in exciting times marked by great changes. He was a member of the Connecticut Militia during the Revolutionary War, a schoolmaster, author, and journalist, who worked to help create and sustain an American identity truly distinct from an English identity. He seems not to have had a longing for the Old World, as I have as a descendent of fairly recent immigrants. He wanted to help forge American English and to provide a Bible accessible to Americans, especially children. He wrote a spelling book, grammar, and reader, and did a revision of the KJV. Here are some of Noah’s thoughts about the Bible:
“All the miseries and evils which men suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery and war, proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible.”
“Education is useless without the Bible.”
The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, in the Common Version. With Amendments of the Language.
New Haven: Durrie and Peck, 1833. Reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987.
Noah Webster, ed.
The English version of the sacred scriptures now in general use was first published in the year 1611, in the reign of James I. Although the translators made many alterations in the language of former versions, yet no small part of the language is the same as that of the versions made in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
In the present version, the language is, in general, correct and perspicuous; the genuine popular English of Saxon origin; peculiarly adapted to the subjects; and in many passages, uniting sublimity with beautiful simplicity. In my view, the general style of the version ought not to be altered.
But 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. Some words have fallen into disuse; and the signification of others, in current popular use, is not the same now as it was when they were introduced into the version. The effect of these changes is, that some words are not understood by common readers, who have no access to commentaries, and who will always compose a great proportion of readers; while other words, being now used in a sense different from that which they had when the translation was made, present a wrong signification or false ideas. Whenever words are understood in a sense different from that which they had when introduced, and different from that of the original languages, they do not present to the reader the Word of God. This circumstance is very important, even in things not the most essential; and in essential points mistakes may be very injurious.
In my own view of this subject, 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.
The inaccuracies in grammar, such as which for who, his for its, shall for will, should for would, and others, are very numerous in the present version.
There are also 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. To these may be added many words and phrases very offensive to delicacy and even to decency. In the opinion of all persons with whom I have conversed on this subject, such words and phrases ought not to be retained in the version. Language which cannot be uttered in company without a violation of decorum, or the rules of good breeding, exposes the scriptures to the scoffs of unbelievers, impairs their authority, and multiplies or confirms the enemies of our holy religion.
These considerations, with the approbation of respectable men, the friends of religion and good judges of this subject, have induced me to undertake the task of revising the language of the common version of the scriptures, and of presenting to the public an edition with such amendments, as will better express the true sense of the original languages, and remove objections to particular parts of the phraseology.
In performing this task, I have been careful to avoid unnecessary innovations, and to retain the general character of the style. The principal alterations are comprised in three classes.
- The substitution of words and phrases now in good use, for such as are wholly obsolete, or deemed below the dignity and solemnity of the subject.
- The correction of errors in grammar.
- The insertion of euphemisms, words and phrases which are not very offensive to delicacy, in the place of such as cannot, with propriety, be uttered before a promiscuous audience. [‘mingled’, Webster’s 1828]
A few errors in the translation, which are admitted on all hands to be obvious, have been corrected; and some obscure passages, illustrated. In making these amendments, I have consulted the original languages, and also several translations and commentaries. In the body of the work, my aim has been to preserve, but in certain passages, more clearly to express the sense of the present version.
The language of the Bible has no inconsiderable influence in forming and preserving our national language. On this account, the language of the common version ought to be correct in grammatical construction, and in the use of appropriate words. This is the more important, as men who are accustomed to read the Bible with veneration are apt to contract a predilection for its phraseology, and thus to become attached to phrases which are quaint or obsolete. This may be a real misfortune; for the use of words and phrases, when they have ceased to be a part of the living language, and appear odd or singular, impairs the purity of the language, and is apt to create a disrelish for it in those who have not, by long practice, contracted a like predilection. It may require some effort to subdue this predilection; but it may be done, and for the sake of the rising generation, it is desirable. The language of the scriptures ought to be pure, chaste, simple and perspicuous, free from any words or phrases which may excite observation by their singularity; and neither debased by vulgarisms, nor tricked out with the ornaments of affected elegance.
As there are diversities of tastes among men, it is not to be expected that the alterations I have made in the language of the version will please all classes of readers. Some persons will think I have done too little; others, too much. And probably the result would be the same, were a revision to be executed by any other hand, or even by the joint labors of many hands. All I can say is, that I have executed this work in the manner which, in my judgment, appeared to be the best.
To avoid giving offense to any denomination of Christians, I have not knowingly made any alteration in the passages of the present version, on which the different denominations rely for the support of their peculiar tenets.
In this country there is no legislative power which claims to have the right to prescribe what version of the scriptures shall be used in the churches, or by the people. And as all human opinions are fallible, it is doubtless for the interest of religion that no authority should be exerted in this case, except by commendation.
At the same time, it is very important that all denominations of Christians should use the same version, that in all public discourses, treatises and controversies, the passages cited as authorities should be uniform. Alterations in the popular version should not be frequent; but the changes incident to all living languages render it not merely expedient, but necessary at times to introduce such alterations as will express the true sense of the original languages, in the current language of the age. A version thus amended may require no alteration for two or three centuries to come.
In this undertaking, I subject myself to the charge of arrogance; but I am not conscious of being actuated by any improper motive. I am aware of the sensitiveness of the religious public on this subject; and of the difficulties which attend the performance. But all men whom I have consulted, if they have thought much on the subject, seem to be agreed in the opinion, that it is high time to have a revision of the common version of the scriptures; although no person appears to know how or by whom such revision is to be executed. In my own view, such revision is not merely a matter of expedience, but of moral duty; and as I have been encouraged to undertake this work by respectable literary and religious characters, I have ventured to attempt a revision upon my own responsibility. If the work should fail to be well received, the loss will be my own, and I hope no injury will be done. I have been painfully solicitous that no error should escape me. The reasons for the principal alterations introduced, will be found in the explanatory notes.
The Bible 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. With this estimate of its value, I have attempted to render the English version more useful, by correcting a few obvious errors, and removing some obscurities, with objectionable words and phrases; and my earnest prayer is that my labors may not be wholly unsuccessful.
New Haven, September, 1833
“Webster in early life was something of a freethinker, but in 1808 he became a convert to Calvinistic orthodoxy, and thereafter became a devout Congregationalist who preached the need to Christianize the nation. Webster grew increasingly authoritarian and elitist, fighting against the prevailing grain of Jacksonian Democracy. Webster viewed language as a tool to control unruly thoughts. His American Dictionary emphasized the virtues of social control over human passions and individualism, submission to authority, and fear of God; they were necessary for the maintenance of the American social order. As he grew older, Webster’s attitudes changed from those of an optimistic revolutionary in the 1780s to those of a pessimistic critic of man and society by the 1820s.
“His 1828 American Dictionary contained the greatest number of Biblical definitions given in any reference volume. Webster considered education ‘useless without the Bible.’ Webster released his own edition of the Bible in 1833, called the Common Version. He used the King James Version (KJV) as a base and consulted the Hebrew and Greek along with various other versions and commentaries. Webster molded the KJV to correct grammar, replaced words that were no longer used, and did away with words and phrases that could be seen as offensive.
“In 1834, he published Value of the Bible and Excellence of the Christian Religion, an apologetic book in defense of the Bible and Christianity itself.”