Noah Webster Bible
By Ken Zurski
Palos Heights, Illinois, a small southwest suburb of Chicago, is listed in at least one version of the Holy Bible. Not in scripture, of course, but in the Preface of the New International Version, a commonly used edition today, published in 1978. It reads “…a group of scholars met at Palos Heights, Illinois, and concurred in the need for a new translation of the Bible in contemporary English.”
Amazing as that seems, the story behind the story, is just as revealing.
And it all begins with a golf course.
In 1929, a showcase 18-hole golf course opened in an unincorporated grassy area southwest of Chicago known as Navajo Fields, named, of course, for its earliest residents. The Navajo Fields Golf Course proved to be a player’s delight, including its most challenging hole number four. Although the reason why the fourth hole’s play was such a challenge is not exactly known, it certainly earned a dubious reputation at the time. Despite the toughness of the course, however, the clubhouse was decorative and cozy with several steeple ceilings and large bay windows. It served many banquets for groups who traveled out of Chicago’s fancy hotels and convention halls for a gathering in a more secluded setting.
By the early 1950’s, Navajo Fields was one of the premium golf courses in the Chicago area and each spring excited players lined up to tee off. “The prolonged coating of snow during the winter has had the effect of preserving the turf, “ course officials bragged to the Blue Island Sun Standard in 1953. “The course is in beautiful shape this year.” Even hole number four, which “plagued many golfers,” was changed. “It has been rebuilt and enlarged and the hole will have an alternate tee.”
Regrettably , the course would only last a few more years.
In 1959 the area surrounding the golf course was incorporated and renamed Palos Heights, a small suburb of Chicago with only four square miles of land and water (Lake Katherine), but today boasts nearly 5,000 mostly upscale homes in neatly designed subdivisions.
Also that year, the privately funded Trinity Christian College bought the Navajo Fields grounds, including the two buildings. The golf course was subsequently closed. The old clubhouse was remodeled and became the school’s administration building, while the pro shop became the music building. The unaccredited college opened that fall with 37 students and 5 full time faculty members.
Then in 1965, the college hosted a special meeting of religious leaders to discuss a proposal to change the Old English wording of the Bible. Specifically, to make the King James Version easier to read, more understandable and sustainable to long-term teaching. They gathered in the old clubhouse building and came up with a plan.
Here’s why: In 1952, a Revised Standard Version of the Bible was released by the National Council of Churches, the ecumenical body of mainline Protestant denominations in the United States. Opponents of the new version, mostly hardliner Protestant conservatives, more commonly known as Evangelicals, refused to adopt it, sticking with the original King James version for scripture readings instead.
Change was needed.
So the Evangelical council along with the Christian Reformed Church, a group founded by Dutch immigrants, who were also looking for a more streamlined and Americanized version of the Bible, came to Palos Heights.
Why they chose Trinity Christian College is curious, but understandable. It was discreet and private, yes, but also represented the type of educational institution a translated bible would benefit the most. Plus, if it didn’t go as planned, no one would know. Not much was publicized while the work commenced. A New York group would fund the project.
This reticent attitude is likely due to the monumental challenge and possible backlash for such an undertaking. The Revised Standard Version was widely considered to be the first time the King James version had been extensively tinkered with since the early 17th century.
But that was not entirely true.
In the early 19th century, Noah Webster, yes, the dictionary guru, also wanted to change the King James Version of the Holy Bible. He had a different agenda, however. He hated what the majesty’s version stood for. Not the religious aspect, that was fine, but it was too British, too overbearing, offensive and insulting. So Webster set out to make it more American, and the language, more like Americans speak. This is what Americans wanted, he thought.
He was wrong. While his intentions were noble enough, the King James Version even after the end of British rule, continued to be accepted in America. Webster refused to back down. He went to work changing words he didn’t like and fixing grammar problems he called “atrocious.”
Webster’s “Holy Bible … with Amendments of the Language” or “Common Version” appeared in 1833. It was a colossal failure. A big, wordy waste of time, many thought. So dismissed, that a year later in 1834, Webster put out another book, an apology of sorts, but defending the Bible’s message and Christianity as a whole. Even at the age of seventy, he emphasized the importance of its completion. “I consider this emendation of the common version as the most important enterprise of my life,” he said.
Webster was off by nearly a hundred years.
By the mid 20th century, large church denominations were opening privately funded colleges and teaching the word of the Bible to students in hopes of sparking a revolution in religious educators and young pastors. The King James version of the Bible needed a revision. The Revised Standard Edition was a start. But the Evangelicals thought they could do better. So in Palos Heights, they came up with imperatives. For one, they needed more denominations to join in. They also needed a slew of scholars from around the world to participate. This unity -and variety – would safeguard it from sectarian bias, they thought, something the Revised Standard Edition did not do. Soon enough they assembled a team of scholars from a group of churches: Anglican, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Brethren, Church of Christ, Evangelical Free, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, Nazarene, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, among others. The next year, at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, they put their plan to work.
According to the Preface of the New International Version, the detailed process went like this:
The translation of each book was assigned to a group of scholars. Next, one of the Intermediate Editorial Committees revised the initial translation, with constant reference to the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. Their work then went to one of the General Editorial Committees, which checked it in detail and made another thorough revision. This revision in turn was carefully reviewed by the Committee on Bible Translation, which made further changes and then released the final version for publication.
Among the many changes, old verbs like “doest,” “wouldest” and “hadst” were tossed out and replaced. Pronouns like “Thou” and “Thine” – referring to the Deity – were also considered too archaic. “If there was uncertainty about such material, it is enclosed in brackets,” explained the Committee on Bible Translation. “Also for the sake of clarity or style, nouns, including some proper nouns, are sometimes substituted for pronouns, and vice-versa.”
Among the more interesting added features were the italicized sectional headings. This is the one part of the new work that was wholly generated by present day writers. They are simple chapter titles designed to give the reader quick reference in themes. For example, in the Book of John some of the headings include, Jesus Walks on Water and The Plot to Kill Jesus.
It took nearly 10 years and several revisions before the New International Version was published in 1978 and although slight additions and subtractions would come later, the original vision remains the same. “The most massive and painstaking literary tour de force in history,” one newspaper writer enthused upon its initial release.
Dr . Burton L Goddard, a theologian who worked on the new Bible was grateful, but relieved. “We all acknowledge this to be the hardest work we have ever known,” he expressed.
Trinity Christian College still sits on the grounds of the old golf course in Palos Heights. In 1966, the board initiated the process for the college to become a four-year, degree-granting institution. The first baccalaureate degrees were awarded in May 1971. More buildings were added but many were built similar in style to original clubhouse. Today it’s still considered a small school by college standards, with just over 1500 in enrollment.
In 1983, during a new printing of the New International Version a line was added to the Preface to reflect a very Christian-like humble attitude: “Like all translations of the Bible, made as they are by imperfect man, this one undoubtedly falls short of its goals.”
Oh, the anxieties of high expectations.
Kind of like playing golf.
By Ken Zurski
Noah Webster hated the King James Version of the Holy Bible. He hated the name. He hated what it stood for. Not the religious aspect, that was fine. The rest, however, was too British for Webster’s taste. It was overbearing, offensive and insulting. So the Dictionary guru set out to change it. He set out to make it more American, and the language, more like Americans speak.
It was a colossal failure.
Don’t blame poor Webster, however. His intentions were noble enough. But for generations the King James Version of the Bible, even after the end of British rule, continued to be accepted and revered in America, as it still is today. For many, words like eschew, thereon, slew or spew were just words, not language translation mistakes. Webster, however, cringed.
He changed slew – or slay – to kill. And the use of spew, well, that wasn’t descriptive enough for the fastidious Webster. But vomit was. And what about the grammar within its pages? Just atrocious, Webster thought.
Webster’s “Holy Bible … with Amendments of the Language” or “Common Version” appeared in 1833. It’s not known how badly it was received in the early part of the nineteenth century, but a year later in 1834, Webster put out another book, an apology of sorts, defending the Bible’s message and Christianity as a whole. Webster had grossly underestimated the power of a book and the beauty of its language, despite the misplaced commas and invented words – like stinketh.
Webster’s version may have been grammatically correct and a more modernized version, but many considered it a big, wordy waste of time.
Webster, however, didn’t back down. Even at the age of seventy, he emphasized the importance of its completion. “I consider this emendation of the common version as the most important enterprise of my life,” he said using the word emendation without pause, which was acceptable at the time.
Today, it could use Webster’s own judicious editorial sense.
And be, ahem, emended.
Correction would work better.