Catholics and the King James Bible: Stories from England, Ireland, and America

Ellie Gebarowski-Shafer. Scottish Journal of Theology. Volume 66, Issue 3. August 2013.

Much like other major versions of the Bible in the history of Christianity, such as the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, the King James Bible often stood at the centre of vigorous debates over issues of text, translation, canon and interpretation. For some, the KJB became a national treasure, a monument of literary excellence, of theological and textual accuracy, sometimes all of the above; for others, not so much. Roman Catholics, in particular, objected to the widespread use of the KJB, especially in missionary contexts where evangelical Protestants tended to depict Catholicism as an ‘anti-biblical’ religion and reading the KJB as the path to salvation. By far the most systematic and long-lived Catholic attack on the KJB is found in the argument and afterlife of a curious Counter-Reformation text, Thomas Ward’s Errata of the Protestant Bible.

This book is not completely unknown, yet many scholars have puzzled over exactly what to make of it and all its successor editions in the nineteenth century—at least a dozen, often in connection with an edition of the Douai-Rheims Bible. It was first published in 1688, in an attempt to rally support for the Catholic cause in the twilight of Charles II’s reign. It was based on a 1582 book by Gregory Martin, translator of the Catholic Douai-Rheims Bible, called A Discoverie of the Manifold Corruptions of the Holy Scriptures by the Heretikes of our Daies. A skilled Hebraist and scholar of the Greek New Testament, Martin nonetheless maintained that the Latin Vulgate text was more authentic than both the text of the Greek New Testament (which was thought to have been corrupted by the ‘schismatical’ Greek Orthodox Church) and the text of the Hebrew Old Testament (allegedly tampered with by medieval rabbis). Martin claimed that Protestant English versions of the Bible, from the Great Bible of 1539 to the Bishops’ Bible, had falsely rendered the text of Holy Scripture, heretically foisting in readings which undermined Catholic doctrines and supported Protestant beliefs. The Rheims New Testament (RNT) was refuted in full by William Fulke in 1589 and also by Thomas Cartwright. Thomas Ward, an Anglican convert to Catholicism and a self-taught scholar, updated Gregory Martin’s argument to include readings from the KJB which had been ‘corrected’ or still remained in doctrinal error. Ward’s text and its successive reprints kept alive the Counter-Reformation view, as previously articulated at the Council of Trent, that vernacular translations of the Bible were useful and edifying when read with ecclesiastical approval, yet should be made only from the Latin Vulgate.

Ward’s Errata then experienced a particularly prosperous career in nineteenth-century Ireland. The British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), founded in 1804, resolved to circulate Bibles ’without note or comment,’ in an effort to make the Bible as non-sectarian as possible. Yet many priests in Ireland saw the Bible of Protestants as exactly that: a Protestant Bible which worked to sway the reader or hearer away from traditional Catholicism. In 1807, Dublin printer Richard Coyne published a new edition of Ward’s Errata, based on a 1737 reprint overseen by Bishop Challoner. Coyne’s edition, and a second one in 1810, caused immediate scandal in the Protestant community and prompted several full-length refutations.

What was so threatening about the book at this point in Anglo-Irish history was that it showed specific textual reasons for why many Irish Catholics did not want to accept or read copies of the KJB which were offered to them by the BFBS. No longer could Catholics and Catholic clergy be dismissed by the English as merely anti-biblical. To make matters worse, Ward’s Errata was used to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the official Church of England and its ordained clergy, the basis of which was, according to Ward, founded on a heretical translation of scripture.

The American afterlife of Ward’s Errata deserves attention as well. The first American edition was published in 1824, in Philadelphia. The publishing career of an Irish Catholic immigrant of the late eighteenth century, Mathew Carey, illustrates the impact it had. Originally from Dublin, Carey came to Philadelphia in 1784. Although he produced an American edition of the Douai-Rheims Bible early in his publishing career, he had no qualms about publishing sixty editions of the more profitable KJB from 1801 to 1825. Ironically, many of his Bible editions were published for the explicit purpose of being sold as textbooks to American public schools, creating the very situation that the next generation of Irish immigrants would find completely unacceptable. Things began to change in Carey’s world of publishing after the American Bible Society (ABS) was founded in Philadelphia, just four years after the BFBS. It took only about a decade to amass the financial and human resources needed to distribute Bibles on a large scale, with the goal of providing every family and every schoolchild in America with a copy of the Bible.

Many Roman Catholics took exception to the mission of the ABS after it had become a powerful proselytising force in the 1820s. Even the Vatican was getting irritated with Bible Societies. Pope Leo XI issued his bull, ‘Ubi Primum,’ dated 5 May 1824, against Protestant biblicism and indiscriminate reading of the Bible. Cummiskey’s edition, published later in the same year, was probably intended to reinforce the claims made in the papal bull and to make a statement against Bible societies in America. Small wonder that at about this time Carey and his son seem to have stopped publishing editions of the KJB in Philadelphia. In contrast, Cummiskey published nineteen editions of the DRB and ten of the RNT between 1824 and 1852. Other Catholic publishers in America were soon printing editions of the DRB as well, often with Ward’s Errata bound with them, in Baltimore, Boston, and New York. In 1834, there were new reports from ABS agents that Irish immigrants were refusing to accept copies of the Bible. On 17 June of that year, one agent declared that not one single Irish immigrant arriving at the port ‘could be prevailed on to receive a Bible, even as a gift.’ One woman told the agent that if he gave her one, ‘she would take it with her and burn it.’

In 1841, Ward’s Errata was again reprinted by Cummiskey in Philadelphia, and at about this time, the School Bible question entered the American scene. It had been an issue for decades already in Ireland. Led by Bishop John Purcell in Cincinnati, Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick in Philadelphia, and Bishop John Hughes in New York City, many Catholics began opposing the use of the KJB as a school textbook and demanding alternative use of the DRB instead. With reference to Ward’s Errata, they argued that the KJB was a sectarian version, reflecting Protestant theology at the expense of Catholic teaching. Bishop Kenrick complained that the required use of the KJB in schools was offensive to Catholics because it omitted several books of scripture (Old Testament Apocrypha or Deuterocanonicalbooks), and because ‘the meaning of the original text is not faithfully expressed.’

Granted, the nuances of this argument were lost on a lot of Protestant critics at the time—from their perspective, Catholics were just ‘Bible haters’ and Bible burners, ruthlessly intent on holding back the progress of freedom and democracy. Yet a few were willing to concede that the KJB might not be a perfect version, and that Catholic students ought to be permitted to read the DRB in schools supported by taxpayers. They could see that there was a rational basis to their opposition.

A good example of moderate Protestant toleration comes from NYC, where Ward’s Errata was first printed by Irish brothers Denis and James Sadlier in 1841. Later in that same year and on through 1843, Catholics began to win a limited measure of reprieve from their grievances. In a report of November 1844, the trustees of the Eleventh Ward of New York City declared that the practice of reading the KJB in schools should be abolished, ‘Because the version read is peculiar to one class, sect or profession of religion—and is not recognized as authentic by the others.’ They claimed that ‘the recognition of the version of King James, commonly recognized as the protestant, is a preference given to the doctrines of the protestant church to the prejudice of tax paying citizens of other sects and creeds.’ The KJB was soon phased out of thirty-one New York schools.

In other American cities, the early 1840s likewise marked a rise in Catholic activity on the school Bible question—sometimes more violent than successful, most notably the Philadelphia Bible Riots of the summer of 1844. In one case, in Ellsworth, Maine, the tarring and feathering of Swiss Jesuit, Fr John Bapst, occurred in response to his alleged involvement with destroying 15 copies of the KJB owned by the local school. Bapst had been a missionary among Native Americans near Old Town, Maine. He later went on to become the first president of Boston College. The front-page spread from the Ellsworth Herald, February 1854, reads: ‘Fr. John Bapst, S. J., closes the door of the public school against the children of papists.’ The small print below reads: ‘Now go home you little urchins and if you dare set your bare feet inside a heretic school-house where such damnable heresies are taught as reading in the Protestant Bible, I will curse you from the crowns of your heads to the soles of your feet. Hearken unto my words, for it shall be better for you to learn even of my dog, and to say unto him “Master,” than listen to the teachings of a heretic.’

All of this was Nativist rhetoric through and through. So much for toleration. So much for liberal compromise. Yet in the previous year, there had been a glimmer of understanding. Before the situation descended into violence against Fr Bapst, before he was tarred and feathered and ridden out of Ellsworth on a rail, he and his parishioners, many of them hailing from Ireland, presented a list of alleged errors in the KJB to explain why they didn’t want their children to read it in school. Local Protestants marvelled at this list of offensive passages that they had been able to compile. ‘By what method our Catholic neighbors have been thus suddenly transformed into Biblical Critics, we know not.’ It seems quite possible that one of the parishioners used examples from Ward’s Errata to bolster their critique of the KJB, as was commonly done in Ireland at this time.

In mid-1850s Ireland, these controversies were stirred up again in the wake of allegations of Souperism and ‘persecuting Biblicism’ during the famine years. Many Catholics had felt pressured to receive copies of the KJB in order to receive food and other assistance; some even converted, or to use actual contemporary language, became ‘perverts,’ to Protestantism. Now, recovering from the famine, Catholics were fighting back. There were reports, usually in Protestant newspapers, of Catholics taking their free copies of the KJB and burying them in gardens, throwing them in rivers, even burning them in bookbonfires.

Catholic newspapers such as The Tablet then started reporting on these alleged incidents and, with frequent references to Ward’s Errata, denounced the ‘heretical corruptions’ of the KJB. The so-called ‘Parliamentary Testament’ also became symbolic of British oppression, and new editions of Ward’s Errata and the DRB were offered as alternatives and received many written replies from Protestant defenders of the KJB. It was even pointed out that some Protestants scholars had been urging a revision of the KJB, even a completely new translation, for some time. If Protestants didn’t stand by their own version, how could Catholics be dubbed anti-biblical for preferring their own Bible?

These protests culminated in the then world-famous Bible-burning trial of Russian Redemptorist priest, Fr Vladimir Pecherin, in Dublin, in late 1855. Pecherin was accused of hosting a book bonfire in Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire, to which parishioners brought copies of the KJB and other ‘naughty books’ to be publicly burned, on Guy Fawkes Day, of all days. A pamphlet and newspaper war ensued in which locals alleged they had found charred leaves of the KJB smouldering in the fire pit the next day. Catholics were anti-biblical after all, the evangelical Protestant reports declared!

A trial was brought to court in Dublin amid great publicity. Did this man burn copies of the official Bible of the official Church, in deliberate insult to the Queen and the Empire? The verdict, astonishingly, was ‘not guilty.’ Although a host of eager witnesses said they saw the deed with their own eyes, Pecherin, it turns out, had a very good lawyer. This was the honourable Thomas O’Hagan, who argued the following in what became a famous and widely published speech:

If the Protestant Bible was not burned at Kingstown assuredly it might as well be burned for any good use which Protestants make of it. How is it possible to believe that Protestants read the Bible when they rob the poor Irish—the victims of famine and misery—of 360,000 l. per annum in the form of tithe rent, to support lazy Parsons. The Protestants of Ireland are the last people in the world who should complain of the destruction of a book which seems to be to them a shut book.

Now, this translation is thoroughly corrupt, and this corruption will enable us to account for the shameful discrepancy which exists between the practice of Irish Protestants and the precepts of the true Bible. The Parliament Bible is very like the Parliament itself, full of errors. We shall quote a few out of a crowd of Protestant authors to prove this.

He went on to list learned Protestants who he said had condemned ‘the Government translation of the Bible’ as being ‘full of inaccuracies—full of obscure, ludicrous, and strikingly indelicate passages.’

This was a powerful connection, between pre-existing Catholic opposition to the KJB and the heretofore Protestant-driven movement to revise in light of emerging modern textual criticism, the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus in 1844, and so forth. Small wonder that there was a petition to Convocation in February 1856 that the KJB should be revised. It would be a long road to the publication of the complete RV in 1885, but there’s a good case to be made that Catholic opposition did help get the ball rolling on that project, and pitted Protestant liberals, who supported the project, against evangelicals, who loved their anti-Catholic rhetoric and were determined to stick by the KJB and the textus receptus at all costs.

There is evidence of this Catholic critique of the KJB as an allegedly heretical translation well into the 1920s. 1911 was a particularly interesting year with Catholic contributions to the tercentenary celebrations, which were otherwise dominated by Protestant scholarship. Led by a Scotsman, Father Henry Grey Graham, Catholics pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church had actually done a great deal to preserve the Bible over the years, and that they had their own English version, which they had no qualms about revising periodically, as Bishop Challoner had done in the eighteenth century. And again, with reference to Ward’s Errata, which was reprinted for the last time in 1903, Catholics reminded the public that the KJB was not the most perfect of versions, and that it was not and never had been the bible for everyone.