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Mary Baker Eddy and Bible translations

From the December 2012 issue of The Christian Science Journal

During most of Mary Baker Eddy’s lifetime, the King James, or Authorized Version of the Bible, first published in 1611, reigned supreme as the accepted translation used by English-speaking Protestants and their churches. And it’s clear, from the many positive comments Eddy makes about the King James Version in her writings, that it informed her Christian devotion and practice from childhood onward, and that she deeply loved it. In fact, she asked that it be used as the primary source for Bible quotations in her published books. In her exegesis of the Scriptures in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, for example, Eddy quotes exclusively from the King James Version. She was particular about its consistent use in that book for the sake of uniformity. 

When she was revising Science and Health in 1885, she was assisted by Rev. James Henry Wiggin, a former Unitarian minister turned copy editor/indexer. In a letter written during his first year assisting her, Eddy asked him to use the King James Version so that all Scriptural quotations in Science and Health would conform to the same standard. As she emphasized: “My notes on Genesis were upon the [King James] version. It changes the uniformity to go off on another one” (L02166, Mary Baker Eddy to James Henry Wiggin, n.d., The Mary Baker Eddy Collection, The Mary Baker Eddy Library).

Eddy’s love for the King James Version, however, did not keep her from reading, buying, and giving consideration to a number of the new translations appearing in the latter portion of the 19th century. The historical record shows that she did not hesitate to make use of these translations occasionally when she felt their words conveyed meaning better than did the King James. An example is when she used the wording from a marginal note in the Revised Version for the Cross and Crown emblem. The Revised Version was perhaps the premier new translation to appear in Eddy’s lifetime. Based on the King James, it was an update that replaced archaic wording with contemporary usage, corrected mistakes made by the King James translators, and made use of advancing scholarly research into ancient manuscripts of the Bible. 

First appearing in 1881, the Revised Version became a step toward later translations such as the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version that in time largely replaced the King James Version among Protestant churches and their members. These translations had evolved from the American Standard Version (1901) that was Eddy’s source for the motto of The Christian Science Monitor. Today, many scholars believe the New Revised Standard Version to be the most accurate English translation of the Bible. 

The historical record provides no evidence that Mary Baker Eddy "ordained" the King James Version as the only Bible translation to be used in Christian Science services in English-speaking countries.

Mary Baker Eddy felt that some of the new translations had both strengths and weaknesses. In one letter, for example, she comments both negatively and positively on the recently published Twentieth Century New Testament she’d received as a gift in 1900. She felt it had “lost somewhat of the grandeur of climax that distinguished the Authorized Version,” but at the same time referred to “one improvement indisputable” she’d found in the book—the use of “evil spirits” instead of “devils” (L13053, Mary Baker Eddy to William McKenzie, February 20, 1900, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection).

Eddy was convinced that understanding the meaning of what she called the “original texts” of the Bible could be immensely helpful in forwarding the acceptance and demonstration of Christian Science. She was also convinced that this understanding could come in part through the study and practice of the ideas contained in the Lesson-Sermons that were published in the Christian Science Quarterly, and that in 1895 had replaced personal sermons in the Church of Christ, Scientist. But far from being an avid micromanager, Eddy did not attempt to influence most of the decisions of the Bible Lesson Committee, charged with compiling these Lessons. The committee made decisions on matters such as the number of sections in the Lesson, the Bible translation to be used, and so forth, without her input. 

The Bible Lesson Committee decided to make exclusive use of the Revised Version for the Lessons published in 1890, the first year of the Christian Science Quarterly’s existence. This was a bold step, as Protestant churches in the United States were still pretty exclusively tied to the King James Version. 

The committee decided to change to the King James Version in the following year for the body of the Lessons, but continued occasionally, until 1914, to use the Revised Version for the Golden Text and once or twice for the Responsive Reading. This was likely done at times when the committee felt that the Revised Version conveyed the meaning of the scriptural passages more clearly than did the King James Version. 

We have no statement from Mary Baker Eddy objecting to this practice, or indeed, commenting on it one way or another. Even when the Board of Trustees of The Christian Science Publishing Society in 1914 asked the Bible Lesson Committee to use only the King James Version in the Lessons from that time forward, their decision was a response to those in the Christian Science field who were insisting that only the King James be used in the Quarterly. There was no mention of any policy on this matter.

Thus the historical record provides no evidence that Mary Baker Eddy “ordained” the King James Version as the only Bible translation to be used in Christian Science services in English-speaking countries. And she provided that the Trustees of The Christian Science Publishing Society “may, in their discretion, change the name or style of such [Christian Science] Quarterly publication as such occasion may demand. … using their best judgment as to the means of preparing and issuing the same, so as to promote the best interests of the Cause, …” (Deed of Trust, The Christian Science Publishing Society, January 25, 1898). 

Given that Eddy kept up with advances in Bible scholarship in her time, and given her long-standing concern that all gain a clear understanding of the Scriptures, her wisdom is shown in her not boxing her Church into the exclusive use of a single Bible translation.

Michael Davis is a researcher at The Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston.

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