John Leland (1754-1841) wrote the following piece on the Bible in 1836. In it he briefly addresses translation, even mentioning that some of King James’s words were out of use in his day. However, in asking, “should there be a new translation” – though he does not answer directly, his answer seems to be “no.” He allows that a new Bible will suffer the same consequences, and that we are moving further away from, not closer to, understanding the languages of the Hebrews and the Greeks. He thinks that a new translation will not answer our questions, or make us “any better in this world.” Further, he seems to question the integrity of a translation made in the (his) present age, which does not observe the Bible so carefully in its practice.
Words, sentences, aphorisms, and customs that where significant, and well understood in the days of king James, are now out of use and obscure. Should there be a new translation, according to modern diction, is it not probable that two or three centuries hence it would be as obscure? And is there any hope of improving more from the original, when every century removes both Hebrews and Greeks farther off from understanding their respective languages as they were spoken in the days of the inspired authors? Would a new translation of the Bible, according to the modern use of words, taken from the most ancient copies of the Old and New Testaments, give us certain information, without doubt, on the question which has perplexed the Christian world for many centuries, “whether Christ died for only a part, or for every soul of man?” Or is this a mystery, locked up in the treasures of God, in a book not to be read in until we go to another state 1 as the Jews do not allow their children to read the nine last chapters of Ezekiel, and the book of Daniel, until they are thirty-nine years old. But stop and ponder. Would a certain solution of this question make men any better in this world? If not, would it not be beneath the dignity of Jehovah, to reveal that to men which would be of no service to them?
Would not a new translation of some passages in the New Testament, according to our present dialect and customs, be acceptable? In Matthew, x., 7: And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Read thus: And as ye go, preach to the people, your money is essential to the salvation of sinners, and, therefore, form into societies, and use all devisable means to collect money for the Lord’s treasury; for the millennium is at hand. Mark, xvi., 16: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved. Read: He that has attended Sunday schools, had his mind in formed by tracts, contributed to support missions, and joined in societies to support benevolent institutions, shall be saved; the rest shall be damned. Matthew, x., 17: Be ye therefore, wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. Read: Be ye wise as serpents in your guile to deceive men; keep out of sight that ye have to receive part that you collect for your mendicancy; show great concern for poor benighted heathen, but let your neighbors have none of your prayers, exhortations, or alms; but strive to appear harmless as doves; put on gravity and holy awe; make others believe that ye are too devotional to labor for a living, and that they must labor to support you; for if you do not appear uncommonly holy, you will not deceive the simple and get their money. Acts, iv., 34-35: And brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostle’s feet, and distribution was made to every man, according as he had need. This work of receiving and distributing was soon after given to seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom. Acts, vi. 3: Would it not be better to read—The convention appointed a board of directors; any man who would cast into the fund one hundred dollars, should be one of them for life, to dispose of the money at discretion, and mark out the destination of the missionaries. Read Acts, xiii., 1,2,3, 4, and translate it thus, if the Greek will admit of it: Now there was at Antioch, a convention of Christians, and among them five directors; and as they fasted and prayed, they were moved to select two of them as missionaries, and when they had supplied them with a good outfit, and promised them liberal supplies, to make Christianity appear honorable among the heathen,—they sent them forth with a solemn charge to devise all means in their power to keep the money market open, and invent employment for thousands that were longing for agencies. Acts, xx., 33, 34, 35: I have coveted no man’s silver or gold; ye, yourselves, know that these hands have ministered to my necessities, and to them that were with me; I have showed you all things, how that, so laboring, ye ought to support the weak, etc. These sentences are so little used in this day of great light, that a new translation is unnecessary.
It reminds me of past events. At the close of the apostolic age, and the age of miracles, philosophy was resorted to for a substitute, and every art and science was called into requisition to make Christianity appear honorable in the eyes of worldly men. Schools and teachers, of various descriptions, were set on motion to weld cold iron and hot together. The persecutions against Jews and Christians, for denying the divinity of the Pagan gods, and the worship of idols, did not stop the gradual and ruinous assimulation of church and world together. All things being ready, in the beginning of the fourth century, the union was consummated by Constantine the Great, who established Christianity for the religion of the empire, and suffered none but Christians to hold any offices of honor or profit, for whom he made great donations in salaries, temples, etc. At this change, the young preachers, and professors of Christianity greatly rejoiced, but the aged trembled with fear. From that day until this time, with partial exceptions, the Christian church (so called) has been governed by the laws of men. In all these Christian establishments, by legal force, there has been a great number of non-conformists; but they have been overpowered and reduced to oppression, sometimes to bloody persecutions. To persecute the greatest fanatics, except for overt acts, is poor policy; it only inflames their zeal, and augments their numbers; but to persecute harmless, peaceable subjects because they do not believe what they cannot believe, and are so honest that they will not say they believe what they do not, is the work of bloody monsters, in the shape of man.
From The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, Including Some Events in His Life, John Leland, Miss L. F. Greene, New York, NY: G. W. Wood, 1845, pp. 685-687