Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Webster Bible

Noah Webster's primer, The Elementary Spelling Book, was affectionately called “The Blue-backed Speller.” There were one hundred million copies of “The Blue-backed Speller” sold by the end of the 1800s. Webster actually gave America a language which they could call their own. He accomplished this objective by standardizing American English. Noah Webster was the premier American lexicographer.

Diane Ackerman wrote the article, “He Put Words in Our Mouths” found in the January 18, 1987 issue of Parade Magazine. In her article, She acknowledged: 

[The Primer] “...not only regularized spelling, grammar, and usage but also gave American children a shared ethic and heritage. Through it, Webster became the schoolmaster to a nation.”

In the United States of America, only the Bible rivaled the Blue-backed Speller in popularity. But Noah Webster considered the enhancement and readability of the Holy Bible to be the zenith of his work. He considered this endeavor to be “the most important enterprise” of his life. He undertook the project with vigor and enthusiasm which resulted in a new edition of the Holy Bible. “The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments, in the common version. With amendments of the language” was published in 1833.

The publisher's preface to the 1987 reprint of "The Webster Bible" declares that it:

"[It] is a precise tailoring of the majestic King James Version especially for American readers. With reverent restraint, Webster produced an edition in which he preserved the integrity of the KJV but reshaped some phrases and updated some vocabulary – making it possible for Americans, young and old, to read God's Word comfortably and to understand its message clearly as never before.”

Noah Webster was a master of 26 languages which included Hebrew and Greek. He did not re-translate the King James Version of the Bible but clarified it and corrected its English. Webster extolled the KJV for its “many passages uniting sublimity with beautiful simplicity.” He refused to alter the general style of the KJV. The KJV – the “Common Version” was an old translation during Webster's lifetime. From the preface of his Bible one is instructed, “ the lapse of two or three hundred centuries, changes have taken place, which, in particular passages, impair the beauty; and others, obscure the sense, of the original languages.”

Furthermore, Webster stated a profound insight which has continued to prompt every major project to translate the Bible till today.

“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.”

Very few people recognize Noah Webster's legacy which he bequeathed to the fledgling nation of America. But some historians have taken notice and are aware of the inheritance we received from him.

“Although Webster's last labors were directed toward the revision of his Spelling Book and Dictionary, The Holy Bible...with Amendments to the Language was the crowning work of his career, because it brought to completion his learned philosophical studies and because it rounded out fully his cherished plan for giving to the United States a body of literature from which correct language could be derived. Just as his own enthusiasm had effected improvements in education from the elementary school to the college, so his books embodied useful innovations from the humblest primer to the majestic Bible.”
Harry R. Warfel, Noah Webster: Schoolmaster to America (New York, 1966)

Noah Webster wrote textbooks on history, economics, geography, politics, linguistics, and medicine. He became the editor of two newspapers and was the impetus to create American copyright laws. Webster was the founder of Amherst College and practiced law. 

Yet, “ all his alterations [of the Bible] Webster proceeded with conservative caution for he approached the Bible with deep reverence and with the assurance of its inspired character.” declared biographer Harry R.Warfel. 

We pay tribute to Webster by addressing him as the “Schoolmaster to a nation” but Webster was also a lay preacher who “...taught patriotic nationalism supported by a fundamental, humanitarian Christian faith.” (Warfel).

He was prompted to improve the English text because he held a high view of Scripture.

“The Bible is the chief moral cause of all that is good, and the best corrector of all that is evil, in human society; 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...”

Webster, in the preface of his Bible, described the changes he made and why he made them. The only corrections which he made replaced obsolete terms with terms which were currently in use. Furthermore, he removed mistakes in grammar and corrected major errors of translation.

Here are examples of the changes Webster made:

He exchanged hinder for let; button for tache; advanced for stricken in years; interest for usury; insane for mad; and cow for kine.

“Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel” became “...strain out a gnat... .” 
Holy Spirit was inserted for Holy Ghost.

These improvements and other advances which Webster introduced were adopted and absorbed by the men who formulated the Revised Standard Version (1881 – 1885).

“It is not without reason that Webster's work...helped to make the success of the later work possible.” (Warfel). 

Webster was the first one to change “For I know nothing by myself” (I Cor. 4:4) to the more accurate “For I know nothing against myself” (cf. This verse is the American Standard Version and Revised Standard Version.)

Noah Webster was responsible for the standardized usage of shall and will, should, and would. 

“In this part of the work, the 'New England Grammarian' did yeoman service and ...the Revised Versions took over nearly every one of his changes, although no credit for his previous labors was given” (Warfel)

Among Webster's minor rectifications was his insertion of words or phrases replacing archaic and unnecessary coarse expressions. He did this from having a sensitivity to young readers and for the public reading of the Scriptures.

Embarrassed or amused children might giggle nervously as a passage from I Kings 14:10 was read during family devotions or at the dinner table. An embarrassed parent might respond my lecturing his children to have due respect for God's Word.

Webster made the judgment call to replace the earthy phrase with the males. This decision has been honored and adopted by most translators of subsequent revisions of the Holy Bible.

Noah Webster was the first person to clarify the King James Version for a popular nonsectarian audience. He faced widespread resistance by some persons who firmly believed that any change to the King James Version was repugnant. Other persons were suspicious of a revision committee consisting of one man. Although he received some scholarly endorsements widespread distribution of his Bible did not occur.

It was Noah Webster's persistence and courage which opened minds to consider alterations of the KJV for the purpose of clarification which Webster sought.

Eventually, a major revision of the KJV would begin in England resulting in the publishing of the Revised Version of 1881 – 1885. It was followed by the publishing of the American Standard Version in 1901. The modest earlier publicity of Webster's Bible was eclipsed by the large-scale efforts of contemporary publishers.

"The Webster Bible" is a gift to the American people from a great American hero. Rosalie J. Slater points out that Noah Webster recognized the importance of faith in Jesus Christ.

“Despite his active participation in the educational, political, and scientific life of the nation, his own family life exemplified what love and discipline centered in Christ could accomplish in forming the character of the next generation.”

[From the preface to a facsimile edition of Noah Webster's first edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1980)]

Gleaned from the Publisher's Preface to The Webster Bible

1 comment:

Max Smart said...

Webster versions of Bible (both old and new 1995)are searchable and readable on