Monday, November 13, 2023

H. L. Mencken on the KJV

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), of all people, the agnostic Baltimore Sun reporter and literary critic who covered the Scopes trial gave eloquent testimony to the superiority of the KJV. Mencken's quote I give in full from the preface to Gustavus Paine's The Learned Men (the KJV translators):
It is the most beautiful of all the translations of the Bible; indeed, it is probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world. Many attempts have been made to purge it of its errors and obscurities. An English Revised Version was published in 1885 and an American Revised Version in 1901, and since then many learned but misguided men have sought to produce translations that should be mathematically accurate, and in the plain speech of everyday. But the Authorized Version has never yielded to any of them, for it is palpably and overwhelmingly better than they are, just as it is better than the Greek New Testament, or the Vulgate, or the Septuagint. Its English is extraordinarily simple, pure, eloquent, lovely. It is a mine of lordly and incomparable poetry, at once the most stirring and the most touching ever heard of.”
Of course the KJB has no errors or true obscurities, but overall such a statement from H. L. Mencken is astounding. For us today the KJV is better than the Greek New Testament and is the most beautiful writing in all literature. The greatest Greek scholars among us do not think in Koine Greek, and the priesthood of the believer requires that those in the pews have faithful vernacular translations.

Since Gustavus Paine did not give the location of this quote of Mencken's I called Mr. Fitzpatrick, curator of the Mencken Collection at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, and asked him whether he had seen the Paine quote. He had not, but he said it certainly sounded like Mencken. He sent me some other newspaper and magazine articles written by Mencken. They are just as strong as the Paine quote. If any man thinks KJV only people are rough on liberal theologians and text critics that man should look at the last sentence of an article entitled “The Book.” There Mencken said, obviously in jest, but a jest that was made as a commentary on modern translations, that the 300th anniversary of the KJV in 1911 should be celebrated by the “wholesale hanging of so-called biblical scholars.”

In an article from the American Mercury of December, 1931 Mencken defends J. Gresham Machen against the modernists at Princeton who had just tried and fired him and even seems to take Machen's side. Machen graduated as valedictorian from Johns Hopkins University. Mencken and Machen were both in Baltimore at the same time, but Mencken never met Machen. Nevertheless, he wrote several stories about Machen's trial by the Presbyterian General Assembly which showed quite a bit of respect for him and took his side. Machen was the first man tried by a liberal university for being orthodox. But though he was a believer he favored the critical text. Soon after he was fired from Princeton he founded Westminster Theological Seminary, and in turn it became the birthplace of the NIV..

Mencken did meet many times with Howard A. Kelly, M.D., the great and famous fundamentalist physician who founded and headed the Department of Ob-Gyn at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore from its beginning in 1889 until 1933. Kelly was one of the great “four doctors” who were present from the beginning of the Hospital. Their famous group portrait hangs today in the rotunda of the Hopkins Hospital. They were Sir William Osler, medicine, William Halstead, surgery, William Welch, pathology, and Howard Kelly, obstetrics and gynecology. Kelly was the only fundamentalist of the four. But Mencken, as one would expect, showed considerably less respect for Kelly than for Machen, because Kelly was a soul winner who believed in the any moment second coming and a literal 6 day creation.

Kelly was also a prohibitionist and very dry while Machen, according to Mencken's newspaper articles was “a wet” and “may have voted for Al Smith in the 1928 election.” Mencken called Kelly's views simian. So the differences, in Mencken's mind, between Machen and Kelly were creationism, prohibition, and eschatology. But it is striking that Menken preferred the English Bible, the KJV, to Machen's critical Greek text. Mencken was courageous enough to defend Machen against the liberal Princeton academics and also courageous enough to admit the superiority of the KJV. At least in these instances Mencken was right.

James H. Sightler, M. D.
Sightler Publications
July 12, 2002

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