Sacred Language

By April 22, 2008

One topic I find most interesting about Mormonism is the ability of the Latter-day Saints to create the sacred. By separating sacred things from ordinary practices, we make the former much more special in our minds. As Richard Bushman recently pointed out in his Weber State lecture, one of the ways we make the temple sacred is by not talking about it outside the temple. We fear that if these things we hold sacred become too common they will lose some of their luster.

One thing I feel this is especially true for is language. When we pray, close our sacrament meeting talks, or just feel like speaking in a sacred way, we often invoke the language from the King James Version of the Bible (despite DKL’s plea that KJV language is not quite fulfilling). For many, this is because KJV language appears more ancient (and “ancient” often means more authoritative), and therefore more “sacred” than ordinary and modern language. This was especially true for Joseph Smith, because both the Book of Mormon and his revelations came in this type of vernacular. Among common members, any other form of speech would almost seem sacrilegious (which is one of the reasons a majority of Engligh-speaking members look down upon newer translations). When celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of the KJV, Deseret Evening News praised that particular translation as the only version “given to the world by eminent scholarship in the very same language in which modern revelations are given.”[1] Some even believe that since the Joseph Smith Translation was given in the same language, it confirmed that dialect as divinely instituted.

While many of us my see that reasoning as problematic, noting that Joseph’s revelations came in the same language because that was his culture’s “sacred language,” I think this can have some benefits for our community, namely, it develops a deeper reverence for scriptural vocabulary and form. However, it does also have some drawbacks. One of the drawbacks is that it makes us believe when prophets have spoken in this vernacular it should be treated as infallible, and therefore should not be questioned. But, more importantly, and I think others agree with me on this point, it makes us hesitant to consider other translations, even if they may be more correct.

One concern scholar Phillip Barlow expressed in Mormons and the Bible asks what might happen if we ever did “let go” of the KJV:

If the Saints forsake the King James Bible in favor of more accurate and more readable translations, will not the language of the Book of mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, patterned after the KJV, appear increasingly anachronistic? Will any modern prophet feel called to adapt the work of Joseph Smith to the needs of an English-speaking populace in the twenty-first century, or is Smith’s English, like Mohommad’s Arabic, permanently sacrosanct?[2]

So, are we stuck with KJV English as our “sacred” language? And, if we are, is that a good thing?


[1] Deseret Evening News, April 21, 1911.

[2] Phillip Barlow, Mormons and the Bible, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 180.

Article filed under Cultural History Intellectual History Theology


  1. Flake has a piece in Ritual Studies on the undiscussed temple.
    As for KJV, I’d leave is at Mohammad’s Arabic, personally.
    If you read Smith closely, though, he was a surprising critic of KJV and was constantly searching for the pure language underlying it, even as he appropriated it for his translations and revisions. I think he would have preferred to have his people read the Bible in Hebrew or failing that, Greek, Latin, or German.

    Comment by smb — April 22, 2008 @ 9:34 pm

  2. I thought Royal Skousen said the language in the Book of Mormon was from Tyndal’s time, which was earlier than the KJV.

    Comment by Sterling — April 22, 2008 @ 9:57 pm

  3. When the problem of communication begins to outweigh the value of sacred language, I think the solution will lie in something you mention in the first sentence of your post: the ability to create new sacred language. I don’t think Mormon efforts in that regard ceased in the 19th century.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — April 23, 2008 @ 1:49 am

  4. If you read Smith closely, though, he was a surprising critic of KJV and was constantly searching for the pure language underlying it, even as he appropriated it for his translations and revision.

    Very good point, and I think you are right on, SMB. My favorite quote of Joseph yearning for a better language is

    Oh Lord, deliver us in due time from the little, narrow prison, almost as it were, total darkness of paper, pen and ink;–and a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language. (HC 1:299)

    Comment by Ben — April 23, 2008 @ 10:20 am

  5. Right-on, Sam. I seem to remember a sermon of Brigham’s during the Utah year where he declared that if he had the power he would produce a better translation of the Bible, or something to that effect.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 23, 2008 @ 10:45 am

  6. The experience of translating the Japanese Book of Mormon is a good one for this discussion.

    The original version was translated carefully according to the Japanese cultural expectations. Japanese has multiple ways to show the relationship between speakers, for example, so the translation reflected that variation. When King Benjamin spoke to his people, the words were translated using the linguistic expressions a king would employ while speaking to those of a significantly lower status – the reverse side of classic honorifics. Also, the verb conjugation structure of ancient (formal) Japanese was used.

    The problem was that few younger Japanese were learning how to speak, or even understand, that style and conjugation. It literally was disappearing from the culture, so investigators were struggling to understand the Book of Mormon – not just the message but the actual words. Therefore, a “modern” translation was undertaken – specifically so that members and investigators would be able to understand it. On my mission, I used both versions, and the second one was MUCH better in every way.

    Comment by Ray — April 23, 2008 @ 10:59 am

  7. J., is this what you were referring to?

    Take the Bible just as it reads; and if it be translated incorrectly, and there is a scholar on the earth who professes to be a Christian, and he can translate it any better than King James’ translators did it, he is under obligation to do so, or the curse is upon him. If I understood Greek and Hebrew as some may profess to do, and I knew the Bible was not correctly translated, I should feel myself bound by the law of justice to the inhabitants of the earth to translate that which is incorrect and give it just as it was spoken anciently. Is that proper? Yes, I would be under obligation to do it. But I think it is translated just as correctly as the scholars could get it, although it is not correct in a great many instances. But it is no matter about that. Read it and observe it and it will not hurt any person in the world. (Sermon Delivered Aug. 27, 1871, in JD 14:226)

    Comment by Christopher — April 23, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  8. Ben, thanks for the post. I see this attachment to “KJV English” as problematic in regard to prayer. I’ve listened to more than enough new converts struggle trying to perfect the “thee” and “thou” in Mormon prayers and ultimately get frustrated and refuse to pray in front of others as a result. I say just let them talk to God in whatever form of language they feel comfortable with. Unfortunately, given the fact that we have a talk by a current apostle explaining that the use of thee, thou, and thine is the proper “language of prayer,” I imagine many Latter-day Saints would be hesitant to allow “less formal” language to be used in public prayers.

    Comment by Christopher — April 23, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  9. Sterling: That sounds familiar, but 99% of English speakers probably can’t tell the difference (including me).

    J and Chris: Thanks for bringing Brother Brigham into the discussion. He always adds a degree of fun.

    Ray: Thanks for sharing your experience with the Japanese BoM. I was hoping other languages would be brought into play as a counter-example. I spoke French on my mission, and although the French BoM has gone through several translations, it still uses the proper form of communication.

    Chris: I agree completely with you on the prayer issue. I wonder how long that general authorities talk will be seen as “authoritative,” or if it will one day be reversed.

    Comment by Ben — April 23, 2008 @ 11:26 am

  10. That is the one, Christopher. Awesome.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 23, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  11. The non quotation parts of the BoM read much better than does the KJV of either the OT or NT. Now the quotations in the BoM are problematic – especially the many Isaiah passages. Figuring out how to deal with them would be interesting…

    Comment by Clark — April 23, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

  12. Will any modern prophet feel called to adapt the work of Joseph Smith to the needs of an English-speaking populace in the twenty-first century, or is Smith?s English, like Mohommad?s Arabic, permanently sacrosanct?

    Honestly, “Smith’s English” isn’t all that great. The Book of Mormon and D&C are packed with tedious, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and incomplete thoughts. I don’t think it would be a bad idea to try to make these scriptures more comprehensible.

    I think it’s important to recognize that the Church regularly updates and re-translates foreign language editions of the scriptures. In fact, just last year it released re-translated versions of the Chinese BoM, D&C, and PoGP. The new versions make substantial changes; even the text of the sacrament prayers, Joseph Smith’s name, and the title of the Book of Mormon were changed. Many of the classical Chinese phrases (which were probably part of an attempt to approximate King James English) have been replaced with clear, modern, vernacular Chinese.

    Of course, the Church can’t simply “re-translate” the BoM, D&C, or PoGP into English. But I think the English could be cleaned up and modernized a bit without seriously detracting from the works.

    Comment by Steve M — April 27, 2008 @ 7:06 pm


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