“How the Bible Came to Be: Part 8, The Power of the Word,” Ensign, Sept. 1982, 64
To produce Bibles in the most influential languages of the sixteenth century and to make them easily accessible to everyone was to unleash a powerful new force upon the earth. Indeed, we have not yet fully grasped the impact this accomplishment has already had upon the world. The first impact was unquestionably upon the Reformation, but its reforming influence has spanned all the intervening centuries and has had a far broader effect than we usually think.
First of all, the Bible has been a primary force behind man’s search in Western civilization to purify his religion—to find the Lord’s true gospel. When we read descriptions of the low levels to which religion once sank, where corruption and ignorance were predominant among leaders of the church, we recognize what great progress has been made since the time of the first printed vernacular Bibles. And that progress must be mainly attributed to scriptural influence—a “light” and a leavening influence upon the heart of every sincere Christian, as far as it is used.
The second great impact the Bible has had is its feeding of the spirit of freedom. Too often the credit is given to political influence. But the desires for civil freedom have been very much intertwined with and seeded by their religious counterpart. Among the first successful settlers of America, for example, were Puritans who were inspired to search for the freedom to live and worship as they felt the Bible directed them. And many who followed them to America were driven by the same desire. We know through revelation that the Lord raised up certain individuals to help create a political framework in this new land where those desires for freedom might be fulfilled. (See D&C 101:80.) It is significant that first among the freedoms established by these men was freedom of religion:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievance.”1
Not only has the Bible influenced the establishment of freedom, it has been a mighty power on the hearts of leaders that they might respect and preserve those freedoms. George Washington believed that “it is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”2 Many other leaders in western civilization have similarly turned to the scriptures for guidance in leadership, and many have recognized that not only they but the people themselves must draw their strength from the scriptures if freedom is to be preserved. Woodrow Wilson once said of the Bible, “I ask every man and woman in this audience that from this day on they will realize that part of the destiny of America lies in their daily perusal of this great book.”3
As the influence of the scriptures continues to spread to all lands, so there is hope that someday full liberty will be seen in all the earth, for all its inhabitants.4 The Bible inspires its readers to work steadily toward that goal, for ultimately, as it says, it is the truth that makes men free. (See John 8:32.)
A third major impact which the Bible has had is visible in the role it played in the restoration of the fulness of the gospel. We are familiar with the story. A young man named Joseph Smith, severely troubled by the religious confusions of his day, searched the Bible for solutions. He came upon this scripture in James’s epistle: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God …” (James 1:5.) As the Prophet said, “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again. …
“At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God.” (JS—H 1:12–13.)
This wasn’t just an ordinary event in which a troubled boy turned to the scriptures for help. It was a momentous occurrence planned and prepared for before the earth’s creation. There was to be a restoration of the fulness of the gospel to prepare for the second coming of the Savior, and Joseph Smith, who had been foreordained for this purpose, would be the instrument of that restoration.5 The Bible—now in his own language and at his fingertips—was a catalyst which led Joseph Smith to his prophetic role.
While the Bible served as a catalyst leading Joseph Smith to the Father and Son and the burden of his own mission, so it was a continual influence in helping him fulfill that mission. (JS—H 1:74.) Shortly after the organization of the Church, the Prophet was directed to begin a translation of the King James Version. This he did under the influence of the Spirit, clarifying many passages in the King James Bible. However, the significance of his work goes far beyond those vital and important clarifications. As Joseph Smith struggled and searched for the meaning of passages, he was troubled by many questions and was moved to seek the Lord for answers. The result was revelation after revelation of truths once contained in scriptural records but lost over the centuries of darkness. Many of these revelations are now found in the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.
Joseph Smith was only the first in these last days to be led to the fulness of the gospel via the Bible. From the earliest days of the Church until the present, many seekers of biblical knowledge have experienced deep dissatisfaction with discrepancies between its teachings and entrenched Christian beliefs. Echoes of “other” truths in the testaments have made them restless—and their restlessness has made them search—and further searching has led them to discovery. Thus, the Bible has been a powerful tool in the gathering of Israel.
A fourth major impact of the Bible is the effect it has had on the moral character of its readers. John Richard Greene long ago wrote of the changes that it first brought to England:
“No greater moral change ever passed over a nation than passed over England during the years which parted the middle of [Elizabeth’s reign] and the meeting of the Long Parliament. England became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible. … Far greater than its effect on literature or social phrase was the effect of the Bible on the people at large. … The whole temper of the nation felt the change. A new conception of life and of man superseded the old. A new moral and religious impulse spread through every class.”6
And that force continues today. The power and influence of that message which teaches God’s creation of earth and man, of the preparations which preceded the coming of God’s Son, of an Eternal love so great that this Son would take up man’s burden of sin and lay down his life in exchange, of Christ’s teachings of love and meekness—these are the truths which are slowly spreading into the darkest corners of the earth. And wherever those truths are accepted and practiced, there is change for the better and the ground is prepared for the reception of the fulness of the gospel.
Perhaps the best evidence of the power and influence of the biblical message lies in the witness of how bitterly it has been denounced—even in modern days. Adolph Hitler saw it as a threat to his ambitions and, among his own people, revised the New Testament and sought to destroy the Old.7 In private he said, “Whether it is the Old Testament or the New, or simply the sayings of Jesus, it is all the same old Jewish swindle.”8 During his time in power, in some occupied lands, churches and their Bibles were burned. Nevertheless, the Bible remained a fountainhead of strength for those Hitler could not break. One bishop from an occupied land who had been imprisoned for non-cooperation said in retrospect of that period:
“The Bible was the weapon of our souls. It was with us in suffering, it fought for us, and our foes feared it. Why did they hate that very old book? For the same reasons we ourselves loved it. … Because the Bible spoke to us as a voice closer to our trembling hearts than any other voice. … This small book is the charter of peace, the charter of freedom, the charter of the future life of mankind.”9
The struggle still goes on. In parts of the world today, the Bible is still denied. In schools in certain lands the Bible is officially branded as “unscientific,” a “collection of fantastic legends,” and a “tool of imperialistic, capitalistic powers for subjugating backward, unknowing nations.”10
But these very attacks are a testimony of its strength and power, and when people who have been denied it again gain access to its strength, the Bible is reembraced with a touching devotion. One man held as a prisoner behind the Iron Curtain said that when at last he was given a requested Bible, “I treated it as one treats a priceless possession, a thing of great value, a rare treasure. … It gave me strength and assurance for what to my knowledge at that time were the interminable years ahead.”11
In spite of the continual war fought against the Word of God, the work of putting the Bible into every man’s hands and into every language continues.
The goal of the typical Bible society, usually a collaboration of numerous different Christian denominations, has been to take a translated Bible to every people—a work which deserves our praise and gratitude. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
does not make translations of the Bible itself at this point, but chooses carefully a translation available in a particular language for use among its members who speak that language.
The translation of the Bible into non-European languages began very early. One of the first translations, a rendition in an American Indian dialect, was completed in 1663.12 Since then the Bible, or portions of it, have been translated into so many languages that it has been called the “book of a thousand tongues,” though its translations have now far exceeded a thousand. It has been translated into every major language, and the effort in more recent years has been to translate it into even the remotest dialects of the earth—in many cases into dialects where previously there was no written language at all.13
Obviously, this work is tedious and fraught with many obstacles. It is reported for example, that it took almost a hundred years to produce an entire Bible in the Tibetan language.14 Though such an interval is rare, “many years” is the common time required for each new translation.
But the sacrifices required are measured in far more than time alone. Translating the Bible into the language of a remote tribe usually requires that someone first take the trouble to live among those people in their primitive conditions—to win their trust, to learn their language, and to convince them that there is a gift of knowledge that will serve them well. Extreme care must attend each translation, for the idioms and customs of isolated peoples are often very different from those of the Hebrews who recorded the scriptures and from those who made the first translations. There must be careful sensitivity to the unique experience of each distinctive culture.
One example of the sensitivity required pertains to the Zanaki people, who live on the eastern shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. In translating the Bible there, it was found that only a thief would knock on the door of a Zanaki hut. If the thief then heard a movement within, he would run away. The good man does not knock, but rather calls to his friends inside. Respecting the implications of these customs, Revelation 3:20, which speaks of Christ knocking for entrance into our lives, was wisely rendered in the Zanaki language, “Behold, I stand at the door, and call.”15
The experiences of Adoniram Judson, a Christian missionary who made the Burmese translation, is typical of the challenges modern-day Bible translators face. He explains:
“When we take up a language spoken by a people on the other side of the earth, whose very thoughts run in channels diverse from ours, and whose modes of expression are consequently all new; when we find the letters and words all totally destitute of the least resemblance to any language we have ever met with, and these words not fairly divided, and distinguished, as in Western writing, by breaks, and points, and capitals, but run together in one continuous line, a sentence or paragraph seeming to the eye but one long word; when, instead of clear characters on paper, we find only obscure scratches on dried palm leaves strung together, and called a book; when we have no dictionary and no interpreter to explain a single word, and must get something of the language before we can avail ourselves of the assistance of a native teacher—that means work.”16
The work of translation also cost Judson twenty-one months in prison because of the Burmese dislike for Europeans. While he was in prison he became concerned for the manuscript he had been working on. His wife hid it for a time in their house, but as the rainy season approached they feared it would be severely damaged by mold. Therefore they felt that the best place for it after all was with Judson in prison. Mrs. Judson hid it in a roll of hard cotton which was sewed into a pillow. Judson slept on this uncomfortable pillow for months—only to have it stolen from him. The thief later threw the contents of the pillow away, and by some great fortune these contents came into the hands of a Christian convert. Although he did not at first realize that what he had was the manuscript of the Bible translation, he kept it, only much later discovering the value of this treasure. The manuscript survived to obtain its hard-earned place in the Burmese Bible.17
Any story that deals with the sacrifices made in bringing the Bible to the nations of the world would be incomplete without mention of the many people from all faiths who have labored earnestly to bring better comprehension to its study. There are archaeologists, sifting through sands and ruins for clues that might enlighten us; there are those who have scoured high and low for ever more ancient manuscripts; there are those who refine their knowledge of important original languages; and finally there are those who struggle to decipher newly discovered manuscripts. While some of these students have unfortunately fallen into misunderstandings and thus clouded man’s perceptions, nevertheless many studies have had beneficial effects in broadening our understanding.
We appreciate the dedication of all those searchers who have pursued the Testaments’ purer origins. But the knowledge of the cost of those intense pursuits should work in us an even greater gratitude for those divine gifts which facilitate our understanding of the Bible.
A first gift was the Book of Mormon. Hugh Nibley has written, “Just as the New Testament clarified the long misunderstood message of the Old, so the Book of Mormon is held to reiterate the messages of both Testaments in a way that restores their full meaning.”18
In addition to illuminating the Bible through the Book of Mormon, the Lord has restored other ancient records that are beginning to fill in gaps in the scriptures. The first such gifts were writings of Enoch, Abraham, and Moses given by divine power to Joseph Smith and which are now found in the Pearl of Great Price.
In more recent years, other ancient manuscripts have come to the general knowledge of mankind, manuscripts which are now restoring to a wider audience those same truths earlier given through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Dr. Nibley quotes Professor Albright as authority that the Dead Sea Scrolls alone have been an invaluable source in the restoration of material lost from the biblical record. Says Professor Albright, “Future translations [of the Bible] will have to expand the text substantially—including … some [passages] of great importance for their content.”19
Thus we must remember that our scriptural heritage is not only a work of sacrifice by man, but also a great gift of love from the Lord himself. As the record was God’s gift from the beginning, so through earth’s ages he has seen to its preservation, and in his own ways and in his own time has restored that which he knows we are ready to receive.
As long as man continues to dwell outside God’s presence, the search for his word and the meaning of his word must continue. For it is still a major access to him. Thus we Latter-day Saints ourselves in recent years have labored diligently in producing an extraordinary English-language edition of the King James Version containing helps and scriptural references unavailable in any other edition. Roger Coleman of the Cambridge University Press, who helped with the work of printing, said of the Latter-day Saint edition, “Nothing is perfect in the world … but this Bible is as nearly perfect as human beings can manage.”20
It is indeed a magnificent work. And it too is a product of sacrifice. The dedicated scholars who labored on this project to its fruition gave all that was required—from depths of vision to tedium. Not the least of what they gave was patience, for the work took seven years. But they did not labor alone. They relied upon hundreds of workers, from faculty members to returned missionaries to seminary and institute teachers who were mobilized for challenging, painstaking assistance. One volunteer alone gave as much as 2,000 hours of dedicated service, refusing any compensation. Another did computer work between 2:00 A.M. and 4:00 A.M. to minimize expenses on the project. The result of all these offerings is our opportunity to know, understand, and love the word of the Lord at a newer, higher level.21
And now in contrast to medieval church leaders who feared the people’s possession of the Bible, access to this edition is encouraged by leaders who yearn that the people not only possess it but study it and understand it.
Throughout this series we have tried to trace those forces which have unitedly worked to channel God’s teachings to his children. In our tracings we have particularly sought to emphasize the love and sacrifice behind those labors. But we have of necessity portrayed as well the counter movements seeking always to inhibit the spread and effectiveness of the Lord’s word. It is still suppressed in much of the world. Where there is free access to it, its voice of influence struggles to be heard over constant bombardments of false ideologies. And while free access to the Bible has indeed caused it to suffer somewhat from abuse and misunderstanding, it has unquestionably suffered most from abandonment. But its messages are abandoned at great peril. For it represents eternal truth—truth passed down from the very Creation, truth added upon and reinforced with experience, truth revealed through word and deed beforehand, truth shaped in unforgettable language, truth personified in Jesus Christ, truth in constant struggle against untruth. And ultimately, it will be truth unconquered and unconquerable. Every gift of love and sacrifice which has been offered to relay that truth to men shall not have been given in vain.