What is King James Onlyism

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

"King James Onlyism" refers to any ideology that demands that all Christians (or at least all English-speaking Christians) must use the King James Version of the Bible exclusively. King James Onlyists generally accuse all other Bible translations of being so deficient or even systematically perverted to render their use problematic, dangerous, or even sinful. There are various expressions of King James Onlyism that would state and defend these things in very different ways and to different extremes, but the common factor that makes them "King James Only" is the claim that the King James Bible is the only proper Bible available to Christians today.

What King James Onlyism is Not

To clarify what King James Onlyism is, it is helpful to also state what it is not:

  • King James Onlyism is not a mere preference for the King James Bible. If someone personally prefers the KJV but it fine with other Christians using other Bible translations, he is not a King James Onlyist. 
  • King James Onlyism is also not merely the formal use of the KJV in public worship. If a traditional church exclusively uses the KJV in their corporate worship services but allows their members to read other translations privately and does not condemn other churches that use other versions, they are not King James Onlyists. A church may choose to preach and teach publicly from the KJV for a number of reasons without insisting that the KJV is the only true Bible for Christians today. So, while all King James Onlyists will use only the King James Version in public worship, not all churches that use only the King James Version in public worship are necessarily King James Onlyists.
  • King James Onlyism is also not merely the assertion that the KJV is the best translation. I know many people who think that the NASB is the best translation available today, but we do not call them NASB Onlyists. I know plenty of others who think the ESV is the best translation on the market, but we don't call them ESV Onlyists. I likewise know a number of people who think the KJV is still the best translation we have, but they are not King James Onlyists. The reason is simple: while such people believe that their's is the "best" translation, none of them insists that every Christian must use only that translation. They still regard other translations as the word of God. They would never imply that it would be a sin or a dangerous error to use other Bible translations. They may well urge you from time to time to switch to their translation and tell you why they think theirs is the most accurate, but they would not break fellowship over the issue nor forbid preaching from other translations. They may wish that more Christians would switch to their preferred translation, but they do not morally demand that all Christians must switch to their translation. Anyone who meets this description regarding the KJV is not a King James Onlyist.

Different Types of King James Onlyism

King James Onlyism is not a single, united movement. It comes in a variety of expressions. Not all King James Onlyists believe the same things or defend the King James Bible in the same way. It is easy to lump all King James Onlyists in with some particularly wacky street preacher who defends the KJV by asserting that some secret, shadowy Jesuit Illuminati cleverly forged all the manuscripts and conspired to produce modern translations so as to pollute the church, but that is not a fair assessment. Some King James Onlyists are far more reasonable than others, and various groups within the broad banner of King James Onlyism often hold quite different perspectives from one another. The lines between groups can seem blurred at times because various KJV Only groups will often borrow arguments from one another, even if the arguments are not always consistent with each other. Still, there are certain distinctions that need to be kept in mind when dealing with King James Onlyism.

The English or the Underlying Greek?

One of the key distinctions between different types of King James Only advocates is whether or not they believe that infallibility ultimately lies in the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts from which the KJV was originally translated or whether the infallibility lies in the precise English of the KJV itself. The New Testament of the KJV, for example, was translated from a series of 16th-century Greek printed texts which were, in turn, compiled based on a number of medieval manuscripts of various portions of the New Testament. This Greek New Testament collection has come to be known as the "Textus Receptus" or the "Received Text," (often abbreviated as the "TR"). Modern Translations are most often translated from a more recently compiled critical Greek text of the New Testament, the Nestle-Aland/UBS text. This text was compiled through the comparison of the thousands of manuscripts now known, with particular weight generally (though not always) given to readings found in the most ancient manuscripts. King James Onlyists will argue that the TR (Textus Receptus) is, in fact, a more accurate preservation of the original New Testament writings than is the modern critical text, and so they reject modern translations based on those texts. In theory, such KJV Onlyists would agree that a modern-English translation could be made based on the TR that would be just as reliable as the KJV, but they do not believe such has ever been done. The KJV, they contend, is still the only translation that is faithful to the right Greek text, so it is the only Bible Christians should use.

Other KJV Onlyists go further than this. They believe that the English of the King James Version is absolutely perfect in and of itself, and no appeal need be made to Greek manuscripts. God preserved His word, and today that word is found in the English text of the KJV and nowhere else. Translations of the Bible into new languages should be made from the KJV English, not the Greek and Hebrew texts. If a preacher appeals to the underlying Greek words to explain the meaning of a text, these sort of King James Onlyists often denounce him with derogatory terms such as "Bible corrector." The claim is, thus, that the exact English words chosen by the KJV translators are inspired by God, and to appeal to the Greek to clarify a passage or to translate even a single word any other way is to try to tamper with the Bible itself. Such KJV Only advocates may often borrow arguments from the TR-Only camp when it suits them, but at the end of the day, even the TR does not matter. When the TR is shown to disagree with the English of the KJV, it is the TR that is wrong and the infallible English that must be correct. These King James Onlyists will often build arguments based simply on the fact that the NASB, NIV, or ESV word this or that verse differently than the KJV and claim that, in so doing, they have "changed the Bible!" Often corrupt motives are assumed for any such differences.

History or Conspiracy?

Another important distinction between different King James Onlyist groups is whether or not they attempt to build their case on history or on alleged conspiracies. Some King James Onlyist will try to make their case in ways such as:

  • "While the TR manuscripts are not as old, they actually preserve an older form of the text."
  • "We find quotes in the early church fathers that affirm the TR and the KJV over against the modern translations."
  • "If you look at these quotes from the reformers and the King James translators, we can see that they had manuscripts that have now been lost. So, while the earliest manuscripts around today disagree with the KJV, they had even better manuscripts back then that affirmed the KJV."

These arguments attempt to make their case based on available historical data (manuscripts, quotations from historical figures, etc.). I can look at the manuscripts they reference. I can look up the quotes they cite and read the surrounding context. I can check out the information and assess whether or not they are rightly handling the data. Most King James Onlyists will use at least some of this kind of argument. Many, however, will ultimately rely on a conspiratorial worldview that simply asserts dark and nefarious forces without any verifiable data to back them up. These arguments will look more like:

  • "Those translations are based on corrupt Egyptian manuscripts whose scribes were heretics that rejected Christian teaching and tried to alter the text to suit their own false teachings!"
  • "Let me show you this list of character flaws in all then members of the NASB translating committee. Obviously, those kind of people weren't trying to produce a faithful Bible."
  • "Modern translators are secretly Jesuits in the employ of the Roman Catholic church trying to pollute protestant churches with their wicked teaching!"
  • We know that Satan obviously hates the Bible and wants to corrupt it. What better way than by modern translations? that obviously proves that modern translations are corrupt and the KJV is pure."

This kind of argument generally paints a narrative without any hard data to back it up. It depends on guilt-by-association arguments and character assassinations of everyone involved in any modern translation or non-TR manuscript while giving all the KJV translators, revisers, and printers a pass on anything that might call their own character into question. If a modern translator went to a Catholic school, he is automatically a closet Jesuit conspirator. The fact that Erasmus, the main compiler of the TR, was a Roman Catholic priest who dedicated the volume to the Pope is, however, not relevant. Conspiratorial connections can only go one way, you see. Such arguments also depend on reading evil motives into even the slightest variation between a modern translation and the KJV rather than considering the possibility that there is a reasonable explanation for the difference rooted in the actual manuscripts involved or changes in the English language and how certain words are used. These arguments are generally inconsistent and irrational, but they are nonetheless extremely popular. It is only fair to note, however, that there are King James Onlyist leaders who condemn this kind of argument and try to emphasize a more historical case.

While the historical arguments are often weak and questionable in their data, they are at least rooted in real, specific manuscripts, citations, and events that can be examined and discussed reasonably. The conspiratorial arguments rely on personal attacks and unsubstantiated assertions which have little or no basis in reality and are not meant to be examined or debated. You are simply supposed to accept the narrative. Most King James Onlyists you meet in the street will use some mixture of these two kinds of arguments, but the balance (or imbalance) between the two and what form they will take will be different from one group or individual to the next.

A Christian Response

We can have full confidence that the Bible is inspired by God and has been preserved through the ages. The Bible never promises, however, there will be one perfect translation in a given language to be slavishly adhered to by all generations. The Bible does not command the use of any particular translation nor forbid the production of multiple translations in the same language. King James Onlyism is not a biblical belief system. It is a tradition. The King James Version is a fine translation and no one should be discouraged from reading, studying, memorizing, and preaching from it. But the English language has changed over the last 400 years, and we have far more manuscripts of the Bible today than the KJV translators ever could have dreamed! The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and of New Testament papyri dating back as early as the second century A.D. are powerful testimony to the preservation of God's word, and there is nothing wrong with taking such things into consideration to ensure that our Bible translations are as faithful to the original as possible.

It must also be acknowledged that translation from one language to another is not a mathematical enterprise. It's not like 1+1 which can only have the answer "2." There can be more than one right way to render the same sentence into a new language. There can be more than one good translation of the same word or phrase. The claim that the KJV (or any other translation) is the one and only correct translation for all people of all times is simply an absurd claim with no biblical or logical foundation. It is, ironically, the exaggerated commitment to a tradition over and above the original scriptures themselves. King James Onlyism divides churches and individuals whom the biblical gospel would have united and communing together as the body of Christ. It is, therefore, a teaching that must be refuted.

It is important to note, however, that while there are certainly cultic King James Onlysists, King James Onlyism itself is not inherently a cult nor a damnable heresy. One can believe in King James Onlyism and still believe the biblical gospel of salvation in Christ by grace alone through faith alone. So, when reasoning with King James Onlyists, we must always remember that we are often reasoning with confused brothers rather than enemies of the cross of Christ. Let us engage in this conversation accordingly.