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Communism and Bible Translation

Bible translators and those who discuss that work know quite well that translation produces controversy, sometimes quite virulent controversy. One of the great watersheds in American church history was the publication of the RSV and the fight that followed. Though many of these issues are still quite alive today, the battle lines have largely shifted to other issues such as gender neutral or gender accurate language.

In turns out that the Methodist church, or at least some Methodist clergy were pretty thoroughly involved in the incident I want to recount. In the days of Joseph McCarthy and his red hunting, it should not be surprising that reds were “discovered” on the RSV translation committee. It won’t surprise any Methodists that one bishop was accused, G. Bromley Oxnam, among other church leaders. I should note that being accused by McCarthy had no evidentiary value–he’d accuse anybody.

Peter J. Thuesen, in the book In Discordance with the Scriptures [link is to my book note], notes that J. B. Matthews, a Methodist minister, and one-time communist sympathizer himself, was hired by HUAC. He had written in an article in American Mercury that “. . .the Protestant clergy comprised the largest single group of communism’s supporters.” After various protests, Matthews was allowed to resign.

There were more accusations, however. One pamphlet accused various Protest leaders and Samuel McCrea Cavert, National Council of Churches executive secretary, of subversive activities (Thuesen, 103). Further,

Still more pointed was a second pamphlet, Thirty of the Ninety-five Men Who Gave Us the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, issued by the Cincinnati-based Circuit Riders, Inc., a Methodist anticommunist organization led by air-conditioning executive Myers G. Lowman. Lowman’s widely distributed booklet alleged that the thirty members cited on the RSV committee and its advisory board were “affiliated with Communist and pro-Communist fronts.” (Thuesen, 103)

Such accusations may seem a bit unreal today, but they were very significant in their time. Simply the accusation of communist sympathies could be enough to torpedo a career in some areas.

Translators will not be surprised, however, to see the popular accusation of the day applied to their work.

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