BOB SCHWARTZ: Newspaper wars and a new Bible
by Bob Schwartz
May 22, 1881, is the day when newspapers and a new Bible collided. It is a spectacular though rarely told story of what can happen when modern journalism meets modern religion.
From the time of its publication in 1611, the King James Version was the dominant Bible translation in the English-speaking world. But by the 19th century, some significant things had changed.
The language of the KJV seemed old-fashioned to many readers. On top of that, more and more early Bible texts were being discovered and read - important texts that had not been available to the King James translators.
The idea of moving from the beloved and familiar KJV was, and in some places still is, controversial. In spite of this, a new English translation was commissioned in 1870.
Leading translators and scholars worked on the project for 10 years. Finally, a Revised Version of the New Testament was ready for publication in 1881.
It is the sort of phenomenon that will never happen again. This was the last time that there would be a period of almost 300 years between Bible translations.
Since then, dozens of English translations have been published, and new ones continue to be developed. This also was, and probably will be, the last time that a new Bible translation was one of the biggest news stories in the country.
A week after the Revised Version of the New Testament went on sale in London, the first copies were sold in New York on May 21, 1881. The new Bible was a sensation. According to one account at the time:
“The first city trade delivery was at the moment when the last stroke of midnight sounded, and for hours an unceasing stream of wagons rolled away laden with huge cases of the books. All day the booksellers’ shops were crowded with purchasers, audit is asserted that no less than 300,000 copies were sold in the first twenty-four hours! The newsboys seized the opportunity, and “Here’s yer New Testament, jist out” was the cry at every street corner-the first time, surely, in the history of the world that the Holy Scriptures were sold in this way.”
New York, it turned out, was just the beginning. It was in Chicago that the real frenzy occurred. What happened next is the stuff of newspaper fact and legend.
As in most big cities, this was an era of intense newspaper rivalries, and rivalry meant selling papers while tearing down the competition.
In Chicago, one of those rivalries was between the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Times. Both papers were determined not just to tell their readers about the Revised New Testament, but to be the first to offer them the content in the newspaper itself.
For the Tribune, this meant including the whole Revised New Testament in the Sunday paper. This would not only get it into the hands of readers quickly, it would save them money. The bound book sold for 20 cents, if you could get one. The “street price” had gone up in some places to 25 cents.
The text of the Revised New Testament was telegraphed to the Chicago Tribune on May 20. In the Sunday paper on May 22, 1881, the Tribune announced:
“The Tribune presents to 63,000 purchasers and 200,000 readers this morning, in addition to a regular issue of twenty pages, the revised edition of the New Testament entire. The whole work, without the omission of a single chapter or verse, is contained in sixteen pages of the size usually issued from this office.”
The Tribune editors boasted about the astonishing achievement of typesetting the complete New Testament in 12 hours, during which “Ninety-two compositors were employed in setting type and five in correcting errors noticed by the proofreaders.”
The editors continued: “The Tribune is not inclined to boast of its present achievement. It believes in doing thoroughly what it undertakes to do at all. Hence it has not undertaken to give mangled extracts from a few books of the New Testament, but to print the revision in such shape that no reader of The Tribune need ever buy a copy of it unless he feels disposed to do so for special reasons.”
There were the fighting words. The charge of “mangling” the new Bible was aimed directly at the rival Chicago Times:
“The fraudulent newspaper on Wells Street printed a week ago a bogus ‘cable dispatch’ purporting to contain the principal changes in the Old and New Testaments made by the Committee on Revision. Its shallow trick was immediately exposed … Its forgeries in case of the New Testament are now proved by indubitable evidence. A comparison of its fraudulent version with the true version printed this morning shows that the former is false in nearly every particular.”
In spite of the controversy, or maybe partly because of it, the New Testament in the newspaper was a huge success. At least 103,000 copies of the Chicago Tribune were sold that day - 40,000 more than its normal circulation.
A newspaper war over a Bible translation had never broken out before, hasn’t since and probably never will again. But it is more than a colorful piece of journalistic and religious history.
It remains an example of how at critical moments, newspapers have stepped up and served the public in the most creative and unique ways.
Bob Schwartz is a lawyer, literary agent, writer and marketing professional in Tupelo. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more: NEMS360.com - BOB SCHWARTZ Newspaper wars and a new Bible
When a Revised New Testament Spawned a Newspaper War