Can People Learn to Read the English of the KJV?

One Sunday a few years ago I asked the teens I was teaching in Sunday School to read some verses out loud, and one of them read from the KJV. This is what he said—and I quickly took note of his pronunciation errors and saved them, because I thought they raised a good question.

He hath shooed thee O man what is good; and what doeth the Lord thee God require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

Here’s the question: did he understand what he read?

  • He read shewed as shooed: was this a mispronunciation or a misunderstanding? Was he thinking that shew is a different word than show? I don’t know.
  • He read doth as doeth: was this a mispronunciation or a misunderstanding? Considering that doeth is such a common KJV verb, I have to think it was the latter. What possible sense of this sentence could he have made if he stuck a regular verb in there in place of a helping verb?
  • He read thy as thee: was this is a mispronunciation or a misunderstanding? Again I’m not sure. I just noticed that he stumbled, at least verbally, over one of the words that everyone is supposed to find easy.

This boy was the definition of average in our youth group—in our homeschooled, raised-as-a-Christian, overachieving youth group. He was neither brilliant nor a dolt. Average. I believe he had been raised using the King James Version in church and for personal use. His errors, too, were average, common. I’ve heard them a thousand times.

Helping people read

Now, defenders of the exclusive use of the KJV commonly insist that we can teach people how to read it. Their battle cry is, “Raise people up to the KJV rather than dumbing the Bible down to them!”

One KJV-Onlyish pastor (if you’ve followed my too-many posts on this topic, this is the one critical reader who has been the most gracious with me—super nice guy) wrote to me,

If we use the King James for preaching, teaching, discipleship, training and evangelism, we must take care to plainly teach and explain the truths of the Bible. Should you choose to give the KJV to a child or a new believer, great priority and care should be given to their discipleship and biblical education. We MUST take into account all of the things discussed in your book, especially the blind areas that we have, which I believe you brought to light in my own life incredibly well.

Again, what a gracious guy!

And yet I wonder, how exactly does even this clearly sincere and motivated pastor plan to ensure that his people can read the English of the KJV well?

  1. Do any KJV-Only churches offer reading programs in Elizabethan English?
  2. The small teen Sunday School I was teaching back then is about the most ideal circumstance in which to notice and correct someone’s reading errors. But I didn’t do it, because I didn’t want to embarrass the boy—and I wasn’t perfectly certain he misunderstood. Are there other Bible teachers out there who are experts at gently correcting other people’s reading in front of their peers? Can you tell me how to do it without embarrassing them?
  3. This boy was reading out loud, so I knew where he stumbled. But I’ve always wondered: how are preachers (who, in the KJV-Only view, are supposed to be teaching their people to read the KJV English) supposed to help people with their Bible reading at home? When I was a kid, I remember thinking, Surely I’ve read the Bible cover to cover: my pastor must have covered the entire thing by now. Then I went to college and read the thing—and discovered how wrong I was. The truth is that my pastor hadn’t even come even close. I’d guess we covered maybe 3% max over the four years I sat under his ministry. How was he supposed to know if I was misunderstanding something at home in the middle of Isaiah 55 or Titus 3 or Ezekiel 16 or Proverbs 7?

Exactly how is a pastor, with all his other duties, supposed to 1) notice when people are misunderstanding KJV English and then 2) teach them to read it? I’ve never seen it done, and I don’t think it can be done. Most adults will understand most of the KJV (hear me here: I’m trying not to overstate my case). A few adults will understand very little of it. A few will understand more than most.

Bringing the average group of adults into the above-average one is not easy or straightforward. And I think bringing the below-average group to average is well-nigh impossible. (I ministered to functionally illiterate people for many years—I know this.) The story I opened with suggests that it’s hard to even know for sure when help is needed—and hard to make it happen, even in the best of circumstances.

The Bible will always contain difficult portions (2 Pet 3:16). I want them to remain as difficult as God made them. These are necessary difficulties. But if you use a contemporary English translation, all of the unnecessary readability difficulties—the ones created by the meandering and yet inevitable process of language change over the last 400-plus years—will instantly go away.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 Comments

  1. Robert Vaughn on November 27, 2018 at 6:51 am

    Mark, you wrote, “Are there other Bible teachers out there who are experts at gently correcting other people’s reading in front of their peers? Can you tell me how to do it without embarrassing them?”

    Setting aside the KJV/MV discussion for the moment, I wonder how others approach this topic in general, regardless of from what version one is reading? I think reading aloud in church is a good thing, but many are not-so-good readers and stumble on words as they do so. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone correct someone else’s reading — with the possible exception of when the reader was obviously stalling and hoping for someone to say/pronounce the next word for them and someone did so (or perhaps someone in further discussing the verse deftly read and pronounced it correctly).



  2. Mark Ward on December 4, 2018 at 10:37 am

    I’m with you, Robert. Never heard anyone correct someone else’s reading except in precisely that circumstance.

    I don’t call on poor readers, because I don’t want to embarrass them. I would almost certainly never offer reading assistance to an adult in my church unless he or she asked for it. And in my experience, even with functionally illiterate adults (whom I pastored for five years), they never ask for it.



  3. dcsj on December 9, 2018 at 12:04 am

    FWIW, I always tell people when they come across those Bible names to just say it however they like, say it boldly, confidently, and everyone will think, “Oh, that’s the way you’re supposed to pronounce it!” It has helped many a shy reader get over the stumbling.



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