“The Letter Kills but the Spirit Gives Life”: Julia E. Smith’s Bible Translation

From the first century onward, the form and text of the Bible has been a source of near-endless debate, review, reinvention, and artistry. Available in thousands of different translations, editions, and compilations, it is a text that is at once universal and individual.

Title page for a King James translation, 1613. (SC-10)

Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections holds more than five hundred whole or partial Bible monographs. Each of these instances carry forward the spirit of their common text and yet remain unique, with their own voices and particularities. Some of this variety comes from the different language translations available in the Archives (ranging from Hawaiian to Sanskrit), but remarkable diversity can also be found within the English translations alone.

The archive’s shelves include multiple printings, editions, and facsimiles of famous English translations, such as the Wycliffe Bible (1388), the Coverdale Bible (1535), and the King James version (1613), as well more modern classics, like the New International Version (1984) and the Living Bible (1971), among many others.   

Although these were (and are) influential texts to most Christians’ everyday experience with the Bible, they make up only a percentage of the incredibly rich variety of English-language Bibles. The gallery below shows a small selection of the diversity and creativity in Bible publishing to be found in the collections – from miniature printings and pocket editions to colloquial language and story translations, as well as illustrative adaptations in a myriad of artistic formats.

This March, Archives & Special Collections continues our celebration of Women’s History Month by featuring one of these lesser-known translations – Julia E. Smith’s The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments; Translated Literally from the Original Tongues. Published in 1876, it marked the first complete translation of the Bible into English by a woman.

Julia Evelina Smith was born May 27, 1792 in Glastonbury, Connecticut and is known mainly for her work in the abolition, temperance, and suffrage movements along with her sister Abby Hadassah Smith. Smith had a working knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, gained from her schoolwork and her father, Zepheniah Smith, who had been a former minister in the Congregational church after graduating from Yale with a theological degree. With this knowledge Smith could read the Bible in its native languages, while much of the English-speaking word still read exclusively from the King James, or Authorized version, first printed in 1611. 

Portrait of Abby & Julia Smith, 1877. Library of Congress Photographs http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.54158

Julia Smith’s translation project began in 1847, after the failure of Baptist preacher William Miller’s apocalyptic predictions of the end of the world in 1844, which he had supported with verses taken from the King James translation. Concluding that perhaps the translation work in the King James’ text had departed from the full reality of God’s inspired Word, Smith set about creating a new and completely literal translation, desiring to “learn the exact meaning of every Greek and Hebrew word.” Working in concert with her four sisters and another female friend, Julia Smith’s translation took eight years to complete. Reflecting on this process, Julia wrote in the preface to her translation, “I was so much interested and entertained to see the connection from Genesis to Revelation, that I continued my labors and wrote out the Bible five times, twice from Greek, twice from Hebrew, and once from the Latin.”

While working on her translation Smith insisted on complete lexical and grammatical literalness, maintaining words in the order in which they occurred in the original text and seeking to translate each original word with its counterpart in English, no matter the tense. This created significant difficulties in creating a readable translation when incompatibilities between Hebrew and English grammar arose, such as with the Hebrew imperfect tense. The result was a translation that was mechanical and, at times, jumbled. A sample of the text’s difficult structure can be found in Isaiah 7:23, which was rendered “And it was in that day every place shall be where shall be there a thousand vines for a thousand of silver, for sharp points and thorns shall it be.” Compare this to the King James of the day, “And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place shall be, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, it shall even be for briers and thorns.”

Explaining her dedication to a strictly literal approach, Julia Smith wrote,

“If I did not follow the tenses as they are, I myself should be the judge, and man must not be trusted with regard to the Word of God. I think the promiscuous use of the tenses shows that there must be something hidden, that we must search out, and not hold to the outward, for the ‘letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.’”

Preface to Julia E. Smith’s The Holy Bible
Julia Smith’s translation, 1876 (SC-10)

Though Julia Smith began her work in the late 1840s, her translation did not see publication for more than thirty years, because her initial intent was not publication or distribution. Despite the personal origin of the project, she and her sister, with whom she had written Abby Smith and Her Cows (which chronicled their tax resistance struggle for the suffrage cause), finally decided to pay to have the translation published in 1876. This decision arose in part from the sisters’ continued efforts for women’s suffrage, desiring to use the published translation as a clear example of the intellectual capability of women. The cost of the 1,000 copies was $4,000, but the pair offered them for $2.50 each. Roughly fifty were still remaining among her personal possessions when her estate was auctioned off in 1884.

Smith biographer, Emily Sampson, advocates for greater recognition of Smith’s work, arguing that her translation anticipated many trends followed by later translators. While it fell into obscurity because of the difficulties of language created by its literalness, it is worth noting that this translation was the only English translation of the complete Bible out of the original languages available to English readers until the publication of the Revised Standard Version in 1952, as the early Revised and the American Standard versions were partly adaptations of the text of the King James.

Explore more items from our collections of rare commentaries, Bibles, and other religious literature through the Buswell Library catalog listings for SC 10: Rare Book Collection and SC 233: Sacred Arts Collection.

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