For many Christians, a Bible without the words of Christ in red is almost unthinkable. But like other standard Bible features (such as chapter and verse numbers), the origin of the practice is virtually forgotten.
It is a surprisingly recent innovation, instigated by Louis Klopsch (1852-1910), an enterprising immigrant journalist. Born in Germany, he was brought to New York at age two, where the family did not fare well. Louis left school early, and by age twenty was editing a merchants’ trade newspaper. He enhanced the columns by interspersing Bible passages in the text. Then he managed to buy a print shop, and became a successful publisher. By 1890 he was American editor of the British weekly, The Christian Herald. He later bought it out, and before his death had hiked its circulation from 30,000 to a quarter million.
In his teens he had been captivated by a service conducted by Rev. T. DeWitt Talmage. He made Talmage an editor of his paper, and conceived the idea of distributing his sermons to hundreds of newspapers. Thus he may have invented the modern tactic of syndication.
Then on June 19, 1899, while composing an editorial, his eye fell upon Luke 22:20: “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which I shed for you.” Seizing upon the symbolism of blood, Klopsch asked Dr. Talmage if Christ’s words could not be printed in red. His mentor replied: “It could do no harm and it most certainly could do much good.”
This new adjunct to the New Testament of course had to include the words of Jesus quoted by others, in Acts and Revelation. It was decided to exclude anticipations of Christ (“Christophanies”) in the Old Testament. An initial edition of 60,000 “Red Letter Testaments” was soon sold out. Accolades streamed in, from the King of Sweden (a telegram) to President Theodore Roosevelt (a dinner invitation which Louis Klopsch accepted).
Klopsch also pioneered American overseas charities in a massive fashion, raising more than three million dollars through his newspaper. He aided famine victims in many places such as Sweden and Japan. Still his legacy of the red-letter Bible is his silent, largely uncredited monument.
Red letters are especially useful in the King James Version and in other translations where quotation marks are not used. There are also those super-intricate quotations-within-quotations (some of them four times removed), where the red letters are crucial for separating the words of Christ from surrounding text.
Of course some large-print Bibles omit red letters since they are an obstacle for the vision-impaired (such as Nelson’s Black Letter Giant Print Bible, KJV). One company unsuccessfully tried to print Christ’s words in green. Some publishers use a pinkish red that is hard to read. Often the precise shade of red is left to the printer’s discretion—or whim. Frank Couch, New Products Planner for Thomas Nelson Bibles, emphasizes that Nelson insists upon a specific hue of brick red, distinctive yet easier to read.
So, despite the changes in Bible publishing, the red-letter option seems to be a solid fixture welcomed and demanded by vast numbers of Christians. Red letters have been a venerable Bible asset for eighty-five years.
Reprinted by permission from Triads Quarterly.