An Early American Translation: Abner Kneeland's New Testament

(The Bible Collector – Oct/Dec 1983)

This rare translation was first published in Philadelphia in two volumes, the Gospels in 1822, and Acts-Revelation in 1823. This first two-volume edition contains both the Greek text and Kneeland’s own translation on each page. In his preface, he claims that he is the first to publish “a Greek and English testament.” The Greek text is that of Griesbach, which, according to Kneeland, was in his day “the most correct Greek text, as acknowledged by all.” A one-volume edition of the English translation alone appeared in 1823. Kneeland lived from 1774-1844.

Reflecting the scholarship of the time, frequent references are made throughout the notes to the translations of George Campbell, Wakefield, Scarlett, MacKnight, Charles Thomson, and the 1808 Improved Version. Parkhurst’s Greek lexicon is also referenced regularly.

Kneeland himself was a story of continually developing liberalism. In 1803 he became a Universalist after spending a few years as a Baptist preacher. He stayed a Universalist for 26 years. It was during this period that his friend, Hosea Ballou, helped allay his doubts about the inspiration of Scripture, leading to his producing this translation. In 1829, he left the Universalists, moved to Boston, and founded a group of freethinkers. Here he enjoyed the friendship of men such as William Ellery Channing, Ralph Walso Emerson, Theodore Parker, and William Lloyd Garrison. In 1834 he was tried and convicted for blashphemy. After 4 years of appeals and litigation, he served 60 days. Simms says his trial and conviction were “utter absurdities, growing out of the narrowness of the day.” In 1839, hoping to found a freethinker colony, he moved to Iowa where he died in 1844. Throughout his life, he was an avid writer and publisher.

When examining his translation, one cannot help but notice certain similarities between it and Benjamin Wilson’s Emphatic Diaglott. Although there is no English interlinear, it is an early attempt to provide the reader with a Greek text, as Wilson also did. Kneeland renders John 1:1c “and the Word was a God,” similar to both the Improved Version and Wilson’s interlinear, with the exception of using a capital ‘G’ for “God.” Other renderings show Kneeland’s disbelief in the Trinity. An example is John 20:28 where he translates Thomas’ words, “My Lord, and my God!” using the comma evidently to try to indicate two persons being addressed here. Forty years earlier than Wilson, Kneeland used the common English pronunciation for the divine name in the NT. He does this when Psalm 110:1 is quoted, perhaps for clarity. Thus Matthew 22:44 reads, “Jehovah said to my Lord.” Wilson, of course, uses “Jehovah” more frequently (18 times).

Like the Diaglott, renderings and footnotes deny the personality of the Devil and the demons. Matthew 13:39 reads, “the enemy that sowed them is the imposter.” The footnote here says, “the principle of evil personified.” At Luke 4:33, this footnote is found ‘explaining’ the demonized man: “He was raving mad, and fancied himself possessed by a demon, which was the current opinion of the age.” Examples of this abound. Both Kneeland and Wilson refer to Hugh Farmer’s Essay on the Demoniacs (1775) in their respective footnotes on Mark 9:17. Farmer’s contention was that these people discussed in the Gospels were physically ill, not really being possessed by demons.

But before quickly concluding that Kneeland’s translation greatly influenced Wilson, it is worth noting that the present writer could find only four references to Kneeland in the Diaglott, once in Wilson’s “History of the English Versions” listed in his introduction, and 3 times in footnotes (Phil. 2:6; Heb. 2:16; 11:3). Further investigation is needed here, but the present reviewer only has volume one of the 1822 edition available. Perhaps another ISBC member has access to the second volume, or to more information on this subject, and would kindly review the remainder of this liberal early American translation with the rest of the membership.

Editor’s note: The Library of Congress union catalog of Bible entries shows the 1822 edition as one volume with pagination, iv, 344 p. Locatins are NBi and NN (Harpur College, University of New York, Birmingham, N.Y.) and New York Public Library. The 1823 entry shows 2 volumes with quite a number of holdings. Volume 3 of The Cambridge History of the Bible does not show Kneeland in the index.