Controversy over “Immersion”

From the earliest days of the British and Foreign Bible Society (founded in 1804) and the American Bible Society (founded in 1816), Baptists supported and encouraged the translation of the Bible into numerous languages. A conflict eventually developed which caused the Baptists to withdraw from fellowship with these interdenominational Bible Societies. In the 1830’s the British and Foreign Bible Society refused to support Carey’s Bengali translation and the American Bible Society refused to support Judson’s Burmese translation because they both had translated the Greek baptizo as “immerse.” As a result, on both continents, the Baptists moved their support to new Bible societies which would be true to the original meaning of Scripture.

During the half century after these two divisions, the Baptists had occasionally sought to restore fellowship between the various Bible Societies. While at times some headway was made, the refusal to recognize the actual meaning of baptizo continued to create a barrier to reunion.

In 1886 the Anglican Bishop of Rangoon, Burma, and the British and Foreign Bible Society sent a request to the American Baptists for permission to reprint Judson’s Burmese translation, but with one change – replacing “immerse” with the transliteration “baptize.” Judson’s reply to an earlier similar request had been: “I would rather lose my right hand than tamper with the word of God.”
The reply from the American Baptists, written on January 10, 1887, deserves quotation as an epitome of the sentiment of the Baptists of that day:

We understand that you ask our consent to change Dr. Judson’s translation of the word “baptize” and its cognates, either “by transliterating the Greek word,” after the manner of the English version, or by adopting “a neutral term which all denominations might use.” . . . You make this request not on the ground that the present rendering is an incorrect or inadequate translation of the Greek word, but because it is not acceptable to other denominations of Christians. You seem to regard it as more important to please these other denominations than to make the Burman version mean the same thing to the Burman that the Greek Testament means to the Greek. . . . We are compelled to decline:

1. Because we cannot consent to obscure or neutralize the plain meaning of our Lord’s command. The leading authorities, both in classical and New Testament Greek, define the word “baptize” by words signifying to “immerse” or to “dip.” In such a question we must be guided simply by a sense of loyalty to Him who gave the word, and not by a desire under other conditions to meet their wishes. We cannot, we dare not, deliberately obscure or neutralize any word of Christ.
2. Because Judson’s translation describes the act of baptism as it was accepted and practised by the apostles and their immediate successors, the New Testament and all credible church historians being witnesses.
3. Because Judson’s translation follows the precedents established by versions of the best repute, both ancient and modern, made by men who acted without bias before any question had arisen about baptism, and with a single purpose to express the real meaning of the Greek text. . . .
4. Because the rule which you have adopted is invidious to the extent of positive injustice, in that it discriminates, not against a novel and unauthorized rendering of the word “baptize” and its cognates, but against a numerous and influential body of Christians who conform to the New Testament law of baptism and the practice of the primitive ages of the church. . . .
Of course you do not mean to say that the British and Foreign Bible Society will not join in circulating a version which translates “baptize” by a word meaning immerse. . . . What you really mean is, that you will not circulate such a version if it be made by Baptists, for a people whose practice it would be likely to shape or determine. You will circulate it if made or used by a people who say, “I immerse thee,” when they simply apply their wet fingers to the forehead of the candidate. . . .

J. N. MURDOCK, Cor Secretary.

May we be as faithful as these Baptists in upholding the truth of God’s Word!