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GOOD BOOK: A member of the St. John Baptist Church in New Orleans reads from his King James Version.
David Grunfeld/The Times-Picayune/Landov
GOOD BOOK: A member of the St. John Baptist Church in New Orleans reads from his King James Version.

Reigning classic

Religion | Most Americans who read the Bible say they still prefer the King James Version

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

A new study on “The Bible in American Life” by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture suggests that the Bible retains a position of unique influence among Americans, even if many more people respect the Bible than actively read it. The report finds that two-thirds of those people who hardly ever read the Bible still affirm that the Scriptures are either the “inspired” or “inerrant” Word of God. 

Americans are evenly split between those who read any religious texts at least once a year, and those who do not read them at all. Among those who do, the vast majority (95 percent) read the Bible as their sacred book of choice. One of the most surprising findings of the study is that, in spite of the proliferation of other English-language translations in recent decades, the King James Version (KJV) remains by far America’s most-read Bible. Fifty-five percent of Bible readers cite the KJV as their preferred translation, with the New International Version second at 19 percent, and “other translations” at 8 percent. 

Notre Dame historian Mark Noll commented that “although the bookstores are now crowded with alternative versions, and although several different translations are now widely used in church services and for preaching, the large presence of the KJV testifies to the extraordinary power of this one classic English text.” African-American readers express overwhelming preference (79 percent) for the KJV, as compared to only half of white respondents who do. 

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African-Americans are overall the most avid Bible readers, too, with more than two-thirds of blacks surveyed saying that they had personally perused the Scriptures at least once in the past year. Only 46 percent of Hispanics and 40 percent of whites say they have done so. Non-KJV readers are more likely to read the Bible at least weekly. Only 9 percent of respondents claim to read the Bible daily.

The internet and electronic devices are also changing the way Americans interact with the Bible, with 31 percent of readers noting that they access Scriptures via the internet, and 22 percent using e-devices as a source for their devotions. Unsurprisingly, people under 30 are the most likely to use e-versions, but even in the 45-59 age bracket, 40 percent say they use internet-based Bibles.

Changing church?

A recently released poll of American Catholics from the Pew Research Center indicates that Pope Francis has had virtually no effect on Catholic practice in the United States, in spite of the heavy media attention given to the Argentinian pontiff. An overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics (85 percent) have a favorable view of the pope, however, an opinion shared by two-thirds of the general American public.

The poll shows almost no change during the pope’s tenure in the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic (22 percent), or the church attendance rates of U.S. Catholics. Forty percent say they attend weekly, and a similar percentage attend only occasionally. Father Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter commented that the stable numbers might actually indicate a positive trend, since American Catholic attendance has been slowly declining for half a century.

The poll did signal that the period since Francis’ appointment has seen increased aspirations for change in the church. Higher numbers of American Catholics now expect that by the year 2050 the Roman Catholic Church will allow priests to marry, ordain female priests, and allow the use of contraceptives. Thirty-six percent of respondents even say they anticipate that within 40 years the church will recognize same-sex marriages. Blogger Rod Dreher, writing at The American Conservative, concluded that most of the excitement over Pope Francis relates to the “expectation that he will liberalize the Church.” —T.K.  

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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