About the Translator
Charles Bray Williams, my father, was born January 15, 1869, near the small country village of Shiloh in northeastern North Carolina. He was the scholar in a farm family of six children. As a teenager he read and studied Latin with his book tied to the handles of his plow.
Somehow he managed to attend college at Wake Forest College, from which he graduated in 1891 summa cum laude. After teaching school for a few years, he married a young lady from Winton, North Carolina, where he had been teaching. He, along with his new wife, Alice, traveled away from their native North Carolina to attend and graduate from Crozier Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. In 1899 a son, Charles Weston, was born; then in 1903 a daughter was born, named Eunice Lois.
He and Alice had moved to Texas where he taught at Baylor University. When Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary was established he was instrumental in building up and cataloguing their library. For several years in the first decade of the 1900's Williams and his family drove the long distance to Chicago in the summers, where he worked on his Ph.D., which he completed at the University of Chicago in 1909. His dissertation topic, "The Participle in the Book of Acts," probably shows his first research into what was to germinate during the next decade into a translation of the Greek New Testament–a New Testament with a readable and more understandable English "in the language of the people."
For about twenty years he worked on perfecting the translation, while serving as Dean of Southwestern Seminary; President of Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham, Alabama; Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia; and Professor of Greek and Ethics at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. His wife had died while he was teaching at Mercer and he took the teaching position at Union in 1926 probably to escape sad memories of her illness. He had always served as interim pastor in various churches to supplement his teaching salary, and it was in one of these churches in Friendship, Tennessee, that he met a young teacher named Edith Stallings. In 1934 they were married, and in 1935 I was born, when my father was almost 65 years of age.
Two years later, in 1937, a New York publisher, Bruce Humphries, Inc., published the first edition of the Williams translation. In his foreword my father explained the purpose of his translation. He wrote:
aim we have used practical everyday words to replace many technical religious and theological terms. In other words, we have tried to use the words and phrases that are understandable by the farmer and the fisherman, by the carpenter and the cowboy, by the cobbler and the cabdriver, by the merchant and the miner, by the milkmaid and the housemistress, by the woodcutter and the trucker. If these can understand it, it is certain that the scholar, the teacher, the minister, the lawyer, the doctor, and all others can.
In these four centuries (since the death of William Tyndale, who was condemned to death for translating the New Testament into English and for seeking to put it into the hands of the plain people) scores of other translations have been made. Then why make another? someone asks. A distinguished Bible scholar answers, "Language is a fluid thing. It does not remain fixed for a day. There is therefore constant need of retranslation."
Our aim in publishing this new translation is that of Tyndale, "to cause the plowboy to know the Scriptures." Our aim is to make this greatest book in the world readable and understandable by the plain people. Only three books in the New Testament are written in anything like good literary Greek–Luke, the Acts, and Hebrews. In our translation of these books we have tried to use good, smooth English. Elsewhere we use simple everyday English which reproduces the everyday Greek which the writers used. In accord with this
One of the marks of great literature and of good books is whether or not they stand the test of time: are they dated to one period in which they were written by the vocabulary and idioms used, or do they sound as fresh and apropos today as they did when they were first published. With very few exceptions the latter is true of the Williams translation. His use of the old words "cobbler," "milkmaid," and "housemistress" in the paragraph above may be some examples of those exceptions. Today’s usage even rebels against the more modern "housewife." There are a few idiomatic expressions such as his use of "aplenty" in Matthew 14:20 and the other references to the feeding of the multitudes, or in James 2:16, that were perhaps more common sixty years ago than nowadays. And his repeated use of the alternate spelling of "dumfounded" without the "b" (see Oxford English Dictionary) looks strange to us today, but apparently it was a more accepted spelling sixty years ago. Obviously any footnote references to monetary values in the 1930s should be multiplied by ten or twenty to equate today’s values.
In sum, this translation has continued to prove its timelessness through these almost sixty-five years since it was first published. The fact that ministers are still reading to their congregations from it; Sunday School teachers are using it to help clarify their lessons; and seminary professors are urging their students to study it–all prove further that there must be even today something of great value in this translation for use in the twenty-first century.
Charles B. Williams wrote at the end of his foreword in 1937:
"May the face of the Christ, who is the Theme of this book and the Light of the world, shine into the heart and upon the life of everyone who reads it!"
Charlotte Williams Sprawls