It is unlikely that you have ever heard Julia E. Smith referred to as one of the great American Bible translators. Why is this the case? She was the first (and only?) woman to translate the entire Bible. Why has a woman who without any assistance made five translations of the Bible from Hebrew, Greek and Latin remained in obscurity? Could this be due to the ever lurking idea in Christianity that women should have nothing to do with sacred writings?
Julia Smith was born in 1792 to the well respected New Englanders, Zephaniah and Hannah Smith. She was the fourth of five girls and lived in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Though she obtained an education during her primary years, showed great potential as a student and eventually as a teacher of French and other subjects, her educational training only could go so far. Women were not yet allowed to study at universities, so when her formal education was complete, she returned home to the family farm in order to share the domestic responsibilities with the rest of her sisters. Her father Zephaniah started out as a minister, but decided that such a job disagreed with him and, instead, turned his attention to law. He encouraged his daughters in their intellectual pursuits and seemed to not mind that they didn’t desire to marry. Julia was the only one out of the bunch who did end up marrying and at a very late age of 87! Their singleness may have enabled their collective pursuits as abolitionists and suffragettes.
After Zephaniah’s death, Hannah and the girls remained in charge of their farm and took care of the responsibilities on their own. They seldom required outside help even into their old age. Despite living on a farm and having household chores, Julia continued to cultivate her mind. She spent most of her free time reading the Bible (mostly on Sundays)and other literature such as Erasmus, Cicero and Shakespeare. Julia was naturally gifted in learning languages mastering French, Latin and Greek in school. Starting in 1845 at the age of 53, Julia began translating the Bible without the help of commentaries or friends. She began with the New Testament and then slowly worked on the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible. Julia wanted to tackle the Hebrew language, obtained recommendations from a friend and eventually taught herself the language. She began one of her translations of the Hebrew Bible in 1847. Her purpose for translating was completely personal believing that only her sisters and a few friends would ever read her work. She simply wanted to see every word of the Bible “with her own eyes.”
If Julia’s translation was intended just for personal use, why did it eventually get published? After the death of Julia’s mom and three eldest sisters, only Julia and her youngest sister Abby remained on the farm. The two Smith sisters were in their seventies and, as often happens to older isolated women, they were taken advantage of . They started to be taxed double and, after confronting the tax collector, they refused to pay their taxes. This was a big scandal at the time and the town threatened to confiscate some of their cows as compensation for the tax. Thus, a famous story unfolded about “Abby and her cows” which Julia eventually wrote and published (Julia Smith, Abbey Smith and Her Cows With a Report of the Legal Case Decided Contrary to Law, Hartford, Conn: American Publishing Co., 1877). After several protests by the sisters, Abby delivered a public speech in town about taxation without representation that became well known within New England. These unfortunate events prompted Julia to publish her translation in order to prove that women were intelligent enough to handle their own property. Her translation of the entire Bible from the original languages was published in 1876 by American Publishing Company in Hartford Connecticut. It sold for $3 dollars a copy! A promotional add by the publishing company read,
The announcement of this translation of the Scriptures from the Hebrew and Greek tongues, by a woman, unaided and alone, so attracted the attention of many prominent scholars, that they have taken the trouble to closely examine the Bible since its publication, and have subjected it to the closest scrutiny. The result has been most complimentary to the translator, and she has received thousands of congratulatory letters from all parts of the country (Abby Smith and Her Cows).
In an interview in 1875 conducted by the New York Sun, Julia stated in regards to her translation that,
I have used only the lexicon, and, of course, have looked up the King James translation, but I have consulted no commentators. It was not man’s opinion that I wanted as to construction or rendering, but the literal meaning of every Hebrew word and that I wrote down, supplying nothing and paraphrasing nothing, so everybody may judge the meaning for himself by the translation…I wanted every reader to see the exact original and nothing else through my rendering as through glass (Emily Sampson, With Her Own Eyes, 96).
Sadly, Julia’s translation did not gain popularity in her time on account of her very literal rendering of the text causing her translation to be difficult to read in comparison to other translations. Still, her marvelous efforts should not be forgotten and she deserves recognition for her contribution to biblical scholarship. In her preface to her published translation, Julia explains how she wrote out five translations of the entire Bible (twice from Greek, twice from Hebrew and once from Latin) and impressively, it only took her about seven years to do so.
Fortunately, due to the efforts of modern librarians, you do not have to travel to a University Library in New England to read Julia’s translation for yourself. Both Princeton Theological Seminary and Harvard Divinity School have uploaded scanned copies on Internet Archives. The best copy is the one uploaded by Princeton, which was previously owned by Bruce M. Metzger.
Sampson, Emily. With Her Own Eyes: The Story of Julia Smith, Her Life, and Her Bible. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006.
Smith, Julia E. Abby Smith and Her Cows with a Report of the Law Case Decided Contrary to Law. ‘The Making of Modern Law: Trials, 1600-1926’ . Gale 2017. Gale, Cengage Learning. Boston University-Pappas Law Library. 13 January 2017