|F. J. A. Hort
Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892) was, as you may already know, one of the two British scholars responsible for the 1881 compilation of the Greek text of the New Testament that replaced the King James Version’s base-text, the Textus Receptus. Although the compilation of Westcott and Hort was used, in general, as the basis for the Revised Version, and for the 1901 American Standard Version, many objections were raised against the Westcott-Hort revision.
For a collection of those objections, one can consult the works of John Burgon, such as The Revision Revised , The Traditional Text of the Holy Gospels, and Causes of Corruption (in which, among other things, Burgon described the orthodox corruption of Scripture, preceding Bart Ehrman’s similarly-titled book by over a century). Mathematician and textual researcher George Salmon also composed a gentle protest against some aspects of the Westcott-Hort compilation and the theories on which it was grounded.
Burgon did not oppose the idea of revising the Greek text of the New Testament. He once wrote, “That some corrections of the Text were necessary, we are well aware.” But he was firmly convinced that no scholars of his generation were adequately equipped for the task of a thorough and definitive revision of the New Testament text. Burgon’s opposition to Hort’s compilation was seasoned by a somewhat bombastic literary style – a feature which Burgon acknowledged, and regarding which he insisted, “For everything there is a season.” Perhaps The 1897 Oxford Debate on New Testament Textual Criticism is the best single resource for obtaining objectively phrased information about the reasons why Hort’s theories about the transmission of the text of the New Testament were either embraced, or rejected, by his contemporaries. However, one can read through those works without noticing objections against something which nowadays would make it highly unlikely that Hort’s work would receive wide acclaim: his racism.
Perhaps you thought that I was going to say “his interest in the occult.” Some writers – particularly some KJV-Onlyists – have accused Hort of being an occultist. Westcott and Hort were both members of a society, or club, called The Ghostlie Guild, which (as anyone can see by reading pages 117-120 of the first volume of The Life and Letters of F. J. A. Hort) was formed to collect accounts of paranormal (or “spirit-world”) phenomena – not to endorse the premises of spiritualism. Hort did indeed attend a séance: he mentioned it in a letter to his wife, written on
23, 1864. “We worked till
near dinner,” he wrote, “when we had a very nice little party, the two De
Morgans, H. M. Butler, Farrar, Bradby and his mother, and H. W. Watson. Mrs. Bradby, whom I had never seen, and who
was well worth seeing, came in the evening.
We tried to turn tables, but the creatures wouldn’t stir.”
|An illustration from Sophia De Morgan's
book about seances and spiritualism,
picturing a "good spirit" and a "bad spirit."
The reference to table-turning in the final sentence alludes to something done at séances. The two De Morgans mentioned by Hort were the mathematician Augustus De Morgan and his wife Sophia, whose 1863 book From Matter to Spirit: The Result of Ten Years of Experience in Spirit Manifestations, includes, in its opening chapter, instructions about how to conduct a table-tipping session, at which “the table will appear to throb or vibrate under the hands as if charged with a kind of electricity,” following which “The table perhaps will move in a circuitous direction,” followed by “communications” in which the table tips as the medium recites the alphabet. The second chapter is also about “Rapping and Table-Moving.”
Hort, however, seems to have attended only one such session, and that may have been out of a sense of courtesy to a colleague’s idiosyncratic wife. Hort’s limited and brief interest in séances and similar paranormal phenomena seems to have been motivated by scientific curiosity, rather than by any desire to promote the beliefs or practices of spiritualism.
Now about Hort’s racism. In the preface to The Life and Letters of F. J. A. Hort, published in 1896, Arthur Hort states about his father: “In all that he wrote his real self is shown, and nowhere more than in his letters.” So it is with some consternation that one finds the following statements in a letter written by Hort on
September 25, 1862,
discussing the American Civil War: [NOTE: I have redacted an offensive term in this excerpt.]
“I do not for a moment forget what slavery is, or the frightful effects which Olmsted has shown it to be producing on white society in the South; but I hate it much more for its influence on the whites than on the n****rs themselves.
“The refusal of education to them is abominable; how far they are capable of being ennobled by it is not so clear. As yet everywhere (not in slavery only) they have surely shown themselves only as an immeasurably inferior race, just human and no more, their religion frothy and sensuous, their highest virtues those of a good
dog. If enjoyment and comparative freedom
from sorrow and care make up happiness, probably no set of men in Europe
(unless it be the Irish) are so happy. Their
real and most unquestionable degradation, if altered by slavery, is hardly
aggravated; the sin of slavery to them is rather negative in hindering advance,
yet what advance has there really been in the West Indies or Northern states? Nevertheless the thing is accursed most
positively from its corrupting power over the dominant race.
“But, while agreeing with the advocates of the North that slavery is at the bottom of the whole conflict of South and North, as the chief though not sole cause of disunion, and also that the South separated simply because Lincoln’s election was a signal that the North had decided not to allow Southern policy any longer to hold the helm of the whole Union, I hold that the South had a perfect right to separate themselves and go their own way . . . . I hold, therefore, that the war is at once entirely a war of independence, and not at all for and against slavery, though it sometimes suits the North (and still more its English supporters) to represent it as such. While the war lasts, therefore, I fully sympathize with the South. So much for the mutual rights and wrongs of the two contending parties. But that is only one part of the matter. I care more for
for Europe than for America,
how much more than for all the n****rs in the world! And I contend that the highest morality requires
me to do so.”
I highly doubt that very many Bible-believing Christians would say, “Let’s find the person who wrote that, and give him the job of compiling the Greek text upon which shall base our new English translations of the New Testament.” Yet that is what our forefathers did. F. G. Kenyon, in his book Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, described the work of Westcott and Hort as “the basis of all subsequent study.” The New Testament base-texts of the NIV,
NLT, and NRSV are descendants of, and very similar to, the 1881 Westcott-Hort
compilation. And at the website of the Nestle-Aland compilation, it is affirmed that
the text of the first edition of the UBS
Greek New Testament (published in 1966) “was established along the lines of Westcott and
I am not sure what, if anything, should be done in light of this information. Perhaps textual critics who do not want to be associated with Hort might consider emphasizing, in their reviews of the history of the field, the work of other textual critics of the 1800’s, such as Samuel Tregelles. Hort’s racism does not alter the quality of his research. And it is not as if anything that Hort said that was factual was factual because Hort said it. Yet it is saddening to learn that a researcher who was so instrumental in the compilation and promotion of the critical text (which is the basis for so many English translations) reflected the Holy Spirit’s presence so poorly in this regard. I regret that our predecessors in the field, and in the church, did not detect, rebuke, and correct Hort’s racism.