In the 1950s, Steven T. Byington was an old man with a long, white beard. He was of medium height but seemed taller because he was thin. He wore sneakers but never a hat when he walked back and forth from his home in Ballard Vale to Memorial Hall Library. He made this walk often, summer or winter, and over his shoulder he carried a sack for books. He would politely decline an offer of a ride, although he wouldn't hesitate to stop and chat along the way.
He was known as the "Bard of Ballard Vale."
("Ballard Vale" is more commonly called "Ballardvale" today, but I'll refer to it the way Mr. Byington did.)
He was a remarkable, unusual man, and his front page obituary was in the Townsman on Oct. 17, 1957, exactly one year after the Townsman carried a front page story about him titled, "Steven Byington — Man of Letters — Has a Problem."
The problem was that he had been unable to find a publisher for his translation of the Bible into modern English.
He had finished the translation in 1943, after working on it for 60 years. There were other translations, but he believed they were not done with the accuracy of his and that they were uninspiring.
The Townsman story was a good one, perhaps a little whimsical, but very respectful of this man whom people liked. Yes, he was a bit eccentric, but no one doubted that Byington had a brilliant mind and a thorough knowledge of the Bible.
But the story in the paper and Mr. Byington's obituary were not complete. There was much more to him than being an old man looking for a publisher.
In his youth, and perhaps later, he was an anarchist of such note that you can still go online and read about him. He was not a bomb-throwing anarchist of the sort popularized by the newspaper accounts of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. His style of anarchy, called "individualist anarchism," was more like the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau.
Byington would be more akin to today's libertarians than yesterday's communists, although trying to categorize him as simply as I'm doing is an injustice to his intellect as well as to individualist anarchism.
Byington's translation of three seminal books on the subject of anarchy can still be purchased today ("The Ego and Its Own" by Max Stirner and Steven Byington, "Anarchism" by Paul Elztbacher and Steven T. Byington, and "The Great Anarchists: Ideas and Teachings of Seven Major Thinkers" by Paul Elztbacher and Steven T. Byington). These books were all translated by Byington in the years around the turn of the 20th century, but have been republished several times, one as late as 2005.
In 1896, he organized an anarchists' letter-writing campaign aimed at educating newspaper readers about his beliefs. Byington also published a book on his own, "The Society of the New Order" (1919), but I didn't obtain information about it.
But there is still more about Steven T. Byington's complete story that has to do with his Bible translation.
Byington lived with his mother and sister in the stone house on High Street in Ballard Vale. His mother died in 1935, and he and his sister, Martha, continued living there. She was the librarian in Ballard Vale's small library. They were from Westford, Vt., and Byington's love for the Bible came from his father who'd been a minister.
Steven (born "Stephen") Byington was only 13-years-old when he decided that the Bible needed to be translated into modern English, and he began the translation long before he entered college. He graduated cum laude from the University of Vermont in 1891, and was Phi Beta Kappa. He was a linguistic genius who taught himself Hebrew because the school didn't teach it. As time passed, he learned a total of 12 languages.
Byington had a speech impediment that kept him from becoming a minister, although there is evidence he spent some time in seminary school. He described the impediment as a "slowness of speech that had been carried down through generations." His love for the written word may have resulted from this difficulty.
He was active at the Union Congregational Church of Ballard Vale, where he served as clerk and church historian until 1955 (when the church merged with the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the Ballardvale United Church).
He attended most every Sunday. Occasionally, during the sermon, the minister would hear Mr. Byington cough to get the minister's attention. The minister would pause and wait for Byington to correct his interpretation of the Bible. Slowly and politely Byington would say, "I don't believe that is correct," or the like.
Mr. Byington worked for 39 years in Boston as a proofreader for Ginn and Co., a textbook company. He commuted to work on the train, where each day he would tweak his Bible translation.
Perhaps because of his organizing the anarchists' letter campaign, he was an inveterate letter writer the rest of his life. These letters went to publications all over the country and were signed, "Steven Byington, Ballard Vale, Mass." His name and address were well-known in the Boston and New England area, and a Boston paper often quoted him in one of its regular columns. His subject matter was wide-ranging, according to an Andover Historical Society Newsletter piece written by Ruth Sharpe several years ago. It's possible that he proselytized less about individual anarchism as he aged, for people did not identify him with it. Two world wars and a depression may have altered his beliefs, but there is no evidence either way.
He certainly never became less of a believer in his Bible translation. He worked for a publisher and knew the cost of publishing books; in fact, he said in the Townsman that he thought it would cost $100,000 to publish his translation.
Shortly after he died, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah's Witnesses) acquired ownership of his translation, although Byington had been politely critical of the Jehovah's Witnesses' "New World Translation" of the Bible. It may be that their interest in Byington's work was because he used the name "Jehovah" and not "God" throughout his translation of the Old Testament.
In 1972, The Watch Tower Society printed 100,000 copies of Byington's "The Bible In Living English." It was reprinted the next year, and other reprints have followed. I went online and purchased a first edition (I'm a book collector). Mr. Byington would be surprised at the value of his translation, including other than first editions. He spent 60 years doing the work; it's a shame he did not live to see how much other people value it. I'm looking forward to reading his translation.
Steven T. Byington's obituary states that his ashes were taken to Westford, Vt., the town where he was born. It listed no Andover relatives.
If anyone has copies of his published letters or other Byington correspondence, I'd be interested in seeing them so that I can do a follow up to this column.
Bill Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.