Andover's Steven T. Byington was such an exceptional person that, 55 years after his death, he and his life's work, "The Bible in Living English," are indirectly the subject of a lawsuit in New York state. I was contacted by the plaintiff because I'd written about Byington several years ago. The facts of the case are still unfolding.
From the 1930 to 1957, Byington (1868-1957) often walked between Ballard Vale - as he always called it - and Memorial Hall Library. He had a long beard, making him look taller than his medium height, wore sneakers but never a hat and always had a book bag over his shoulder. He would politely decline an offer of a ride, although he wouldn't hesitate to stop and chat along the way. He took shortcuts through others' land to reach his home, the stone house on Ballard Vale's High Street, where he lived with his mother, until she died in 1935, and with his sister, Martha, who was the librarian at the Ballard Vale library. He'd moved to Andover with his mother in 1906.
Those who knew him well, especially in the old Union Congregational Church of Ballard Vale, understood he was an intellectual with an intricate knowledge of the Bible. Others knew of him because of a 1956 feature article in the Andover Townsman that highlighted Byington and the 40 years he'd spent translating the Bible into modern English. He was a renowned translator and in his early adulthood was one of the intellectual pillars of a form of peaceful anarchism called "individualist anarchism." Byington's translation of three seminal books on anarchy can still be purchased today.
He stuttered, which likely caused him to be an avid reader and prolific writer, but may have kept him from his chosen profession, being a Congregational minister, although he spent a year and a half in theology school. His "letters to the editor" touched on a immense variety of subjects and were published all over the country. He published 25 articles in the journal "American Speech" from 1926-1946 and had a lifelong interest in English language use.
Walter Bagnall of Chillicothe, Ohio is potentially Mr. Byington's biographer. Bagnall came across an essay by one of Byington's Sunday School students called, "The Sage of Ballard Vale, Remembrance of a Yankee Genius." The student recalled a day, many years ago, when a young, visiting minister from the Harvard Divinity School spoke at the Union Congregational Church. Mr. Byington's traditional seat was in the "old choir section," which was to the side of the minister and in front of the congregation. While the minister was interpreting an Old Testament passage Byington interrupted the service, something he regularly did, by leaning forward and tapping his forehead with his finger, trying to get the first word out of his mouth; this was a clue to the congregation that he was about to speak. The congregation leaned forward in expectation, which the minister mistook as rapt attention to his sermon, but soon Byington spoke in a stutter, "I beg to differ! Young man, your interpretation of the passage is incorrect. Going back to the Hebrew, the essence of the passage reads as follows..." According to the essay, "The younger man was speechless as Byington read the passage in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and German to compare the meaning...The young student later returned to Ballard Vale as the regular minister, and the two men became fast friends."
Steven Byington — born "Stephen" in Westford, Vt. — was only 13 when he decided the Bible needed to be translated into modern English. His love for the Bible came from his father, who was a minister. Steven graduated summa cum laude from the University of Vermont in 1891, and was Phi Beta Kappa. He taught himself Hebrew because the school didn't teach it, and, as time passed, he learned a total of 12 languages.
His front page obituary was in the Andover 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 Mr. Byington was unable to find a publisher for his translation of the Bible into modern English. He'd finished the translation in 1943, after working on it for 40 years. There were other translations of the Bible, but Byington believed they were uninspiring and inaccurate.
Fifteen years after his death, Byington's "The Bible in Living English" was published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society owned by the Jehovah's Witnesses. One of the reasons they published it was because of Byington's use of the name "Jehovah" for God. In 1972, 100,000 first editions were published, the next year 50,000 second editions were published. Byington's translation has become a book collector's book and you can buy a first edition from Amazon for $149.95. I own a second edition, and it is a beautiful version of the Bible.
Mr. Byington worked 39 years in Boston as a proof reader for Ginn and Co, and he commuted to work on the train where each day he would work on his Bible translation. 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.
When I asked Walter Bagnall why he thought Byington was a great man he responded that Byington overcame a handicap (severe stuttering) without a trace of bitterness and found a way to make a substantial contribution to society in spite of it. Bagnall says, "Byington wasn't afraid to stick out like a sore thumb to make a point. Being an anarchist in the 1890-1920 period was unpopular. To take a stand for what he believed in, despite the prevailing opposition to anarchism, was admirable and I think, one of the marks of greatness."
Mr. Bagnall compares Byington to Thoreau, and says, "In many ways the two were cut from the same cloth; but Byington was brainier. Maybe this is why Thoreau is famous and Byington is not. After all, an article titled, 'The Attributive Noun Becomes Cancerous,' which Byington wrote for American Speech in October, 1926, wouldn't have been the most engaging reading by any means."
Mr. Byington's obituary states that his ashes were taken to Westford, Vt., and no Andover relatives were listed. When South Elementary School was built, there was some discussion about naming the school in his memory, but nothing came of it.
Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman. His email address is BillDalton@AndoverTownie.com.