Reverend David | The History Maker Forging the Sacred Weapon: How the Bible Became Anti-Gay
UPDATE: Rev. David Sheldon Fearon died at his home in Nanaimo, British Columbia at the beginning of January 2023.
In 1959, David was a 21-year-old first-year seminary student in Canada. Everyone around him recognized him as a spiritually sensitive person. When he was six years old, his mother knew that she needed to switch church homes so that young David could be in a better Sunday school program. His minister, who had watched him grow spiritually through his teen years into early manhood, recommended him for the United Church ministry track at age nineteen. People around him recognized him as someone special and set apart.
He had always loved reading his Bible. In his earlier years, he read the King James Version. In 1952 the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was adopted by the United Church for use in general worship. During his first year of Divinity School, David began reading the RSV. It was then that he came across its translation of I Corinthians 6: 9-10:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals (j), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
(j) two Greek words are rendered by this expression
David had known he was gay since the age of sixteen. He also knew he was both loved and accepted by God and called to the ministry. The RSV was the first time in any translation of the Bible, in any language, that the word “homosexuals” had been used. David thought the RSV wording of I Cor. 6:9-10 was wrong. He checked the wording of the passage in the KJV and thought it was more accurate (“nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind”). Then he looked in his Greek lexicon for the meaning of the two Greek words (malakos and arsenokoites) indicated as combined in the RSV footnote. This convinced him that the RSV translation team had made an error.
After much thought and study, he wrote a several-page compelling letter stating his case and sent one copy to The National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America (NCC), the organization that commissioned the RSV, and the other copy to the publisher, Thomas Nelson Publishers. The NCC Executive Secretary sent his letter on to Dr. Luther Weigle, Dean of Yale Divinity and the head of the RSV translation team. David was surprised to receive a personal response a few weeks later from Dr. Luther Weigle. The two exchanged two additional letters. In the final letter, Dr. Weigle agreed the team would consider an alternate term for “homosexuals” in the next revision.
David never spoke about or shared the contents of the letters with anyone. He didn’t want to risk someone, even considering that he might be gay himself. After all, it was the 1950s. Why might a person care to address the topic so thoroughly and passionately unless he were gay? In signing the letter, he altered his identity enough to ensure privacy.
His letter exchange with Dr. Luther A. Weigle, the head of the RSV translation team, remained hidden in the Yale Archives for over fifty years until Kathy and Ed discovered it.
This exchange of letters is the ONLY historical evidence as to why the translation team made the decision that they did—to combine two Greek words into one word. The word they chose to represent the behavior they believed the Bible addressed was the word "homosexual."
The translation work on 1 Corinthians had been completed between 1935 and 1937 and finalized by the RSV team in 1940. At the time, homosexuality was thought to be a mental illness, a crime, and a sexual perversion. The team translated in the context of their time and knowledge.
When David challenged them in 1959, Dr. Weigle admitted the error and indeed changed the translation to "sexual perverts" in the next RSV revision.
So, who was this David who wrote to the translation team in 1959?
Through the most amazing series of events** (attributed to the hard work of a friend, Tina Wood), we found David’s identity about a year after our visit to the Yale Archives. And he was still alive! It had been an overwhelming challenge to locate him. When Tina finally found his identity, we understood why the task had been so difficult. David had signed the letters using only his first and middle names. The post office box return address further complicated finding him.
Early one August 2018 morning, Tina sent me an email with the heading “I may have found him.” She had David’s full name and contact information. Ed and I had never imagined the twenty-one-year-old who’d written the letter was still alive!
I phoned him at his home at 9 am. “Hello David, my name is Kathy Baldock, and I live in Reno, Nevada. I’ve been working with a friend on a project looking into the translation notes for the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Amongst over sixty thousand documents, we came across a letter questioning the translation teams’ use of the word ‘homosexuals.’ It was written in 1959 by David _____. Did you write that letter?” The stunned eighty-year-old responded, “Why, yes, I did.”
When he wrote the letter, he thought “hundreds, if not thousands” of people would have held the same objections to the translation and also contacted the RSV team. In fact, he was the only one who had. This surprised him. He also thought surely his letters would have been “tossed in the dust bin.” Yet, sixty years later, I had copies. And his input impacted a future revision.
We’ve chatted and emailed many times in the following months. David has told me his life story. After Divinity School, he did become a minister in the United Church and served in seven pastorates over a thirty-seven-year span. He’d also been partnered for twenty-three of those years with Joe, whom everyone assumed (from an old rumor that David never corrected) was his cousin. They’d been a couple until Joe died from long-term kidney issues he’d suffered his whole adult life. ***
Ed and I invited Rev. David to join us at the Q Christian Fellowship Conference in Chicago in January. We met him in person for the first time. What a blessing it’s been to not only discover his identity, then to find him alive, and further to realize he is a smart, witty, kind, sweet, and pastoral gentleman. Picture the ideal combination of pastor and grandfather, and that is Rev. David.
This is the stuff great documentaries are made of! Look for the documentary in late 2022 or early 2023. 1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted a Culture.
Reverend David Fearon, 1938 - 2023 Forging the Sacred Weapon: How the Bible Became Anti-Gay
Rev. David Sheldon Fearon, born May 18, 1938, died peacefully in his home in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, Canada at the beginning of January.
On October 22, 1959, David, then a 21-year-old seminary student at McGill University’s School of Religious Studies, Montréal, Quebec, wrote a five-page letter to Dr. Luther A. Weigle, the head of the translation team for the newly published Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible. Fearon questioned the team’s combining and translation of the two Greek words in I Corinthians 6:10 to the single word “homosexual.” Until the New Testament of the RSV was published in 1946, the word “homosexual” had never appeared in any translation of the Bible.
David was raised in Lenoxville, Quebec, the son of Earl, an iceman, and Evelyn, a primary school teacher. When David was six, his mother realized he had a strong spiritual bent. As a result, Evelyn decided to change her church affiliation to the United Church of Canada, where the religious education was stronger.
In sixth grade, David developed his first “crush” on smart and handsome Dennis. He became nervous, shy, and uncomfortable around boys, and he began to develop a stammer. At sixteen-years-old, he noticed a book at the town’s magazine stand, The Divided Path, subtitled “the story of a homosexual.” He thought, “What, could he be like me? Maybe I’m not the only one? Maybe there are more people like me that just want to like and be liked by another boy?” Careful not to let the clerk see the book’s face, he paid and brought the book home to read.
His mother seemed continually disappointed that her younger son did not seem to be “meeting a nice girl,” after all, Gene, David’s older brother seemed to date several girls simultaneously. To put an end to her nagging, David told her, “Mother, I’m gay.” It was 1954, and his stunned mother responded, “David, you can’t be gay, you’re are not a child molester or a pedophile.” As would become a lifelong pattern for David, he gathered resources for his mother to read so that she might understand what homosexuality meant.
Upon graduating from high school, David attended Bishop’s University in Lennoxville as a day student. He studied History and English, hoping to become a teacher like his mother. While a student at Bishop’s, David served with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Auxiliary Squadron from 1955 through 1959. The system acted as an early warning detection of Russian bombers that might potentially come to the United States from the north, over Canada. Serving in the RCAF was a good opportunity for David to become more comfortable being around other young men his age, something which in the past had made him nervous.
Though David had been solidly secure in his faith and beliefs since childhood, now that he was older and taking classes in chemistry and biology, and learning about evolution and Darwinism, he began to think more about the existence of God. He hit a crisis of faith and sought the counsel of his minister. “I’m not sure God exists,” he confided in Rev. Leonard Outerbridge. The minister asked David to pray over the Christmas break and come to his own conclusions.
Two weeks later, David was back in Outerbidge’s office. “Yes, I have found what I was looking for!” Having known David for many years, the wise minister asked, ”David, do you feel called to the ministry?” In his mind, David thought, “What am I getting myself into? I am a stammerer, and I’m gay.”
Outerbridge invited David to give the Sunday night sermon, the service most attended by his peers, his fellow students. David stood to give the sermon, delivered it clearly, and never stammered again. It seemed settled to David. “God fixed my stammer, but not my homosexuality. He must be good with it.”
The United Church of Canada gave David a scholarship to attend the McGill University School of Theology. The denomination had adopted the RSV as their official text for service and worship in 1952 when the full version of the translation was published.
David had been raised reading the King James Version of the Bible. Eventually, in his Divinity Program, David came across I Corinthians 6:9-10 in the RSV: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.” “Well,” puzzled David, “that doesn’t make sense to me. God called me to the ministry, and He knew I was homosexual. Now I am reading that homosexuals will not enter the kingdom of God. How can that be?” Then David noticed a small notation "j" beside the word “homosexual” indicating a footnote that read: “Two Greek words are rendered by this expression.” David suspected immediately, "This translation has to be wrong, and if so, it is a terrible disservice to homosexual people. It shows strong prejudice on the part of the translation team.”
The RSV translation of the passage deeply bothered him. The more he thought about it, he thought that the RSV translation of the I Corinthians verse would lead to the further discrimination of gay people, but this time, from the church. But David knew how to dig in to find answers to his questions. He had been doing it since his teenage years.
David was also a good Greek student both at Bishop's University and now at McGill. He knew it was essential not to simply read translated words in English versions of the Bible. Instead, he was trained to return to the original Greek texts to better understand the original meanings of words. After reading the RSV I Corinthians 6:9-10 footnote, he took out his Greek Bible and looked up the two words that had been combined to form the one word “homosexual.” The two Greek words were malakos and arsenokoites. In his interlinear New Testament that compared the Greek text with the literal translation immediately above it, David learned that the word arsenokoites was likely to have been coined by Paul to address a specific situation happening in the church at Corinth. Corinth, an ancient seaport city, regularly saw sailors, and along with them to service their sexual needs, prostitutes. In the ancient world and in Greek culture, men enjoyed both male and female prostitutes, but more often men preferred the less complicated services of men, particularly, young men. David recalled from his study that these men who had sex with male prostitutes were called by some “abusers of men.” Those who gave themselves for sexual use, especially to be used sexually as women and used, in other words, to be penetrated like women, were the "malakos," meaning "effeminate" which suggested, “to be used like women.” David was confident from what he’d learned about the Greek words, from the history of Corinth, and who he was as a homosexually-oriented person, that Paul could not have been writing about homosexuals as he knew them, as he knew himself.
“Hmmm,” David thought, “I’m a homosexual, but this is not about me. I know I am a Christian in the kingdom of God. I know God called me to the ministry. I’ve always known God has loved me, even as a child. The translators didn’t get this right. I don’t think “homosexuals” is what Paul meant by these words at all.” David then checked the translation of the two words as they had appeared in the KJV. There, the two words were translated as: “the effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind.” David thought the KJV translation was far more accurate a translation of these two words separately than the RSV combining Paul’s original two words into one sweeping word. It seemed clear to David the this RSV translation of that verse reflected the prejudice and ignorance of the society in which he had grown up.
David concluded, “My sexuality is part of God’s plan for me and for humanity. I just don’t think they got this right.” He continued to think about the translation. But, he couldn't talk to anyone about it, not even to his professors. The blindness in society at the time to orientation would expose him.
Over the span of almost two months, he privately went about constructing a single-spaced three-page letter, with an additional appendix, to send to the publisher of the RSV. He didn’t know if his letter would even be noticed, for he was certain that the many Greek scholars around him at the University and so many more throughout the world who had read this Corinthians passage during the past seven years would have noticed this error, and written to the publisher as well.
On October 22, 1959, David sent his five-page letter to Dr. Luther A. Weigle. (The full contents of the exchange of letters will not be made public until the book Forging a Sacred Weapon: How the Bible became Anti-Gay is published in mid-2024.) At the end of his impressive academic substantiation of the assumed error in translation, the young seminarian warned,
“I write this letter after many months of serious thought and hard work, partly to point out that which to me is a serious weakness in translation, but more because of my deep concern for those who are wronged and slandered by the incorrect usage of this word. Since this is a Holy Book of Scripture sacred to the Christian, I am more deeply concerned because well-meaning and sincere, but misinformed and misguided people (those among the clergy not excluded) may use this Revised Standard Version translation of I Corinthians 6: 9-10 as a sacred weapon, not in fact for the purification of the Church, but in fact for injustice against a defenceless minority group which includes the sincere, convicted, spiritually re-born Christian who has discovered himself to be of homosexual inclination from the time of his memory. I write this letter with certain homosexual individuals in mind—Christians who would die for their faith, their Church, and their Lord, but who cannot alter their biological state of being.
I hope the committee responsible for considering any possible corrections or revisions of the RSV text may take my case here presented for consideration.
Very truly yours,
Weigle responded November 3rd. He saw the possibility of an error and offered a suggested revision as “those who participate in homosexual practices.”
David again responded to Weigle on November 23, 1959, counter-suggesting, “those who practice homosexual vices.” Homosexual vices, as David explained, were akin to same-sex rape. The same-sex sex referred to in I Corinthians, he pointed out, was abusive and exploitative in nature, like rape.
The exchange ended on December 3rd, with Weigle assuring David that the letters would be placed in a file and revisited when the team worked on a revision.
David never thought about the letters again. He could not speak to anyone about them for fear that his questioning the translation might point to his sexuality. He did not know that his letters were placed in a file, and that, in the next round of translation edits, the team did change “homosexuals” to “sexual perverts,” a term that could be applied to any person, and not to a specific group, homosexuals. The 1971 RSV-r reflects this change.
Very unfortunately, several other Bible translations were already in the creation process by 1959. None of those translation teams (The Living Bible, The New American Standard Bible, and The New International Version) knew about the admission of error by the RSV team and the intention to revise. All of the newer translations used the RSV as the base text. “Homosexual” had become the accepted translation. The creator of The Living Bible added the word “homosexual” in five more places in addition to I Corinthians.
Homosexuality soon became a highly charged and useful political wedge issue for the Religious Right. First, the top-selling Bibles all supported the notion of the sinfulness and depravity of homosexuality. Then, the AIDS crisis hit. Romans 1, now including the word “homosexuals,” cemented the Religious Rights’ idea that AIDS was a penalty for sinful behavior.
I knew of this sudden translation shift and included the information in my first book, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon. When I spoke about it in my public presentations, I always added, “I believe this translation shift was the result of cultural and ideological assumptions by men who were born between 1870 and 1917. They knew nothing about what it was to be gay or the meaning of homosexuality as an orientation.”
The letter exchange has been housed in the archives in the Sterling Library at Yale University since 1976, when Weigle died. Weigle had been the dean of Yale Divinity. In October 2017, I went to Yale University for five days with co-researcher, Ed Oxford, to see if we could find documentation as to why the RSV team made the decision they did. There was no paper trail that existed for the translation period; it seemed that they made a “logical” uncontested assumption in their translation. I imagine them looking into the culture of the 1930s, when the work on I Corinthians was done, and asking, “What is a simple way to express sex between men that is exploitative, abusive, and excessive.” For them, that was homosexuality.
We had found no record of explanation as to their decision anywhere in the almost one hundred thousand documents we searched, until, on the third day of searching, I found the four letter exchange between David and Weigle.
This set Ed and me on a quest to undo the translation error that had been based on assumptions. I have been writing Forging a Sacred Weapon which traces the verses used against the LGBTQ+ community throughout history and in context for the past four years; it will be out in mid-2023.
The other curiosity was, “Who is this David Sheldon who wrote these crucial letters?” They were written with a PO Box return address based in Lennoxville, Quebec. We asked my friend Tina Wood to help us find David. Tina volunteers to help adoptees, birth families, and others searching for family and friends. The details of her search (also told in the book) are head-spinning. How do you find a person who wrote a series of letters sixty years ago with a PO Box as the return address? (We did not know at the time that David was using his first and middle name, not his last name.) It took almost a year, but Tina found him.
On August 17, 2018, I called David and asked him if he had written letters questioning the RSV translation team in 1959. “Yes,” came his reply. I had suspected on first reading the letters that the author was gay. David confirmed he was. “When did you come out?.” I asked. “Never. I never came out.” He was 80 years old.
David became a minister in the United Church of Canada after his studies at McGill. He served in nine pastorates for over thirty-seven years. He was partnered with Joe for twenty-three of those years. People thought live-in Joe was David’s cousin.
David Sheldon Fearon’s letters left a historical record of why the RSV translation team made their long-reaching and damaging decision. The is no other documentation explaining why the team included the word “homosexual” in the Bible, except the information found in the Fearon-Weigle letters.
David had yet to learn he impacted the 1971 revision change. He noticed the shift to “sex perverts” in the revision. When I shared the information with him in our first of dozens of long phone calls, he was surprised that his letters had moved Weigle to reassess his assumptions. David had always imagined his letters were “one of hundreds, if not thousands” written objecting to the translation. In fact, David’s was the only such letter.
I began presenting these findings in public presentations starting in 2018. At one such presentation at the Hollywood United Methodist Church, filmmaker Rocky Roggio brought her pastor father along. Sal Roggio believes homosexuality is a sin. Rocky was planning on doing a documentary examining her relationship with her father. However, after listening to the presentation, Rocky switched courses. Over the past four years, she produced an excellent documentary, 1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted a Culture. 1946 threads several stories together: Rocky and Sal, my research work with Ed, David’s letters, and his story, and all supported by interviews with expert Old and New Testament scholars. (The film is going through film festival now and will likely end up with a major online streamer within the next year.)
David died last week peacefully in his home in Nanaimo. He was discovered January 8th by a friend who requested a wellness check. David was slumped over at his dining room table, his glass of beer half-finished, his television on, and his eyeglasses only slightly askew. I would like to imagine he was watching the news, and God said, “Hey, David, good and faithful servant, you’ve done your work. It’s time.”
David did not know the legacy he would leave when, at 21, he bravely challenged the RSV translation error. His recently discovered letters left a record that allow us to further academically challenge a grave translation error based wrong assumptions.
In the last few years, he often said, “I used to think God called me to pastoral ministry despite my being gay. I’ve decided He called me to ministry because I am gay.”
For a glimpse of David, this interview will make you smile, laugh, and applaud.
As we all know, sometimes it takes a village.