Kenneth Nathaniel Taylor, who founded Tyndale House Publishers after he had been unable to find a company willing to publish his Bible paraphrases, died at age 88 on Friday. Tyndale House is now a leading publisher of Christian books and resources. Taylor's biblical paraphrase, which became The Living Bible, sold more than 40 million copies in North America alone. In 1950, Taylor also founded the Christian Booksellers Association, a trade association of Christian stores, publishers, and other retail companies now known simply as CBA. He also created the missions organizations Evangelical Literature Overseas and Short Terms Abroad (which merged with Seattle-based Intercristo in 1976).
While we at Christianity Today gather comments and remembrances from those who knew Taylor well, here is a brief biographical sketch from the Kenneth Taylor collection at Wheaton College, from which Taylor received his B.S. in zoology from in 1938 and an honorary doctorate in literature in 1965:
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Kenneth Nathaniel Taylor was born May 8th, 1917, in Portland, Oregon, to George and Charlotte Taylor. The senior Taylor, an aggressive soulwinner, pastored the Queen Anne Hill United Presbyterian Church where the family resided in the parsonage next door. Later they moved to Seattle, then Beaverton, Oregon.
Kenneth, eagerly attending Sunday school, was early impressed with the inestimable value of Scripture. He once saw his father accidentally drop a Bible; and with almost ceremonial gentility, the Reverend Taylor picked it up from the floor. Kenneth respected the Word, but he wrestled with archaisms in the King James Biblea certain portent of future editorial tasks. As publisher and writer, he would similarly honor the Bible and its effective communication.
After high school in 1934, Taylor enrolled at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he enthusiastically embraced a bounty of opportunity, performing well academically and participating in athletics. Most importantly, his spiritual life deepened significantly as he heard challenging chapel messages proclaimed by pulpit luminaries such as Dr. H.A. Ironside, renowned pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.
Taylor's college years were not entirely free of discord. Reading Borden of Yale, he discovered that God allowed William Borden, a vibrant and wholly dedicated Christian, to die miserably of fever. Taylor, shattered at this apparent waste, deliberately turned his back on God. Then, he reflects, God "reached out and grabbed me and pulled me back." Deeply contrite, he surrendered his life to any and all spheres of Christian service.
Another crisis was deciding whether to marry Margaret West, a high-school friend who had transferred to Wheaton College. In time their relationship, however rocky, progressed to deeper commitment; after several tumultuous seasons of dating, they married in 1940.
From 1940 to 43, he pursued his Th.D at Dallas Theological Seminary, then in its infancy, sitting under the school's esteemed founder, Lewis Sperry Chafer. There the Taylors had Rebecca, the first of 10 children. Toward the end of his studies, Taylor received invitation to edit HIS magazine, offices located in Chicago. He moved his family to suburban Wheaton, Illinois, and finished his coursework at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Satisfied at HIS, he nevertheless accepted an invitation to join Clyde Dennis, founder of Good News Publishers, in tract translation and foreign distribution, a missionary endeavor dear to Taylor. When printing operations gradually shifted to Switzerland, he resigned and joined the editorial staff at Moody Bible Institute, remaining for 16 years. One day he was excitedly approached by a student keenly interested in distributing Moody gospel literature in Mexico. Years later, the young man, George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilization, would again distribute books and Bibles for Taylor.
During his tenure at Moody, Taylor also created Evangelical Literature Overseas (ELO), a foundation dedicated to developing and disseminating Christian literature to third world countries.
Administrative responsibilities frequently intruded on quality time with his growing family, often creating tension. However, the combination of editorial mind with fatherly heart sometimes afforded splendid creative opportunities. When he and Margaret read to their children, Taylor lamented that there was no book that covered the whole Bible for youngsters. As their kids brought home Sunday school lessons, he handwrote stories to match the pictures, asking if the stories made sense.
Encouraged by favorable responses, he submitted the material, subsequently published by Moody Press as The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes, an all-time bestselling children's book. Then followed a sequel, Stories for the Children's Hour and Devotions for the Children's Hour, a condensation of Chafer's theology courses.
Noting the success of these titles, he recalled his longstanding dissatisfaction with the King James Bible; the text simply didn't make sense to his children. Perhaps he could paraphrase the entire Bible for grown-ups as he'd done for children? Most daunting, but he would try. Commuting by train to Chicago each day, he utilized his travel time for paraphrasing the scriptures into contemporary language, beginning with the New Testament.
His basic text, the American Standard Version of 1901, provided "the most accurate of the word-for-word English translations." For the early drafts, poet Luci Shaw served as stylistic consultant. After several laborious attempts at capturing appropriate expression and cadence, he at last completed it. Acquiring a loan, he published Living Letters in 1962. Sales were patchy, but in 1963 its marketing received an incalculable boost when Billy Graham announced his ambition to offer Living Letters to anyone in his viewing audience desiring a copy.
Tremendously successful, Living Letters received wide distribution under the auspices of Taylor's newly formed company, Tyndale House Publishersnamed after William Tyndale, the 16th-century Bible translatorallowing him to quit Moody Press. Tyndale House's second title, a Spanish translation of David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade, sold 100,000 copies in 1965. In years following, Taylor paraphrased the remainder of Scripture, publishing it as The Living Bible. Endorsed by Jerry Falwell, Bill Bright, Chuck Swindoll, and other evangelical leaders, The Living Bible has been translated into numerous languages.
Taylor held prayer as absolutely central to his life, constantly developing deeper, more disciplined patterns. Models of prayer warriors are George Muller, founder of English orphanages, and "Praying Hyde," missionary to India. In My Life: A Guided Tour, Taylor reflected: "I learned that prayer brings power, but character grows through reading and obeying the Word of Godthe Scriptures."
His son, Mark, is currently the president of Tyndale House, publishers of The New Living Translation (a translation rather than a paraphrase), the bestselling Left Behind series, the McGee and Me! video series and a substantial backlist of fiction and nonfiction.
Biographical sketch provided by the Kenneth N. Taylor collection at the Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections, which holds works related to the production of The Living Bible and Taylor's Bible Story Book, including drafts and revisions.
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Ken Taylor: God's Voice in the Vernacular | Although his work has made him famous, he remained a retiring and modest figure. (October 5, 1979)
The Living Bible's Modern Hero | Ken Taylor's autobiography shows a man who makes nothing of an extraordinary life. (April 6, 1992)
Tyndale House Publishers says a Ken Taylor memorial website will be available soon.
In an article about The Living Bible, Books & Culture editor John Wilson says the impact of Ken Taylor's work extended far beyond the fortunes of The Living Bible.