NEW YORK — In the beginning, there were 850,000 words. Three years later, John E. Walsh and his team of editors had condensed the Bible by 40 percent, to 510,000.
Mr. Walsh went on to write more than two dozen books on subjects as diverse as Abraham Lincoln’s first girlfriend, the Shroud of Turin and Piltdown Man, as well as literary biographies of John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Frost.
He left nine completed manuscripts when he died March 19 at 87 in Monroe, Wis. But his most widely read book was the Reader’s Digest Bible.
Mr. Walsh was the project editor on the condensation, which took seven editors three years, or more than 100 times longer than it took God to create the heavens and the earth.
In all its incarnations, the Bible may well have been the world’s best-selling book, but not necessarily the best read. The original Revised Standard Version was 1,400 pages; the abbreviated one, about 800.
“Our Bible is still the word of God,” Mr. Walsh said, when it was first published in 1982, “but it’s easier to get into and stay with and appreciate.”
The Reader’s Digest version did not skimp on any of the Ten Commandments and considered favorites like the 23d Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer to be sacrosanct. But in the end, it boiled down the Old Testament by 50 percent and the New Testament by 25 percent. None of Jesus’ words were changed, but about 10 percent were deleted.
Mr. Walsh said he was initially appalled by the idea of tinkering with Scripture, where the Book of Revelation warned against changing “the words of the book of this prophecy.’’
In the Revised Standard Version, Genesis reads: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.”
The Reader’s Digest version condensed that 66-word passage to 37 words: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished. And on the seventh day God rested from all his work. God blessed and hallowed the seventh day, because on it he rested from all his work of creation.”
John Evangelist Walsh was born in Manhattan.
He enlisted in the Army after his senior year at Power Memorial Academy and served in the infantry in Italy in the mid-1940s and as a reporter for military newspapers.
When he returned home, he enrolled in Iona College, in New Rochelle, N.Y., but before graduating he was hired as a reporter for The Oneonta Daily Star. It was the start of a career that took him to Prentice-Hall, Simon & Schuster, and Reader’s Digest, where he headed condensed-book projects.
In 1956, he married Dorothy Schubis, whom he leaves, along with his sons, John and Timothy; his daughter, Ann; a sister, Patricia Kelly; and three grandchildren. He died in a hospital in Monroe, where he lived.
He had just finished a manuscript (typewritten; he had never adapted to computers) about Pearl Harbor.