News

American Bible Society marks 200th birthday

Since 1817 American Bible Society has given Bibles and Scripture resources to the men and women who serve our country in uniform, delivering nearly 60 million free Bible resources to the military and their families. Photo courtesy of American Bible Society

(RNS) Two hundred years ago, the American Bible Society was founded to distribute Scriptures across the U.S. and the globe.

The society that opened its doors on May 11, 1816, moved last year from its prominent spot on Broadway in New York City to a building a block away from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, amid financial losses and criticism of the organization’s fundraising strategies.

The American Bible Society will sell its 12-story building on Broadway, vacating prime real estate in the heart of Manhattan that served as a host of evangelical ministries. Photo courtesy of American Bible Society

The American Bible Society will sell its 12-story building on Broadway, vacating prime real estate in the heart of Manhattan that served as a host of evangelical ministries. Photo courtesy of American Bible Society

Over the course of two centuries, the society has been led by a couple of the Founding Fathers and has developed innovative ways of getting the Bible into the hands of the military, disaster victims and people who speak the world’s languages.

Here are some examples of its influence:

1. Its founders wanted a bond between church and state.

The first president of the American Bible Society, Elias Boudinot, was also the first president of the Continental Congress, and its second president was John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Elias Boudinot (1740-1821) was the founding president of American Bible Society. Photo courtesy of American Bible Society

Elias Boudinot (1740-1821) was the founding president of the American Bible Society. Photo courtesy of American Bible Society

These statesmen were Federalists, the leaders currently highlighted in the popular Broadway play “Hamilton,” said John Fea, author of “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.”

“The Federalists tended to be much more interested in creating a Christian republic or a Christian nation,” he said, “as opposed to their political rivals, followers of Thomas Jefferson, who tended to be a little more unorthodox in their religious beliefs.”

2. It has shared the Bible with U.S. military service members.

Its distribution of millions of Scriptures to American forces dates to the Mexican War of the 1840s, when Mexican civilians were also provided with Bibles. At one point two decades later, during the Civil War, ABS representatives were able to reach both sides simultaneously.

“Their Bible wagon, as it was called, was able to ride straight through the middle of that battlefield and give Scriptures to both North and South,” said Geof Morin, American Bible Society senior vice president.

More recently, the society has worked through chaplains who provide Bibles draped in the camouflage colors of the different military service branches.

American Bible Society distributed millions of copies of Scriptures to American soldiers during World War I. Photo courtesy of American Bible Society

American Bible Society distributed millions of copies of Scriptures to American soldiers during World War I. Photo courtesy of American Bible Society


RELATED STORY: Priced out of New York, American Bible Society decamps to Philadelphia


3. It pioneered efforts to make the Bible more accessible.

Decades before the time of audio Bibles, the ABS introduced the “finger-fono,” a miniature hand-held phonograph that played the Bible in languages such as English, Spanish and Navajo. Launched in 1957, one plastic machine sold for $2.70 and played six discs featuring short Scripture passages.

His Eminence Metro Boris of USSR watches a demonstration of the Finger-Fono during his visit to American Bible Society. Photo courtesy of American Bible Society

His Eminence Metro Boris of USSR watches a demonstration of the Finger-Fono during his visit to American Bible Society. Photo courtesy of American Bible Society

The society also provided the first Bibles for the blind and pioneered, with the help of translator Eugene Nida, a book originally titled “Good News for Modern Man,” which provided the New Testament in accessible language rather than a strict word-for-word translation.

“It sold millions of copies within the first year,” said Fea of the 1960s New Testament that was created before “The Living Bible” and “The Message,” accessible Bibles that later became popular with Bible readers. “It passed ‘Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care’ as the best-selling paperback in American history.”

4. It has distributed Scripture in times of crisis.

From black churches that burned in arson attacks in the South in the 1990s to dust-covered first responders after the 9/11 attacks to victims of Hurricane Katrina, ABS has distributed millions of Scripture passages during special times of need.

In circumstances like these, when digital technology can be lost, Morin said the society resorts to the basics.

“You tend to go back to paper and you tend to go back to something they can put in their hands and put in their pocket and carry with them, pull out for easy and ready access,” he said.

5. It still has plans for innovation.

At a bicentennial gala Thursday (May 12), Morin said ABS leaders will detail plans for their next goals: to provide some form of Scriptures to the speakers of the 1,800 remaining language groups who cannot read the Bible in their own tongue.

In recent years the society has become the administrator of the .Bible website domain and has begun experimenting with ways to make the Bible wearable and, one day, responsive to biometrics.

Working with innovators on where “big data meets the Bible” — knowing what verses people look to when they’re anxious and when they’re celebrating — he said the ABS wants to “make sure that we give the Scriptures a great place to engage people with the technologies they become comfortable with.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

2 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • They’ve done wonderful things for translation skills and some good things for the preservation of endangered small languages.

    Just think what they could have achieved if they’d spent the last 200 years educating the white world about the other cultures out there. Might have helped a few little things like peace, and freedom, and…

    -dlj.

  • Wouldn’t the Society have been much more productive during those 200 years if their primary mission had been to produce credible evidence that the Bible, along with God’s existence, are true? But I assume they realized from the outset that such a mission was hopeless.

ADVERTISEMENTs