Two hundred years ago this Spring, on May 11, 1816, representatives from local Bible societies around the country gathered in New York City to establish the American Bible Society (ABS). Elias Boudinot was chosen as the first president. He had previously served as president of the Continental Congress and director of the U.S. Mint. In 1821 he was succeeded by Supreme Court Justice John Jay. Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner,” was also among the founders.
These deeply patriotic citizens, with strong leanings toward the Federalist vision of America, held high hopes that the Bible would have a shaping influence on the development of the country they loved, and they were determined to put it in the hands of every person in the United States. The 1816 founding address of ABS reflected the confidence of a new nation that had defeated its mother country twice in a single generation, most recently in the War of 1812. The statement also reflected the evangelical activism of the Second Great Awakening, presenting an almost postmillennial vision of the future:
We shall set forward a system of happiness which will go on with accelerated motion and augmented vigour, after we shall have finished our career; and confer upon our children, and our children’s children, the delight of seeing the wilderness turned into a fruitful field, by the blessing of God upon that seed which their father sowed, and themselves watered. In fine, we shall do our part toward that expansion and intensity of light divine, which shall visit, in its progress, the palaces of the great, and the hamlets of the small, until the whole “earth be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea!”
Those last words are a quotation from Isaiah 11:9 (cf. Hab. 2:14), and they can be read today on the wall of the American Bible Society, which last year moved from New York to Philadelphia. Located in an impressive suite of offices overlooking Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, ABS continues to pursue its mission “to make the Bible available to every person in the language and format each can understand and afford, so all people may experience its life-changing message.” ABS once supplied special leather-bound Bibles to every rider and station agent on the Pony Express; it is ironic that ABS is now located in the Wells Fargo Bank.
The early leaders of ABS referred to their movement as “the Bible cause,” a phrase historian John Fea has chosen as the title for his new bicentennial history, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016). In 1816, and for many years afterward, the Bible in question was the King James Version. Contrary to popular opinion, the KJV was not the Bible brought over by the Pilgrims on the Mayflower—those Puritan Separatists preferred the more Calvinistic Geneva Bible—but by the time ABS was founded, the KJV prevailed as the Bible of choice throughout the English-speaking world.
For many years, the KJV, “without note or comment,” was the primary version of the Bible published and disseminated by ABS. Today, of course, with the plethora of new Bible translations on offer, the situation is vastly different. Some of these new versions follow the “dynamic equivalence” (thought-for-thought) method of Bible translation pioneered by ABS itself through the work of scholar Eugene Nida, while others use a “formal equivalence” (word-for-word) approach. There are better and worse specimens in each of these categories, and much has been gained through making the Bible accessible in contemporary idiom. But, as Mark Noll has noted, there is a downside as well:
The bad news is that no one of the new translations comes anywhere near to the broad linguistic and conceptual currency that the King James Version once enjoyed. When Lincoln in 1858 spoke of a “house divided” or in 1865 of “judging not that you be not judged,” almost all educated people who heard him recognized not only that he was citing the Bible, but that he was using the very words of Scripture that they themselves had also read, heard, and inwardly digested. The gain in accessibility that the new translations all genuinely offer is matched by a loss in familiarity that the King James Version once provided for the culture as a whole.
Theodore Roosevelt, who taught the Bible in Sunday School long before Jimmy Carter was born, wanted the Bible to be “a guide to conduct” for the American nation as a whole, not simply “an outward token of Sunday respectability.” The Bible, Roosevelt declared, is “the most democratic book in the world.” The role of the Bible in shaping the special character of the United States remains a special focus of ABS, but the universal vision of Scripture itself (for example, Jesus’s “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19-20) has led to global efforts to translate and distribute the Bible in every language human beings speak.
In 1818, ABS sponsored a translation of the three Epistles of John into the language of the Delaware Indians. In the following year, its first Spanish Bible was printed, a Catholic version of the New Testament. (The relationship between the American Bible Society and the Catholic Church has not always been so friendly, but it has improved greatly since developments stemming from the Second Vatican Council.) In 1823, ABS provided $1,000 to British Baptist missionary William Carey to support his translation of the Scriptures into Bengali and other languages of India and the East. Eventually, Carey and his helpers published more than 200,000 copies of the Bible into more than forty languages, an achievement that places him in the front ranks of Bible translators in Christian history alongside Jerome, Cyril and Methodius, Wycliffe, Luther, and Tyndale. Today, despite the good efforts of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and other groups, there are still some 2,000 language groups with no Bible of their own—more than one billion people. ABS hopes that by 2025 one hundred percent of languages across the globe will be open to Bible engagement, with all peoples able to hear and read the Scriptures in their own language.
Roy L. Peterson, president of ABS, has referred to the Society as “a two-hundred-year-old startup. We’re constantly looking for new ways to help people engage God’s everlasting message of hope.” For two centuries, innovation has been at the forefront of ABS work and remains so today. Historic ABS initiatives include giving Bibles to those serving in the Armed Forces (1817), providing Bibles for the blind (1842), the first audio Bibles (1934), and the launch of the Digital Bible Library (2012). With a social media audience of more than ten million, including a lively Facebook presence, ABS is trying to find new ways to connect the Bible and its message with a rising generation of Bible-neutrals and Bible-sceptics, to use terms from the Barna Group’s State of the Bible survey. Which version of the Bible to read is an argument too precious for many who no longer read—anything! The renaissance of biblical learning at the Reformation was accompanied by the founding of schools and instruction in basic literacy. Such is increasingly our task once again.
Whatever the challenges for fostering a fresh engagement with the written Word of God today, they will be better faced by believing Christians who are working together to show the world that the Word of the Lord is indeed “a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our pathway” (Psalm 119:105). The Board of ABS today includes Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians, all committed to Christian unity based on the Word of God in Holy Scripture.
The translation committee of the New Revised Standard Version, chaired by the great biblical scholar Bruce M. Metzger, set forth the relevance of the Bible in today’s changing world.
In traditional Judaism and Christianity, the Bible has been more than a historical document to be preserved or a classic of literature to be cherished and admired; it is recognized as the unique record of God’s dealing with people over the ages. The Old Testament sets forth the call of a special people to enter into covenant relation with the God of justice and steadfast love and to bring God’s law to the nations. The New Testament records the life and work of Jesus Christ, the one in whom “the Word became flesh” as well as describes the rise and spread of the early Christian Church. The Bible carries its full message, not to those who regard it simply as a noble literary heritage of the past or who wish to use it to enhance political purposes and advance otherwise desirable goals, but to all persons and communities who read it so that they may discern and understand what God is saying to them.
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com.