On Writing a History of the American Bible Society–Update #3

Want to get some context for this post?  Click here.

Yesterday I was busy teaching in Messiah College’s Center for Public Humanities (scroll down to see what this was all about) and as a result I did not get too much time to work on the American Bible Society (ABS) project.   But I did manage to carve out about ninety minutes at the end of the day to continue to work through some of the ABS’s early annual reports.

I spent most of my time thinking about the ABS’s 1819 attempt to convince Congress that it should not have to pay postage on the distribution of Bibles or pay duties on the high-quality French paper necessary to produce Bibles.  The argument went something like this:

1.  The U.S. government did not require postage for letters sent by a Baltimore “vaccine institution” urging people to get vaccinated.  If Congress is concerned with “public health” then it should also be concerned with “religion and morals and the consequent improvement of society.” 

2.  The ABS is a national organization committed to the public good.  This makes them different from other benevolent institutions that might ask for similar exemptions.

3.  By charging postage on Bibles and duties on French paper Congress is essentially taking Bibles away from the poor and destitute people in the United States who need them.

4.  In the past Congress had exempted local Bible societies from postage and duties. 

5.  The treasury has a surplus of funds.  It does not need the money that would come from postage and duties on Bibles and paper.

6.  The government is using its surplus to stimulate the economy through the promotion of manufacturing.  It is good that the U.S. government wants put bread on the tables of workers.  But it should also be concerned about promoting the “bread of life.”

7.  How can a Christian nation not support the needs of an organization committed to the distribution of the Bible?

8.  The First Amendment does not apply to the promotion of Christianity or Congressional support for the distribution of Bibles.  What ABS is doing (and requesting) does not violate the free exercise of religion and the ban on religious establishments. In fact, if Congress refused to provide the ABS with these postal and duty exemptions it would be violating the free exercise clause.

9.  Congress allows religious chaplains, so there is a precedent for it supporting and promoting religion.

10.  George Washington in his farewell address wrote about religion as essential to the health of the republic.

In the end, Congress rejected the ABS’s proposal, but I have yet to carefully examine why it did so. Stay tuned.

Only ninety minutes of work today, but this document gave me a lot to think about.  It is amazing how Christian nationalists today make the same arguments that the ABS made in 1819.