It Took 200 Years, But Philadelphia is Finally the Center of the Bible Universe

Philadelphia’s Bishop William White

In case you have not been reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home today, I did a few quick posts on the announcement of the American Bible Society move from New York City to Philadelphia.  As a historian, I am thrilled about the move.  From what I can tell, the ABS library and archives will also move to the City of Brotherly Love.  More on that later.

When we think about this move to Philadelphia in the context of the ABS’s 200-year history, the irony is hard to miss. When Elias Boudinot tried to form the ABS in 1815 not everyone was thrilled with the idea of a national Bible society.  The Philadelphia Bible Society (PBS) led the opposition.  The PBS Board of Managers, led by President William White, the Episcopalian Bishop of Pennsylvania, did not think that a national organization could distribute Bibles any better than the many state and local societies already in existence.  Other PBS members, including Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, agreed.

White also argued that the timing was not right for a national society. The country was in a “difficult economic state” in the wake of the recent war with England and as a result Americans would not be willing to support to new charities.  The PBS managers also worried about competition between a new national organization and those state and local Bible societies that refused to join it.  Such differences would divide the Bible cause in America and make it look “foolish” in the eyes of the world.  These criticisms were included in a document circulated to Bible societies throughout the United States for the purpose of convincing them to ignore Boudinot’s plan for a national society.

Shortly after the Philadelphia Bible Society published its formal objections to a national Bible society, Boudinot wrote a point-by-point rebuttal from the bed in the back room of his Burlington, New Jersey home.  Boudinot would have certainly agreed with the words of an anonymous clergyman who published a similar essay in support of a national society: “The very fact of there being so many separate and independent societies is proof enough that they are individually weak; that no one can have the ability of extending its operations much beyond the limits of the district in which it is located.”  Using words that echoed the sentiments of those politicians (such as Boudinot) who also defended the United States Constitution, the clergyman added, “Can there be a union of the people for political purposes, and not one for those of a moral and religious nature?” 

When it came to the Philadelphia Bible Society’s concern over the potential of animosity and disunity among the various Bible societies in the United States, Boudinot took the high road.  The purpose of a national society was to overcome such petty jealousies by forcing those involved in Bible distribution to “forget our differences and recognize our common relation to the same divine master and our common obligation to support His cause in the world.”  In the end, if the Philadelphia Bible Society did not want to join a national society, Boudinot asked that its managers would, at the very least, allow the society to function without publicly opposing it.

Boudinot’s rebuttal to the Philadelphia Bible Society convinced the managers of several state and local Bible societies to change their minds about uniting their efforts with other societies in the formation a national organization.  Other Bible societies, however, stayed with Philadelphia.  In the end, it was the New York Bible Society and the Massachusetts Bible Society that provided what appeared to be a death blow to Boudinot’s proposal.  The managers of the New York Bible Society concluded that they “were not able to discover any advantages likely to result from the contemplated institution which could not be compassed by a more simple, expeditious, and less expansive process….”  The Massachusetts Bible Society managers claimed to be “strongly impressed with the weight and sufficiency” of the objections put forward by the Philadelphia Bible Society.

Boudinot was angry with the way the Philadelphia Bible Society expressed their differences.  The use of a circular letter as a means of undermining his proposal was motivated by “mistaken zeal.”  Boudinot could understand differences of opinion—he had been through some of the country’s most intense political wars to date—but he could not tolerate the Philadelphia Bible Society’s attempt “to interfere & endeavor to prejudice all the other societies & forestall their sentiments, against so important a measure for the spread of the gospel of the Son of God.”  He found such action to be “extremely wrong.”  As a good Christian and republican who sought to avoid division and schism, Boudinot remained silent, venting only to his close friends in the Bible cause.  He told Alexander Proudfit, the president of the Washington County Bible Society in Salem, NY, that he had heard from an unnamed source that the Philadelphia Bible Society’s resistance to a national Bible society was “occasioned by a Jealousy of certain persons lest their influence should suffer, if such a measure should take place.”  Perhaps it was William White, or another member of the Philadelphia Board of Managers.  The Philadelphia crowd thought the most important Bible society in American should be housed in their city.

Boudinot decided that he would not go forward with his plans for a national Bible society until twenty Bible societies agreed to send delegates to Philadelphia for a proposed May 1815 meeting.  He estimated that thirteen or fourteen societies had supported his proposal.  Five or six more rejected the proposal.  And another four or five supported the measure but did not have the financial resources to send delegates to a convention.  Without the support of Philadelphia, New York, and Massachusetts he had little chance but to render his proposal “abortive.” 

Just when it looked as if a national Bible society would not happen, Samuel Mills, a Congregational minister traveling under the auspices of the Massachusetts Missionary Society, returned from a missionary journey to the West.  Mills and his partner Daniel Smith noted that large swaths of people in the West did not own Bibles. They concluded that efforts of the Philadelphia Bible Society and the New York Bible Society, organizations trying to meet these needs in the West, were not enough.  

The work of Mills and Smith caught the attention of John Caldwell, the new Secretary of the New York Bible Society.  Shortly after the publication of a Mills-Smith report in the religious journal The Panoplist, Caldwell wrote a letter to Boudinot to tell him that he thought the Board of Managers of the New York Bible Society might be reconsidering the idea of a national Bible society.  Caldwell was a supporter of a national Bible society and seems to have provided an answer to the Philadelphia Bible Society’s objections that satisfied the members of his board.  Sensing the time was right, Caldwell urged Boudinot to make a second call for a meeting to establish a national society.  He even agreed to host the event in New York.  

With New York in his corner, Boudinot was ready to move forward with another call for a national Bible Society.  On January 17, 1816, Boudinot issued a circular letter addressed to “THE SEVERAL BIBLE SOCIETIES IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICAThe letter included the New York Bible Society’s resolution to unite behind the cause.  Boudinot announced that a meeting would be held in New York City on May 11, 1816.  He hoped to attend the meeting “should it please a merciful God to raise me from the bed of sickness to which I am now confined.”  

The Philadelphia Bible Society once again rejected Boudinot’s proposal and proposed a plan to have all Bible societies in the United States send reports to a central location where they would be published and distributed throughout the country.  Such a plan, the Philadelphia Board of Managers suggested, would allow every Bible society in the nation to “have a full view of the operations of sister Institutions throughout the Union, and of the particular regions to which they direct their benevolent efforts.” In March 1816, only two months prior to the meeting that Boudinot had scheduled in New York City, Bishop William White sent out a circular letter on behalf of the Philadelphia Bible Society promoting this idea, but it got little traction.  This was as far as the Philadelphia Bible Society would go in acquiescing to any kind of national organization. Could a truly national Bible society go forward without Philadelphia?  Elias Boudinot, John Caldwell, and Samuel Mills did not seem too bothered by this question.

In the end, the American Bible Society was created in New York in May 1816.  The Philadelphia Bible Society did not unite with the national organization and would remain independent for a few more decades.  

It took 200 years, but today’s announcement means that Philadelphia has finally become center of the Bible universe.  Somewhere Bishop William White, Benjamin Rush, and the rest of the early Philadelphia Bible Society leadership are smiling.

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