The American Bible Society and Mainline Protestantism

Bible Cause CoverWhile working on The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I had several evangelical friends and readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home inform me that they were often told that the American Bible Society was a theologically liberal organization and thus not worthy of the support of evangelicals.

Indeed, as I recently wrote in Christianity Today, during the 20th-century the American Bible Society worked most closely with mainline Protestant denominations and their ecumenical efforts.  The ABS had a strong relationship with the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches. The ABS board of managers was filled with leaders from mainline Protestant churches.  The Society sought to bridge the gap between Protestants and post-Vatican II progressive Catholics through joint Bible translations efforts.  It also agreed to sell the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, an ecumenical project that drew heated criticism from evangelicals for some of its translation decisions.

Prior to the 1960s the American Bible Society was a distinctly Protestant organization. One could find evangelicals on the board of managers and on the ABS staff.  The ABS often used Billy Graham for promotion purposes.  But everyone in the Protestant world knew that this was a mainline Protestant organization.

Many evangelical groups would not work with the American Bible Society.  For example, in 1968, two evangelical missionary societies–the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association (EFMA) and the Interdenominational Foreign Missions Associations (IFMA)– held a joint meeting in Winona Lake, Indiana.  These organizations represented nearly every evangelical missionary agency ministering around the globe.  Clyde Taylor, a former missionary in South America, the secretary of the EFMA, and the director of the National Association of Evangelicals, invited the ABS to address the meeting on the subject of the Society’s position on Catholicism.  The evangelical missionaries were aware of the new spirit of cooperation between the United Bible Society (an international fellowship of Bible societies in which the ABS held significant power) and the Catholic Church on the translation and distribution of the Bible and had some serious concerns.  ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor spoke to 200 evangelical missionaries who were skeptical–if not outright opposed–to cooperation with Catholics on Bible translation projects on the mission field.  His address was titled “The Bible Societies and the Catholic Church.”

After the talk, Taylor answered questions so that the missionaries present would be able to make an informed decision about how the EFMA and IFMA should respond to the ABS-Catholic relationship.  While we don’t know exactly what happened in the meeting, we do know that it was a rough crowd.  In a follow-up letter, Clyde Taylor apologized to Robert Taylor for having to endure “all of the cross examination that you had.”  He continued: “I had no idea…how bad a time they gave you in committee meetings.  However, I imagined there were no holds barred.”  It sounds like Taylor got grilled.

Clyde Taylor also wrote to inform Robert Taylor and the ABS about the decisions these missionary organizations had reached during the Winona Lake meeting.  The missionaries of the EFMA and IFMA wished to inform the ABS that it did not want to “enter into any relationship which would entail either structural or formal relationship with the Roman Catholic Church as a church.”  It also added that any EFMA or IFMA missionary who was involved in translation work with a member of the Catholic Church under the auspices of the UBS would need to inform the Society that he was participating as an individual and not as a representatives of one of these evangelical agencies.

Robert Taylor told Clyde Taylor in a follow-up letter that it didn’t matter whether they “act as individuals or as a church, the main idea is to get the Scriptures translated and distributed.”  He admitted that he received some “pointed questions” in Winona Lake, and there was one attendee who insisted on reading the conference “a great deal of Roman Catholic law,” but Robert Taylor felt he developed a “happy relationship” with the missionaries.  This was wishful thinking.

After learning about what happened in Winona Lake, Laton Holmgren, the ABS general secretary in charge of programming, wrote to Eugene Nida, the director of the ABS translation department, to fill him in on the decisions made by the joint meeting of the EFMA and IFMA.  Holmgren wrote that the evangelical missionaries perceived the ABS to be an organization that promoted “ecumenical interests” and thus did not want to be forced to participate with Catholics on ABS and UBS translation projects.  The missionaries asked the ABS to “curb the promotion of Ecumenism by its representatives.”  They referenced witnessing ABS officers make speeches that promoted “ecumenical philosophy,” and trying to convince native church leaders who were evangelicals to support ecumenical initiatives.  The missionaries were also upset that the ABS had decided to enter into conversation with the Catholic Church “without consultation with conservative evangelicals.”

The American Bible Society had an evangelical problem. And this was only the beginning. It is a story I uncover extensively in The Bible Cause.