American Bible Society’s Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is a Go

ABS

In Summer 2015 the American Bible Society moved from New York City to Philadelphia. It currently rents two floors in the Wells Fargo building at 5th and Market streets.  And according to this article at Philly.com, it is ready to move forward with its $60 million dollar Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.

Full disclosure:  At a very early stage of this project I served as a historical consultant.  I attended one meeting and offered some suggestions.  I am no longer involved in the project.

Here is a taste of the Philly.com article:

This $60 million project seeks to help explain the influence of the Bible on American history. It also hopes to activate the ground floor of the fortress-like Wells Fargo building, improving its interactions with its surroundings.

At Wednesday’s Art Commission’s conceptual review of the project, the managing director of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, Patrick Murdock, laid out the Society’s vision with an assist from the project’s architects.

The Center will seek to enliven the underutilized mid-block pedestrian path just to the north of the Wells Fargo building, which connects 4th and 5th streets.

The public space will feature a new 14,100 square foot building, a restructured garden, wood benches, and a stage area will cover the delivery ramp that trucks use to access the building’s basement. It could be used for performances or gatherings, open to the public, even when it isn’t being put to official use.

All told, the new project covers a total of well over 50,000 square feet.

I wrote about this project in the Epilogue of my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

Here is a taste:

This brings us to the recent ABS decision to leave New York City after 199 years and move the organization to Philadelphia, where it now occupies two floors in the Wells Fargo Building on 401 Market Street, just steps from Independence Hall.  The move was driven by financial concerns.  The 1865 Broadway Bible House needed 25-50 million dollars’ worth of repairs in order to meet the city building code.  The ABS owned both the twelve-story building and thirty-seven additional stories of New York City airspace.  For [CEO Roy] Peterson, the decision to sell the building and move to another location was a matter of Christian stewardship.  He imagines what the ABS will be able to do with the money from the sale in terms of promoting its agenda of scripture engagement….

Peterson has also managed to do some revisionist history to help justify the transition to Philadelphia.  He suggests that despite the ABS’s 199-year presence in the city, New York was never the Society’s true identity.  On one level, Peterson is correct.  The ABS was founded in New York because of the hospitality of the New York Bible Society, which supported [founder Elias] Boudinot’s plan for a national Bible society and agreed to host the meeting that established it.  While it was certainly possible that the ABS might have ended up in another city, the fact remains that it did end up in New York and it remained there for two centuries.  It is hard to dismiss two centuries of history.  If, as Peterson notes, the ABS “inadvertently” made New York its identity when “it was never supposed to be our identity,” the fact remains that between 1816 and 2015 the American Bible Society was a New York City institution.

Peterson is quick to note that Philadelphia was Elias Boudinot’s hometown.  According to his will (a copy of which Peterson, at least at the timer he was interviewed, had sitting on his desk), Boudinot had left land to the city.  The new ABS president is not willing to go any farther with this argument other than to note that an ABS move to Philadelphia, at least as history is concerned, may not be as random as some would like to make it out to be. Bible Cause Cover Peterson, however, is more certain about how the transition to Philadelphia will allow the ABS to connect itself once again to the story of the United States.  What better place for the ABS to celebrate its bicentennial in May 2016 than the place where America was born?  This was a place where God and country came together in 1776, and with the ABS only a stone’s throw away from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Peterson is hoping that the Society can help middle-class Americans remember that fact.

Peterson wants to the ABS, with a soon-to-be constructed Bible Discovery Center highlighting the history of the Bible in the United States, to become a Philadelphia tourist attraction.  He estimates that after three years in Philadelphia over 250,000 people will come to the Bible Discovery Center to “hear the story of the Bible.”  Peterson wants the “best of the best” to help him in the construction of this Discovery Center, and that is why he has turned to the Green family, the owners of the retail craft store Hobby Lobby.  The Greens made national headlines in 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have to violate their conscience by conforming to a part of the Affordable Care Act that would have forced them to provide certain contraceptives to Hobby Lobby employees.  In the last several years, the Greens have been active in a host of philanthropic activities on behalf of the evangelical community and are currently a major ABS donor.  Peterson is excited that the Greens have been willing to help the ABS Bible Discovery Center get off the ground by sharing some of the intellectual property it has gathered in the process of building their soon-to-be-opened Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

6 thoughts on “American Bible Society’s Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is a Go

  1. John, What’s interesting to me is that ABS’s “outreach” in NYC was to launch a “gallery” looking at arts around the bible. Then Ena Heller took it in what many of us saw as excellent new directions (see Ena’s contribution in our Religion in Museums book). ABS dissolved the gallery with the move to Philly, but still wanted a public face to the ABS and so came upon connections to US historical founding. Intriguing shift in “museums”!
    -Brent

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  2. John: it’s been a year since I read your book, and you may have dealt with this: but what are your thoughts on the ideology of all this? “Faith and liberty” museum located in ” a place where God and country came together in 1776.” All this seems to be a considerable politicization of the ABS history for a modern brand of Evangelical nationalism. I think you dealt with this development from the 1950s onward: has this been a trajectory of the ABS in general over the past 70 years, or is it just the Green money speaking

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    • Martin: I have the same concerns on all fronts and I expressed these as a consultant. I don’t know much is what is happening right now, but I would not be surprised if the “Christian nationalism” theme is up front in this exhibit. If history is any indication, this will be the case. Of course the central argument of my book is that the ABS has always connected their mission to a Christian nationalist agenda.

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  3. $60 million dollar!
    For many years I have been saying that ABS is an organization in search of a mission.

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