The American Bible Society turns 201 today. I am sure it is a day of celebration at their relatively new headquarters in Philadelphia.
Here is a taste of a piece I wrote for Christianity Today in February 2015. The piece is drawn heavily from my 2016 book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.
When Elias Boudinot tried to form the ABS in 1815, the idea of a national Bible society struggled to gain popular approval. The Philadelphia Bible Society (PBS) led the opposition. The PBS Board of Managers, led by President William White—also 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 US 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 (he was suffering from a bad case of gout). 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.
Read the rest here.