The American Bible Society and the Search for a Usable Past

699d4-abs2bmoonDarryl Hart has criticized my recent comments about the American Bible Society.  If you have not read my recent comments you can get up to speed here.

First, let me say that I don’t “object” to the ABS statement.  As I said in this post, I was asked to comment as a historian of the organization.  It is hard to ignore the fact that the mission of the ABS has changed over time, particularly in the last quarter century.

As Hart points out, there is some continuity between the organization’s new “Affirmation of Biblical Community” and the religious sensibilities of ABS founders. Elias Boudinot and most of the other founders of ABS were evangelical Christian nationalists. But they also defended the belief that the Bible should be published and distributed “without note or comment.”  This would make the affirmation of a specific brand of Christian faith unacceptable.  The ABS’s “Affirmation of Biblical Community” is clearly an attempt to interpret the Bible.  The American Bible Society has never been a confessional institution–until now.

Boudinot, of course, lived in a more homogeneous evangelical culture than we do today.  Perhaps the founders of the organization believed in 1816 that a commitment to publishing and distributing Bibles “without note or comment” would never move ABS away from the kind of Christian orthodoxy evident in the Affirmation of Biblical Community.  But that is not how things played out.  Boudinot and the founders’ commitment to the principle of “without note or comment” led to a very ecumenical organization.  It opened the door for “modernists,” non-evangelicals, non-Christians, and even skeptics to work for the organization.  The current administration of the ABS claims, like Darryl Hart, that it has the evangelical history of the organization on its side.  But it is more complicated than that.  In many ways, the lack of doctrinal clarity among the founding generation (Boudinot, John Jay, etc.) has actually worked against the current administration’s attempt to create an organization committed to Christian orthodoxy.

I will assert again that a significant change has taken place in the ABS over the last 25 years.  This is how I framed my argument in the final chapters of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford, 2016).  I encourage you to read it.  What happened at the ABS in the last quarter century is something similar to the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence in the 1980s. It was an organized and planned move.  Those who led this move and those who opposed it have admitted to this and I record their words in my book.

If you want to get a sense of these changes, consider the words of Peter Wosh, the director of the ABS library and archives during the 1980s and early 1990s.   Wosh is the author of the excellent Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell, 1994).  After he left the ABS in the 1990s, he directed the Archives and Public History Program at NYU.  Here is what Wosh recently wrote on his FB page:

Sorry to see my old employer go this route. When I worked there in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a very diverse organization. We had employees who were gay, straight, single, married, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and skeptical of organized religion. But the mission and core values were broad enough to make all feel welcome, and there was considerable ethnic and gender diversity among the senior leadership. People worked hard to support the goal of circulating the Scriptures “without note or comment” and staff remained mindful to avoid doctrinal controversies. Sadly, the political and religious mission has narrowed considerably in the past quarter century, significantly diminishing both the organization and the scope of its work, as John Fea points out in this analysis. I valued my time there, but apparently it is quite a different atmosphere today.

Indeed, the ABS has changed. “Hijack” may be too strong a word, but one cannot ignore that a premeditated shift in the direction of the organization took place in the 1990s.  The “Affirmation of Biblical Community” is the logical result of that shift.