I was supposed to be in San Antonio this Saturday. I did not make it.
The Society for Comparative Research on Iconographic and Performative Texts devoted its annual session at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting in San Antonio to my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society. S. Brent Plate of Hamilton College organized the session and recruited David Morgan (Duke), Laurie Maffly-Kipp (Washington University), and Julius Bailey (University of Redlands) to give papers on the subject of the book. I was scheduled to respond to their presentations.
Needless to say I was flattered and greatly honored to have The Bible Cause featured in this way. How often does one have an entire conference session devoted to his work? It would be my first meeting of the AAR and my first visit to San Antonio since the Advanced Placement United States history reading left Trinity College for a convention center in Louisville. It was looking forward to hearing some jazz on the River Walk and trying to score some Spurs tickets.
I agreed to participate in this session well before my oldest daughter had decided where she would be attending college. She eventually chose Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan because it is a faith-based school with a stellar academic reputation and a very strong NCAA Division 3 women’s volleyball program.
When I agreed to go to San Antonio on the weekend of November 18, 2016 I had no idea that the AAR conference would conflict with the NCAA Division 3 national championship game in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Nor could I have predicted that Calvin would be playing in that game.
The decision to skip to San Antonio was an easy one, but I sincerely appreciate the graciousness shown to me by Brent, David, Laurie, and Julius. I was disappointed that I could not attend a session devoted to my book, but I am glad that I was in Oshkosh last weekend to watch my freshman daughter, the starting right-side hitter, contribute to Calvin’s NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP victory!!!
Since I could not be there, Brent read my comments. Here they are in full:
Good morning. As you probably know by this point of the session, I am not in San Antonio this weekend for what would have been my first meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I am writing instead from Oshkosh, Wisconsin where my daughter, a freshman at Calvin College, is competing for an NCAA Division 3 national championship in women’s volleyball. I am honored that the Society for Comparative Research on Iconographic and Performative Texts has chosen to devote a session to The Bible Cause and grateful to Brent Plate for bringing together a group of panelists whose work I have read and greatly respected. These kinds of events don’t happen very often in a scholar’s life, but neither do opportunities to see one’s daughter compete at such a high level. I hope you understand my dilemma and my decision not to be with you today.
If I was with you today to talk informally about the book I would probably say a word or two about the challenge of writing this kind of institutional and anniversary history. The American Bible Society asked me to write a bicentennial history of the organization, but I negotiated the academic freedom to write it in the way I wanted to write it. I realized that the ABS took a great risk in letting me do this, especially when many of their leaders would have preferred some kind of providential or hagiographical history. Having said that, my audience for this book was not scholars. While I hoped the book would be useful to historians, and perhaps make some contribution to our understanding of American religious history and American history more broadly, but I also wanted to produce a volume that be accessible to the educated layperson. As I wrote I thought about the person who at one time or another has donated money to the Bible Society or has a vested interest in the dissemination of the Bible in the United States and abroad.
In the end, the book has received some positive and negative reviews. The negative reviews have chided me for failing to achieve critical distance from my subject matter and for not going far enough in my deconstruction of the stories the Bible Society has told about itself. The American Bible Society has distanced itself from the book because it does not fit well with the “brand” that the current administration is trying to create. (The administration at the ABS changed considerably during the writing of this book). At the Bible Society’s 200th anniversary gala last May—a massive event attended by several thousand people at the Philadelphia Art Museum—the book was never mentioned. When a group of Messiah College humanities majors visited the American Bible Society last week for a career exploration event (my spouse, a career counselor at the college, was in attendance) the book was not displayed anywhere in the Society’s Philadelphia office and the historical presentation the students received from ABS staff did not mention it.
Needless to say, the response to the Bible Cause has been an interesting one. I doubt I will be writing another history of a still-functioning religious institution anytime soon.
But enough about the book’s reception. This is a session on the American Bible Society and print culture and I am pleased to respond to the three presenters.
David Morgan’s response to The Bible Cause focuses on the way American evangelicals have interpreted the Bible. Morgan compares William Miller (a person, I might add, who was not connected in any way to the American Bible Society) and his literal reading of the Bible with ABS founder Elias Boudinot’s efforts to interpret the Bible in a way that incorporated non-Biblical literature and the insights of non-Christian thinkers. In the process, Morgan seeks to complicate the prevailing scholarly narrative—a narrative often linked to historians such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Theodore Dwight Bozeman—that all nineteenth-century Amerivcan evangelicals (and by implication 20th and even 21st-century evangelicals) read the Bible in a “common-sense” way. As Morgan concludes: “All the talk about common sense and plain style notwithstanding, it becomes evidence that the Evangelical construction of the Bible is no simple matter.”
Morgan is no doubt correct, but I wonder if Boudinot’s approach to biblical interpretation is an aberration, at least for the nineteenth century. Granted, I am sure that there were evangelical Bible scholars who saw the necessity of interpreting the scriptures in conversation with non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, but I have my doubts about whether this is how most of the laypeople who supported the American Bible Society, and the colporteurs, peddlers, and agents who did its work across the United States, thought about biblical interpretation. These folks were probably much more attracted to William Miller’s concordance and common sense readings of the text than Boudinot’s nearly unreadable tomes.
Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s remarks bring the Mormons into the story of the “Bible Cause.” Of course she is correct when she says that the American Bible Society believed that Mormons “would never read the Bible correctly.” The irony that Maffly-Kipp calls attention to in her comments is worth repeating. The American Bible Society was in the business of distributing the Bible “without note or comment” and letting churches, denominations, and the Holy Spirit help the recipient make sense of it and apply it to their spiritual lives. But this broad-based mission was narrowly confined to a particular kind of church and denomination, and the Holy Spirit was clearly a Protestant.
I did have a small section on the Mormons in the original draft of The Bible Cause, but I had to cut it out for lack of space. Here is a small taste of that section:
In the 1870, Rev. Nelson Reasoner, the ABS agent for eastern California and Nevada, canvassed Utah territory to see if the roughly 120,000 followers of the late Joseph Smith living in the territory would welcome the Bible. (The ABS was not willing to enter Utah if the Mormons were not interested in the Protestant scriptures). Reasoner met with Brigham Young who told him that most of the people of Utah owned Bibles, but he gave the ABS agent permission to travel throughout the territory. When Reasoner found enough people “destitute” of the Bible, the ABS started its work in Utah. Reasoner found that Mormons were eager to obtain copies of the Bible in order to have “a more complete record of God’s revelation” to humankind. Reasoner’s successor, Rev. H.D. Fisher, was invited to present the Bible Cause in the “Mormon meeting-houses” and Sabbath schools and was received cordially by the Mormon leadership. In fact, the Mormons worked closely with a comparatively small number of “Gentiles”—mostly Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians—on the establishment of county and branch auxiliaries. One Mormon auxiliary Bible society hired three colporteurs to distribute Bibles.
Fisher did have his struggles in Utah. Because Mormons donated heavily to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, they did not give money to the ABS to degree that Fisher had hoped that they would. Of course the ABS and its agents in Utah were no fans of Mormon theology and church teaching. Fisher noted that “Bible circulation and reading is the only antidote to the abounding evils of rapidly constituted communities, far removed from centres [sic] of Christian activities and influences.” In a veiled attack on the Book of Mormon, Fisher expressed his interest in bringing the Protestant scriptures to a region of the country “where other books have been for a half a century substituted as of equal or superior authority to the Bible.” By 1885, after roughly fifteen years of work among Mormons, Fisher concluded that the ABS investment in Utah was too expensive and was yielding too few Protestant converts. Mormons continued to cling to what Fisher believed were extra-biblical revelations and few of the inhabitants were willing to purchase ABS Bibles, forcing Fisher to give them way—“an expensive proposition.”
Julius Bailey’s paper is extremely helpful in putting a sharper point on my treatment of the American Bible Society and slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War. It does not surprise me that African American newspapers and black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass were strong critics of the Bible Society’s decision to leave the distribution of Bibles in the South to the pro-slavery leaders of local auxiliary societies. For example, in 1849, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery society invited a fugitive slave from Kentucky named Henry Bibb to address its annual meeting in New York. Bibb’s speech was critical of the Bible Society because it “Had not done all that it might have done” to bring Bibles to the slave population. Instead, he told his audiences of white abolitionists, the Bible Society had given slaves “the go-by.” Bibb made it clear that the leaders of several ABS auxiliaries in Kentucky were slaveholders. In fact, a man who had once sold him to another slaveholder in New Orleans was the secretary of one of these auxiliaries.
Bailey’s research reminds me that there is more research to be done about the American Bible Society’s position on the distribution of the Bibles to slaves in antebellum America. Frankly, I wish my research had taken me further down this road. A careful reading of African American newspapers would have made my discussion of this topic much stronger.
In the end, there is still much to say about the American Bible Society’s influence on American history and its intersection with a variety of sub-themes in American history including women’s history, labor history, lived religion, Native-American history, African-American history, and especially the missionary movement in virtually every part of the world. Fortunately, the American Bible Society has a rich archive (if it ever finds its way out of storage in the wake of the Society’s recent move to Philadelphia) that will enable future scholars to take the story of the Bible and religious print culture in some promising directions.