On Writing a History of the American Bible Society–Update #5

Elias Boudinot

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I spent about three hours yesterday working on the American Bible Society project.  Most of my time was spent reading a 500-page volume by Elias Boudinot, the founder and first president of the ABS, entitled The Second Advent, or the Coming of the Messiah in Glory, Shown to be a Scripture doctrine, and taught by divine revelation, from the beginning of the world.  The cover page of this volume says that it was written by “A Layman,” but the entry for the volume in the digital version of the Early American Imprints–Shaw and Shoemaker series says it was written by Boudinot.

Since this book was written in 1815, right about the time Boudinot was in the process of rallying local Bible societies around the country to come together in the establishment of the ABS, I thought it was worth a look. I wanted to capture Boudinot’s mindset at the time of the ABS founding.

In The Second Advent Boudinot introduces a dispensational approach to the prophetic literature of the Old and New Testament and argues that the people of the 18th-century world are living in the fourth and final dispensation, which was initiated with the fall of the Roman Empire.  Based on his interpretation of biblical prophecy, Boudinot believes that the second coming of Jesus Christ will occur sometime before the year 6000, but he warns his readers that it could also occur in the nineteenth century.  His urges his readers to be ready for the return of Jesus by living good Christian lives.

Anyone who read this book and believed what Boudinot had to say about the so-called “last days” could not miss the sense of urgency in which the author writes.  I see this same sense of urgency when Boudinot writes about the need for a national Bible society.  The Bible must be disseminated as widely as possible so that the people of the world will be better prepared for the return of Christ.  

Boudinot does not seem to be embracing the post-millennial theology that defined much of the evangelical reform efforts of the Second Great Awakening.  Post-millennialists believed that the spread of the gospel and the reform of society along Christian lines would usher in the second coming of Christ.  Boudinot, on the other hand, seems to be teaching that Jesus could return at any time, so it is necessary to start organizations like the ABS so that as many people as possible will be ready when Jesus comes.  In other words, he does not seem to think that Christians should be engaged in Bible-work to usher in the return of Jesus, but should rather be disseminating the Bible to prepare people for a second coming that could occur at any moment.  Or at least this is what I might argue in Chapter One.

Stay tuned.  Today I am going to do a little reading in the writings of some of the other ABS founders.

What Happens When the World DOESN’T End on May 21, 2011?

Tom Bartlett, writing at “Religion Dispatches,” tells the story of people who believed that the world was going to end on May 21, 2011. What are they doing now?  What happens when prophecy fails?  Can we learn anything from the Millerites?

Bartlett writes:

But I wanted to know what happens next. If you’re absolutely sure the world is going to end on a specific day, and it doesn’t, what do you do? How do you explain it to yourself? What happens to your faith in God? Can you just scrape the bumper stickers off your car, throw away the t-shirts, and move on?

As Bartlett informs us, even engineers working for Fortune 500 companies believed the predictions about the end of the world made by Christian radio host Harold Camping were accurate.

May 21 believers couldn’t afford to doubt either. Whenever I met one, I would ask: Is there any chance you might be wrong? Could someone have miscalculated, misunderstood a verse, botched a symbol? Just maybe?

I asked this question of a believer in his mid-twenties. He started listening to Harold Camping’s radio show in college and immediately went out, bought a Bible, and immersed himself in it. 

After graduation, he took a job as an engineer at a Fortune 500 company, a job he loved and a job he quit because he thought the world was ending. He wrote the following in his resignation letter: “With less than three months to the day of Christ’s return, I desire to spend more time studying the Bible and sounding the trumpet warning of this imminent judgment.”

He would not entertain the possibility, even hypothetically, that the date could be off. “This isn’t a prediction because a prediction has a potential for failure,” he told me.

“Even if it’s 99.9 percent, that extra .1 percent makes it not certain. It’s like the weather. If it’s 60 percent, it may or may not rain. But in this case we’re saying 100 percent it will come. God with a consuming fire is coming to bring judgment and destroy the world.”

In the end, Bartlett found that few of Camping’s followers abandoned their Christian faith.  Many were embarrassed. Others conveniently “edited the past in order to avoid acknowledging that they had been mistaken.”  Most of them just returned to their normal lives.

Read the entire article here.