Is the Push for Public School Bible Courses an Excuse to Spread the Gospel?

Bible in Schools

University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at USA Today:

The Supreme Court barred devotional Bible reading and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools in 1963. But the ruling also said courses about the Bible were permissible, so long as they were “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”  

Evangelical Christians promptly began a full-court press for Bible classes, which were hardly objective or secular. As I noted in my 2002 book, “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” a Florida teacher of “Bible history” said his class had helped recruit more than 100 new members into an after-school “Youth for Christ” course. And in South Carolina, a graduate of her own school’s “Bible survey” said the course had persuaded her to become a missionary. “I want everybody to have what I have,” she told her teacher, “And I’d like to spend my life sharing it with them.”

Both of these accounts appeared in the evangelical press, which didn’t disguise the purpose of the Bible classes: to spread the Christian Gospel. And that seems to be the same goal behind a recent round of state legislative proposals to enhance “Bible literacy” in our public schools.

Read the rest here.

I agree with Zimmerman.  I see no other reason why evangelicals, and mostly evangelicals, are pushing for these Bible classes.  At the heart of all of this is the longstanding evangelical idea that God does not need human agents to spread his message in the Bible.  Just give kids a Bible and “let the Bible do its work.”  In other words, if kids are exposed to the Bible, God will miraculously illuminate the text and some will embrace its life-changing and live-saving message.  This is Evangelicalism 101.  And it has a long history.

For example, the American Bible Society regularly described its mission in terms of the “Bible doing its work” without a teacher or preacher.  Here is a passage from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015):

The ABS believed that the Bible had the spiritual power to send people…on an entirely new trajectory of life….The agents working on behalf of the Bible Cause were appointed to deliver the word of God wherever it was needed, but they also believed that the Bible was a supernatural book that could lead people to salvation without the aid of a preacher or teacher….The Bible, without any commentary, could bring people into the Kingdom of God, defeat a growing Catholic menace, and advance the cause of Protestantism in America.  Though ABS agents often took opportunities to preach and teach, most of the time they just dropped off a copy of the Bible at a house, on a train or ship, or to someone they met on the road–and let the Spirit do the rest….Bible Cause Cover

ABS publications were fond of using the phrase “the Bible doing its work” to describe the effects the book had on sinners and potential converts.  For example, as he prepared to send his son off to college a Christian father worried that the young scholar would lose his faith during the course of the experience.  So he purchased an “elegant copy” of the Bible and, without his son’s knowledge, placed it at the bottom of the trunk.  Shortly after the son’s arrival at college the father’s worst fears were realized.  “The restraints of a pious education were soon broken off,” and the young man  “proceeded from speculation to doubts, and from doubts to denial of the reality of religion.”  One day, while “rummaging through his trunk ,” he found the “sacred deposit” that his father had placed there.  In a spirit of indignation, the young man decided that he would use the Bible to clean his razor after his daily shave.  Each day, he used the blade to tear a leaf or two out of the “Holy Book” until half of the volume was destroyed.  But one morning, as he was “committing this outrage”  to the text, several verses met his eye and struck him “like a barbed arrow to his heart.”  These verses were like a “sermon” to him, awakening him to the wrath of God and leading him to the “foot of the cross.”  There was no need to provide rational answers to the young man’s skepticism–the “Sacred Volume” had “done its work.”  It has led him “to repose on the mercy of God, which is sufficient for the chief of sinners….”

The managers and agents of the ABS lived in an enchanted world where books in barns could convict men of sin and those who burned sacred scriptures suffered negative consequences.  This was  a world in which men and women could pick up a copy of the Bible on a ship or a railcar and immediately turn to a verse of passage that spoke to a specific need.  Though there were some who probably believed that the Bible was a kind of talisman or amulet, most ABS agents believed that the Bible’s apparent magical powers could be easily explained by an appeal to the third person of the Trinity–the Holy Spirit.  When those in charge of the ABS talked about the Bible “doing its work,” what they were really saying was the Holy Spirit was illuminating the Bible in such a way that touched the hearts of those who encountered it and its message.  Though the influence of the Spirit’s work in shedding light on the message of the Bible could come quickly and abruptly, as in the case of an evangelical revival, it usually had a “slow, silent, effective influence” on the reader.  This was the same kind of spiritual power that “moved the deep tides of the ocrans and holds and guides the planets in their spheres.”  If the ABS could just get the pure word of God, without note or comment, in the hands of every person in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

Today the final sentences in the paragraph above could be rewritten this way:  “If the Christian Right could get the pure word of God, even without spiritual or proselytizing teachers, in every school in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

What Makes Your Book Valuable?

Fea books

How do authors measure the success of their books?  Rachel Toor asks this question in a very interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

Read the entire piece here.

So how do I measure the success of my books?  It depends on the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home:   I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian.  I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America.  In that sense, I think it has been a success.  But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people.  Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book.  K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life.  So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.

Confessing History:  I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller.  The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind.  But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition.  In this sense, it has been successful.  I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:  This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons.  First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity.  Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.

Why Study History?  I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses.  I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.

The Bible Cause:   In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell.  The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history.  It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:  This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump.  2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends.  3).  Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.   So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3.  Has it been successful as it relates to point 1?  Only time will tell.

Why Luke 18:16?

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The New York Sun, March 21, 1915.  Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

Last night I noted that the most popular Bible verse cited in American newspapers between 1840 and 1920 was Luke 18:16. Read my post here.

“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

Several of you have asked why Luke 18:16 was so popular.   On Twitter I asked Lincoln Mullen, the man behind America’s Public Bible, why Luke 18:16 appears so many times. in newspapers during this period.

Here is his answer:

Here is my section on Sunday Schools in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society:

Evangelicals concerned with moral reform of American life concentrated much effort on the religious education of children and young people through Sunday Schools.  Some of the earliest Sunday Schools in America were formed in the eighteenth century to provide biblical instruction to the children of the urban poor, many of whom spent their Sundays roaming city streets looking for trouble.  Children would gather in churches to sing hymns, pray, read the Bible, and hear a short sermon.  They were rewarded for regular attendance and their hard work memorizing Biblical passages.  If records of enrollment in Sunday school classes are any indication, the efforts of these schools were successful.  By 1832 there were over 300,000 boys and girls attending Sunday schools in the United States, or about 8 percent of the young people eligible to attend such classes.  The numbers were even higher in urban areas.  For example, in the same year, close to 28 percent of Philadelphia children were attending Sunday Schools.  Because these schools focused on reading and writing, many of them drew large numbers of free blacks–both children and adults.  Starting in 1824 a benevolent organization called the American Sunday School Union was formed to stimulate the movement across denominations and provide literature for Sunday Schools operating around the country.  (See Anne Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of An American Institution, 1790-1880).

The American Bible Society and the Sunday School Movement shared many of the same activist convictions.  In 1827 the ABS authorized the publication of a “small testament” for Bible Cause CoverSunday Schools with the goal of meeting the spiritual needs of the “thousands of poor children…in our large towns.”  From this point forward, the Society supplied Bibles to any Sunday School organization in need.  For example, in 1831, the ABS provided the American Sunday School Union with 20,000 copies of the New Testament in support of a massive effort to establish schools in the Mississippi Valley.  In the 1830s the ABS distributed over 14,300 Bibles and over 57,700 Testaments around the country, with most of them going to the American Sunday School Union and the Methodist Episcopal Church.  In the 1850s these numbers rose to 27,729 (Bibles) and 134,237 (Testaments).  Rev. Charles McIlvane of Brooklyn, in a message to the annual meeting of the ABS, compared the Society’s education outreach to Cambridge University in England.  The only difference was that “our University is in the business of benevolence.”

Through much of the antebellum period ABS headquarters in New York received constant reports from Sunday Schools in need of Bibles and moving letters from agents about their rapid growth.  One of the more sentimental requests came in 1847, when the ABS received a small tin savings bank filled with $2.17 in change.  It was sent by a small girl requesting three dozen Bibles for her Sunday school class.  The money enclosed in the bank did not cover the cost of the Bibles, but the ABS sent them anyway.  In 1854, H.W. Pierson, the ABS agent in Southern Kentucky ,visited all seven of the “Coloured Sabbath Schools” in Louisville.  He was impressed with slaves and free blacks of all ages attending these schools and noted that a great majority of the teachers were black, but he lamented the general lack of teachers and Bibles.

A couple of images:

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The day book. (Chicago, Ill.), 25 Dec. 1911. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. 

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New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]), 07 Sept. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress

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.

Was the American Bible Society’s Move Toward Evangelicalism a “Mission Hijacking?”

Bible Cause CoverThat’s what Ruth McCambridge, the Editor in Chief of Nonprofit Quarterly, is calling it.

Here is a taste of her piece:

Nonprofit missions can certainly change over time, and sometimes for the better. But rarely do we see such an about-face as what some have noted at the American Bible Society, and even more rarely is that about-face so carefully documented that we are able to note what went into the hijacking of a mission. Here are the facts in short form, but I recommend the original articles we have drawn from for more depth.

John Fea writes an interesting account in The Conversation of changes at the American Bible Society that led to a demand from the nonprofit that all employees sign a statement of faith and lifestyle expectations. In this “Affirmation of Biblical Community,” one must, among other things, affirm that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. Such statements are not all that unusual in religious organizations, but in the case of the 200-year-old ABS, it represents a significant break with the organization’s deep-rooted traditions that, Fea says, culminates a “roughly 20-year transformation of the Society from a diverse Christian organization to a ministry with strong ties to American evangelicalism.”

Read the entire piece here.

I have now commented publicly on the American Bible Society’s new statement of faith in three different places:

I also wrote a book titled The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).

I should add that all of three of these pieces were solicited by others and I was asked to speak as a historian.  While I would probably not use the term “hijack” to describe what Eugene Habecker and Lamar Vest pulled-off in the 1990s at the ABS, there was clearly a change in direction under their leadership.  And I think it is fair to say that Habecker and Vest would acknowledge that they tried to orchestrate this change.  (I conducted interviews with both of them).  I am not sure what Habecker and Vest would think about this new “Affirmation of Biblical Community,” but I think it is fair to say that what they accomplished in 2001 clearly set the stage for this change in policy at the ABS.  And yes, the new statement, like it or not, is indeed a “narrowing” of the ABS mission when examined in historical context.

How the American Bible Society Became Evangelical

b1da8-abs2bhealingOver at The Conversation, I weigh-in on the American Bible Society‘s “Affirmation of Biblical Community.”  Here is the piece:

The American Bible Society, an organization that for over 200 years has been on a mission of distributing Bibles, has produced a statement of faith and lifestyle expectations that must be signed by all employees. The statement, which the ABS is calling an “Affirmation of Biblical Community,” requires employees to embrace a host of Christian beliefs and practices, including that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Many gay ABS employees have already left the organization. Others are planning to leave because they do not feel comfortable working in an environment that opposes gay marriage. For Christians around the world, the American Bible Society represents a highly influential organization. With an annual budget of US$100 million and revenues of over $369 million, it is one of the largest religious nonprofits in the world. Its goal is to translate the Bible into every human language by 2025.

There is nothing unusual with a religious organization making employees sign a statement of faith or requiring them to practice certain behavior that fits with the teachings of historic Christianity. Christian ministries and colleges, for example, do this as a matter of course.

But the fact that the ABS has decided to adopt such a statement after functioning for 202 years without one does make this development noteworthy. As the author of perhaps the only scholarly history of this storied Christian organization, I can attest that the “Affirmation of Biblical Community” represents a definitive break with the vision of its founders.

It also represents the culmination of a roughly 20-year transformation of the Society from a diverse Christian organization to a ministry with strong ties to American evangelicalism.

Read the rest here.

*Christianity Today* on the American Bible Society’s New “Affirmation of Biblical Community”

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The old American Bible Society offices near Columbus Circle in NYC

I was happy to help Kate Shellnut with her excellent piece.  Here is a taste:

Plenty of Christian organizations require employees to sign a statement of faith. For over 200 years, the American Bible Society (ABS) wasn’t one of them.

But now the Philadelphia-based ministry plans to implement an “affirmation of biblical community” next year, requiring all employees to uphold basic Christian beliefs and the authority of Scripture, as well as committing to activities such as church involvement and refraining from sex outside of traditional marriage.

“This is a newsworthy story because the society, since its founding in 1816, has never had a doctrinal statement for employees. In fact, the American Bible Society was built on the idea that the Bible should be distributed ‘without note or comment,’” wrote historian John Fea.

The new affirmation doesn’t signal a brand-new direction for ABS, but reflects a decades-long shift from ecumenical to evangelical, which dates back to changes in the ’90s, chronicled in Fea’s book, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

“The organization now feels comfortable enough in its evangelical identity to make such a formal statement of its beliefs,” which includes some evangelical parlance but would easily be embraced by orthodox Christians across traditions, Fea told CT. “The gay employees and the more ecumenical Christians who worked for the ABS should have seen this coming.”

Read the entire piece here.

The American Bible Society’s New Doctrinal Statement

Bible Cause CoverCheck out Yonat Shimron’s piece on the new doctrinal restrictions placed on employees at the American Bible Society.  There is nothing wrong with a religious organization like the American Bible Society making its employees sign a statement of faith.  Most Christian colleges do this as a matter of course.

But this is a newsworthy story because the Society, since its founding in 1816, has never had a doctrinal statement for employees.  In fact, the American Bible Society was built on the idea that the Bible should be distributed “without not or comment.”  In other words, the Society did not interpret the Bible for its constituency or its employees.  As I said in Shimron’s piece, this new “Affirmation of Biblical Community” is the logical conclusion of the Society’s turn toward evangelicalism in the 1990s, a shift I chronicled in my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford, 2016) and also wrote about in this piece at Christianity Today.

Here is a taste of Shimron’s piece:

The affirmation is just the latest sign that the organization has shifted away from its ecumenical roots toward a more narrow evangelical identity. That shift began in the 1990s when the American Bible Society changed its constitution to make it a ministry that undertakes “Scripture engagement.” Previously it published Bibles “without note or comment.”

“This is a clear manifestation, or a logical conclusion, of the evangelical takeover in the 1990s,” said John Fea, a historian at Messiah College and author of the book “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.”

“In many ways they are creating boundaries here for the organization that are new, that have limited their scope beyond what has happened in the past,” Fea added.

Read the entire piece here.

The Does the American Bible Society Own the Bible?

Bible Cause CoverOf course they do not.

But they do own the .Bible domain name and appear to be drawing boundaries around who can use the domain and who cannot.  This has caused some controversy.  Yonat Shimron reports at Religion News Service.  (I contributed to Shimron’s piece).

A group of Bible scholars is concerned about free expression on the internet.

Specifically, they object to the way the American Bible Society is running its recently acquired .bible domain name, which they say strictly limits a wide range of faiths and essentially excludes any group with a scholarly or secular orientation.

“The internet is public space,” said John Kutsko, executive director of the Society of Biblical Literature, the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible, with about 8,500 members, mostly scholars. “It’s our understanding that .bible was registered to be public space and not have the kind of restrictions that you would expect of a domain that was proprietary or brand-oriented.”

The question became urgent after the American Bible Society acquired the .bible top-level domain name — an identification string like “.com” or “.org” — and then applied restrictive policies on who can use it.

Those policies, critics say, strictly limit a wide range of faiths and essentially exclude any group with a scholarly or secular orientation. Further, they are inconsistent with the open-ended nature of the web, which is intended to be more democratic and to allow for free inquiry.

Read the entire piece here.  My quotes in this piece are supported by my research in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Do You Tell Your Class To Buy Your Book?

Why Study History CoverThe Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey.  Take it here.

Here is how I answered the questions:

Instructors, have you assigned material you have written as required classroom reading? Did you recommend students purchase that material?

Yes.  I have assigned articles and books.  The articles, of course, are available for free in the campus library or via JSTOR.  I assign The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America to my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America, but I have never assigned it in a class at Messiah College.  Why?  Because the book covers both the late colonial period and the coming of the American Revolution and I usually cover these topics in two different upper-division courses (“Colonial America” and “The Age of the American Revolution”).  I have never assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?Confessing History, or The Bible Cause.  But I have assigned Why Study History?  I actually wrote that book with my “Introduction to History” class in mind.  I have used it every Fall Semester since 2013, the year it was released.

Did you have any misgivings about assigning your work as course material? If so, what were they?

Not really,. but I find that students are not as comfortable discussing the text when they know it is my work.

Did you provide the material free of charge to students? Or did you do anything else to make up the difference to them?

Students pay full price for Why Study History?

Does/did your institution have rules about when an instructor may assign their own work? If so, how did you handle them?

No, not that I am aware of.

The Museum of the Bible is a Museum and a Ministry

RNS-BIBLE-MUSEUM i

The front page of the website of the Museum of the Bible states: “Learn about the Museum being built and the other initiatives spurring worldwide Bible engagement.”

The Museum of the Bible also describes itself this way:

Museum of the Bible invites all people to engage with the Bible through museum exhibits and scholarly pursuits, including artifact research, education initiatives and an international museum opening in late 2017 in Washington. The 430,000-square-foot, $400 million Museum of the Bible, dedicated to the impact, history and narrative of the Bible, will be located three blocks from the U.S. Capitol. 

A page devoted to job openings at the Museum says: “Museum of the Bible is an innovative, global, education institution whose purpose is to invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.”

In an introduction to a Christianity Today podcast interview with Glenn Paauw, the senior director of content at the Institute For Bible Reading, says:

A museum experience like this has the potential to widely open our eyes to the fact that the Bible is immersed in real, ancient history, but it’s very different than ours.” Christians should be encouraged by the museum putting the Scriptures in context, says Paauw. “The very first step to great Bible engagement is understanding the Bible in its own world and on its own terms,” he added.

In his recent review of the museum at Christianity Today, Martyn Wendell Jones writes:

But the most enduring questions surrounding the museum will undoubtedly concern its intent. As its leadership has walked back the apologetic messaging of its early days in favor of a more open-handed mission of “engaging” all people with the Bible, skeptics may smell a ruse while some Christians may wonder if the museum is holding back.

In August 2017, the American Bible Society asked its patrons to pray for the Museum of the Bible. The ABS describes it as a “museum inviting all people to engage with the Bible.”  Here is a taste of that plea:

There’s a need for increased Bible awareness and increased Bible reading in America. “Over 90 percent of the homes in this country have a Bible. But I think we’re probably less familiar with it today than ever, because we don’t teach it as we once did,” says Steve Green, chairman of the board of Museum of the Bible. “This book claims it’s for all people. So [Museum of the Bible is] an invitation for all people to come and learn about and engage with it, and hopefully they will leave with a curiosity to want to know more.”

In Mark 4:20, Jesus describes his Parable of the Sower. He says, “The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and welcome the message. They produce thirty or sixty or even a hundred times as much as was planted” (CEV).

Museum of the Bible is like the farmer planting seed by sharing God’s Word with others. We have an opportunity to pray for the seed to fall on good soil—to cause hearts to respond to God’s invitation for a relationship with him.

Last week in Politico Magazine, Candida Moss and Joel Baden, the authors of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby,  asked “Just What Is the Museum of the Bible Trying to Do?”  The answer to this question is simple.  As seen from the quotes above, the Museum of the Bible wants people to engage with the Bible.  But what does this mean?

If you want to understand what the Museum of the Bible means by “Bible engagement” (or “scripture engagement”) you need to know something about the history of the American Bible Society.  As I argued in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, the American Bible Society invented the phrase.  The three paragraphs from the ABS website that I posted above offer a good definition.  The Mark 4:20 reference says it all.

The mission of the American Bible Society states:

We strive to the landscape of the Bible engagement in this country by partnering with church leaders in major U.S. cities, advocating for the Bible in American culture, and equipping ministry leaders with customized Bible resources.  In the next 10 years, we aim to see 100 million people engaged with God’s word in the U.S.

It is worth noting that the American Bible Society began talking about “Bible engagement” and “scripture engagement” as part of a significant change to the mission of the 200-year old organization.  During the mid-1990s, the Society took a turn away from mainline Protestantism and toward evangelical Protestantism.  It also shifted from an organization devoted to distributing the Bible around the world, to a Christian ministry devoted to getting as many people as possible to engage with the Bible as the word of God.

I discuss this transition at length in The Bible Cause.  Here is a taste:

Under [CEO Roy] Peterson’s leadership, the American Bible Society continues its historic commitment to meeting the spiritual needs of people around the world and building a Christian civilization at home and abroad through scripture engagement.  If he has learned one thing from the history of the ABS, it is how to get people excited about the Bible Cause through grand vision statements.  By 2025, Peterson wants to see 100 million Americans engaged with the Bible, scriptures available in every world language, and the expansion of the ABS endowment to $1 billion.  It’s an ambitious goal, and that is why he has Executive Vice President of Ministry Mobilization Geof Morin, who has been at the ABS since 2007, to help him.  Morin represents the future of the Bible Cause.  He has worked in global Bible Cause Coveradvertising, sung at the Metropolitan Opera, and is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia.  He oversees ABS marketing, communications, and Bible technology, and runs Missions U.S. Global, the title given to the Society’s domestic and international ministries.  He is passionate about scripture engagement and the role it can play in the universal Christian church–Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox.

In its 2025 “Strategic Vision” statement the ABS defines scripture engagement as “encountering God through the Bible to become faithful followers of Jesus Christ.” Through the help of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship, the ABS has developed a theoretical and theological framework for how such engagement with scripture should take place.  At the core of this idea of scriptural engagement is the belief that people can encounter–and have encountered–the claims of the Bible in diverse ways and by multiple means, including public hearings, performances, reading, worship, art, and music, to name a few.  Such encounters involve the full range of human faculties: emotions, the intellect, the imagination, and the soul.  Inherent within this view of scripture engagement is the belief that God, by entering into human culture through the person of Jesus Christ, has invested this world with meaning and has created human beings for community.  To put it simply, the Bible has the potential, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to transform lives when it is experienced with other people and through various forms of culture….

The ABS has entrusted this work of measuring the success of scripture engagement to the Barna Group, a Christian research organization known for its work in observing the state of American Christianity and offering “spiritual indicators” about where the United States is moving on matters of faith and culture.  With the help of Barna-created surveys specifically designed for this purpose, Peterson is convinced that by 2025 the ABS will have “defensible numbers” to show that 100 million people in the United States are actively using the scriptures.  The ABS also relies upon Barna for its annual State of the Bible Survey.  Morin, who spearheads this project, likes to call it a “Bible thermometer.”  The State of the Bible report is more than just a fun way for the ABS to let the country know who it is and what it does.  Rather, the success of Peterson’s 2025 vision is directly related to its findings.  The ABS is just getting to the point where it has enough date to be able to see some trends about what American think about the Bible.  The evidence suggests that there is still a lot of work to do.  At the moment, the ABS and Barna estimate that roughly 47 million Americans are actively engaging with the Bible.  This number will need to be more than doubled in the next decade in order to meet Peterson’s projections.

I don’t have the time or the space to add more to this post, so let me wrap things up with a few points:

  1.  The American Bible Society hopes to get more people engaged with the Bible through the creation of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center at 101 North Independence Mall East.  Museums like this are one of many ways the “Bible engagement” or “scripture engagement” can be accomplished.
  2. The relationship between the American Bible Society and the Green family is a close one.  The Greens give a lot of money to the American Bible Society and have shared some of the intellectual property it has gathered in the building of the Museum of the Bible.  Both groups use DeMoss for their public relations needs.
  3. The Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. must be understood in the context of the history of “Bible engagement” or “scripture engagement” as first introduced by the American Bible Society.  This makes the Museum of the Bible a Christian ministry disguised as a first-class museum.

The Club of American Bible Society Historians Who are Mets Fans is Always Looking for New Members!

🙂

Some of you are familiar with Peter Wosh’s excellent history of the American Bible Society, Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell, 1994).  I relied heavily on Wosh’s book in my The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford, 2016).

Wosh recently retired from his post as Director of the Archives and Public History Program at New York University.   If his Facebook page is any indication, he is spending a lot of time exploring the historical landscape in his home state of New Jersey and enjoying his New York Mets season tickets.

Today Wosh posted a picture of himself at Citibank Field.  It was Mets helmet day! (Posted here with his permission).

Wosh

When I saw this pic I had to respond. As you can see, my childhood Mets helmet is way to small for my head.

 

Mets

American Bible Society historians stick together. Let’s Go Mets.

The Bible in Kentucky Schools

BevinMatt Bevin, the Governor of Kentucky, just signed a bill allowing the Bible to be taught in the state’s public schools.  Here is the text of HB 128:

AN ACT relating to Bible literacy courses in the public schools.
     Create a new section of KRS Chapter 156 to require the Kentucky Board of Education to promulgate administrative regulations to establish an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible; require that the course provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy; permit students to use various translations of the Bible for the course; amend KRS 158.197 to permit a school council to offer an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible.

A few thoughts:

First, this is nothing new.  Several states have passed similar laws.  See Mark Chancey’s essay “Bible Bills, Bible Curricula, and Controversies of Biblical Proportions: Legislative Efforts to Promote Bible Courses in Public Schools.”  Chancey, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, is the nation’s leading scholar on such public school Bible courses. Check out his website for more resources.

Second, having a Bible course in a public school is constitutional.  Perhaps someone can help me out here, but I don’t understand why special laws are needed to teach the Bible in schools. It seems as if the only reason for passing such legislation is to make a political statement. The Government of Kentucky, or at least those men and women who have power in the government of Kentucky, want to let their constituency know which side they are taking in the culture wars and the fight to make the United States a Christian nation.

Here’s some history:

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional. But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools.  Here is a taste of Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:

It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.  It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its religious and historic qualities.  Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistent with the First Amendment.

As I argued in my book The Bible Cause, The American Bible Society (ABS), the largest distributor of Bibles in the world, actually supported the Abington v. Schempp decision in 1963. The ABS replied to nearly every letter that it received about the case from disgruntled supporters by putting a positive spin on the decision.  ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor’s response to a writer from Reseda, California was typical: “The American Bible Society is…trying to get people to understand that the Supreme Court decision did not rule out the teaching of the Bible in public schools.”  Taylor ripped into local school boards for giving people the opposite impression.  In fact, as another ABS Secretary, Homer Ogle, wrote to another correspondent, “the Supreme Court is 100% behind the idea of teaching the Bible in the public schools.” He added that the ABS was planning to launch a nationwide program to make sure that children would have access to the scriptures.  The ABS answers to these letters must have been confusing to members who did not understand the complexities of the Supreme Court decision.  Rather than seeing Abington v. Schempp as a blow to Bible reading in schools, the ABS saw it as an opportunity to promote Biblical literacy.

Third, parts of Kentucky HB 128 should raise red flags.  The bill says that a proposed course on the Bible must “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.” This suggests that the course can and should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events.  And what does the term “prerequisite” mean here?  Are the lawmakers suggesting that the Bible is the only prerequisite for understanding these various dimensions of “contemporary society and culture?” The bill does not seem to realize that there is no scholarly consensus on the degree to which the Bible and its teachings influenced the American founding.

The architect of the bill, Representative D.J. Johnson, gives us a better sense of what HB 128 means when it says that the Bible is a “prerequisite” to “contemporary life and culture.” In a recent interview he said: “[The Bible] really did set the foundation that our founding fathers used to develop documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights…All those came from principles in the bible.”  This quote comes straight out of the David Barton Christian nation playbook.

In April 2017, during the debate over HB 128 in the Kentucky House of Representatives, Stan Lee of Lexington said, “This country–whether some people want to believe it or not–wasn’t founded as a Muslim nation, wasn’t founded as a Hindu nation, wasn’t founded as a Jari Krishna nation.  It was founded as a Christian nation.”  He added: “It’s been said on the floor today that teaching the Bible ain’t going to get it done.  Well, let me tell you what didn’t get it done: Kicking God out of school, kicking the Bible out of school, kicking prayer out of school.”  It doesn’t get any clearer than that.  Like D.J. Johnson, Lee is channeling Barton.  He is also, I might add, coming very close to violating Abington v. Schempp.

And then there is Dan Johnson (not to be confused with D.J.).  In addition to representing Kentucky’s House District 49 he is a bishop in the Heart of Fire Church in southeast Louisville.  In his 2016 campaign for a seat in the Kentucky House he came under fire for defending Southern secession, “white pride,” and posting a picture on Facebook of Barack Obama as an ape.  When confronted about the picture Johnson said, “It wasn’t meant to be racist. I can tell you that. My history’s good there. I can see how people would be offended in that.  I wasn’t trying to offend anybody, but I think Facebook’s entertaining.” My history’s good there?  Oh, by the way, Johnson won his election. He now sponsors HB 128.

Representative Tim Moore is also a sponsor of the bill.  He co-chairs the Kentucky Prayer Caucus.  According to its website, the members of the Kentucky Prayer Caucus are “state legislators committed to advancing policies and initiatives that promote religious freedom, America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, and prayer.  It is part of a larger “Prayer Caucus” movement in state legislatures around the country. There is nothing on the Caucus’s website that explains how it reconciles its support for religious freedom with its promotion of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage.  David Barton promotes the Prayer Caucus Movement on his Wallbuilders website.

David Barton peddles really bad history about the American founding, but more importantly his faulty understanding of the American past has influenced public policy in places such as Kentucky.  (Barton has made it abundantly clear that he is a big fan of Governor Bevin).  In the end, it appears that HB 128 is a subtle and shrewd attempt by the Kentucky government to promote a Christian nationalist agenda without violating Abington v. Schempp.  If they cannot bring Christianity and the Bible back into the schools in an overt pre-1963 way, they can at least bring it into the curriculum under the guise of history and social studies.

Watchdog groups have a close eye on how the bill will be implemented in Kentucky schools.  Kate Miller of the ACLU put it best: “A Bible literacy bill that, on its face, may not appear to be unconstitutional, could in fact become unconstitutional in its implementation.”

Miller and other critics should make sure the Bible is not being used in this class for devotional purposes or Christian preaching.  But they should also keep an eye on how the Bible is being used to teach civics and history in Kentucky schools.  On the later point, the defenders of the bill will ward off criticism by arguing that this is an issue about competing historical interpretations (David Barton and the Christian nationalist view of history versus mainstream historical scholarship written by real historians) and not a violation of Abington v. Schempp.

In closing, it is important to remember that the ultimate implementation of HB 128 rests with the educators who will be teaching this Bible course. (We are only talking about an Revisedelective course, so I imagine only a small groups of students will take it.). I hope many of these teachers turn to the resources page on Mark Chancey’s website to get a sense of what is permissible and what is not.  I also hope that they are responsible when they attempt to connect the Bible to “contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

As some of you know, I wrote a book called Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  In that book I talk a lot about the Bible’s influence on the American founding.  I also spend a lot of time, both at Messiah College (an evangelical Christian college in Pennsylvania) and around the country, working with history and social studies teachers. I am happy to help Kentucky teachers think about all the ways the Bible has influenced, and has not influenced, American society and culture.

Memphis Cotton for Bibles

Cotton Museum

Next time I am Memphis I am going to try to visit the Cotton Museum

Earlier today I wrote about my recent visit to Memphis as part of a Civil Rights bus tour I am currently taking.  We visited sites from The Civil Rights Movement and the African American history of the city in the 1960s.

In the 19th century, Memphis was a major cotton market and, consequently, a major slave market.  This was largely due to its prime location on the Mississippi River.

The prevalence of cotton in Memphis even crossed over into the work of Bible distribution.  In my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I wrote a few sentences about the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society and the spread of cheap Bibles into the South during the Civil War:

One of the most interesting parts of the American Bible Society (ABS) distribution efforts [during the Civil War] was the sale of Bibles in exchange for cotton.  Since the Union would not accept Confederate currency as a form of donation or payment for Bibles, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society in Tennessee circumvented this problem by offering the ABS bales of cotton.  Cotton was purchased by southern philanthropists and friends of the Bible Cause with Confederate money, and the bales were shipped out to New York.  In February 1865, an anonymous donor gave the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society six bales of cotton to help defer the cost of electrotype plates used to print Bibles at the Society’s distribution depot in Nashville.  Whatever was left after the plates were paid for was used to provide boxes of Bibles and Testaments for Confederate troops.

Similarly, the Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society Society received a request from Monticello, Arkansas, proposing to exchange ten bales of cotton for Bibles and Testaments that would be distributed to citizens and soldiers in the surrounding region. The Memphis and Shelby County Society planned to have the cotton shipped directly to the [New York City] Bible House as soon as possible….The ABS was not prepared to receive cotton in exchange for copies of the scriptures, but the New York Board of Managers were more than willing to accept it if it meant getting Bibles past Confederate military lines.

Transporting cotton through a country torn by Civil War was difficult. The Memphis and Shelby County Bible Society needed the permission of Confederate authorities and generals. The ABS had to obtain special approval from the U.S. Treasury Department.  In some cases the cotton, once received in New York, was deposited in a U.S. government warehouse “to the credit of the American Bible Society for special purposes.”

The United States of Hobby Lobby

Hobby LobbyIn October 2017, Joel Baden and Candida Moss will publish Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton University Press).  Here is the publisher’s description:

Like many evangelical Christians, the Green family of Oklahoma City believes that America was founded as a Christian nation, based on a “biblical worldview.” But the Greens are far from typical evangelicals in other ways. The billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby, a huge nationwide chain of craft stores, the Greens came to national attention in 2014 after successfully suing the federal government over their religious objections to provisions of the Affordable Care Act. What is less widely known is that the Greens are now America’s biggest financial supporters of Christian causes–and they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an ambitious effort to increase the Bible’s influence on American society. In Bible Nation, Candida Moss and Joel Baden provide the first in-depth investigative account of the Greens’ sweeping Bible projects and the many questions they raise.

Bible Nation tells the story of the Greens’ rapid acquisition of an unparalleled collection of biblical antiquities; their creation of a closely controlled group of scholars to study and promote their collection; their efforts to place a Bible curriculum in public schools; and their construction of a $500 million Museum of the Bible near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Bible Nation reveals how these seemingly disparate initiatives promote a very particular set of beliefs about the Bible–and raise serious ethical questions about the trade in biblical antiquities, the integrity of academic research, and more.

Bible Nation is an important and timely account of how a vast private fortune is being used to promote personal faith in the public sphere–and why it should matter to everyone.

In November I will be part of a review panel on the book at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.  Here is the session:

S20-246 Use, Influence, and Impact of the Bible
11/20/2017

1:00 PM to 3:00 PM
Theme: The United States of Hobby Lobby

In this session, invited discussants will respond to Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden’s Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby (Princeton UP, 2017).

Mark Chancey, Southern Methodist University, Panelist
Malcolm Choat, Macquarie University, Panelist
Peter Manseau, Smithsonian Institution, Panelist
John Fea, Messiah College, Panelist

Looking forward to it.  Of course I wrote a bit about the relationship between Hobby Lobby and the American Bible Society in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

The Museum of the Bible opens this Fall.

Happy Birthday American Bible Society

Bible Cause CoverThe 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.