Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

American Bible Society names its next president

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Bob Briggs is the new president and CEO of the American Bible Society. Briggs is a good guy. While I was working on my book on The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, I interviewed him at a Barnes & Nobles outside of Philadelphia. He was very helpful and was one of a few ABS leaders who seemed supportive of the way I was telling the story. I don’t know what he thought about the finished product, but I got the sense that he did not look upon my work with suspicion. I look forward to seeing where he takes the Society.

Here is the press release:

PHILADELPHIA, June 23, 2020: American Bible Society, one of the nation’s most enduring nonprofit organizations, announced today that Robert L. Briggs has been appointed as president and CEO of the 204-year-old Bible ministry. Briggs, who served most recently as interim president and CEO following the retirement of Roy L. Peterson has served at American Bible Society through various leadership roles for nearly 20 years.

“Robert’s time at American Bible Society has been marked by a deep love of Scripture and a passionate commitment to global Bible ministry,” said American Bible Society Chairman of the Board Jeff Brown. “Not only does he bring a wealth of experience and knowledge of the organization to the role of president, but he also has the ardor, hard-earned wisdom and grace to truly make a difference in the lives of thousands of people as he leads American Bible Society’s ministries in trauma healing, Bible translation, and Bible engagement.” 

Briggs steps into his role as president with a rich history in the transformative ministry of Bible access. Briggs has served American Bible Society in a variety of leadership roles, including senior vice president of U.S. Ministry and vice president of advancement. Prior to that, he led the Global Ministry team and served internationally as a member of the Global Council of United Bible Societies, chairing the nominations committee. He is a founding member of the steering committee for Every Tribe Every Nation, an alliance which brings together the largest Bible agencies in the world that are working to ensure that 100 percent of the world’s population have access to Scripture.

Briggs

Bob Briggs

“I am deeply humbled that the Board of Directors of American Bible Society has trusted me to step into this role. My commitment runs deep to serve those who hunger for the truth and healing that God delivers through the words of Scripture,” says Briggs. “Particularly in this moment in our history, a moment of anguish and pain for so many, the authentic message from the God of the Bible offers the hope and healing we all yearn to experience. May God help us in these days.”

American Bible Society is headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was founded by many of the same leaders who founded the United States, including Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress, and John Jay, first chief justice of the United States Today, the organization is living out its mission to see all people experience the life-changing message of God’s Word through a variety of programs, including global Bible translation and distribution, Scripture provision to armed service members, Bible-based Trauma Healing and the launch of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.

Drawing on decades of experience, Briggs steps into the role of CEO at a time when the message of the Gospel has never been more urgent, but Bible engagement is on the decline. American Bible Society believes in the transformative power of the Scriptures to heal oppression and discouragement and bring justice and restoration. At this critical moment in our nation’s history, the need for the Bible is paramount. American Bible Society seeks to continue its legacy of innovation and ensure all have access to the Bible in a format they can understand and afford so that all people can experience its life changing message. 

Briggs and his wife Susan live in Philadelphia. They have five adult children and six grandchildren. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and prior to joining American Bible Society, he held leadership roles with the American Diabetes Association and co-founded Cityhill, a Christian publishing company.

Some Thoughts on the American Bible Society’s Response to Trump’s St. John’s Church Photo-Op

Trump St. Johns

When Trump went to St. John’s Church on Monday he held-up a Bible. He did not read it. He did not even open it. We still don’t know exactly why he did this, but we have some pretty good ideas. My view is that Trump was holding up the Bible for political reasons. He wanted to show that God endorsed the message he had just delivered about “law and order” in the White House Rose Garden. He believed that such a public display would fire-up his base–a group of white evangelicals who get very, very excited whenever the president gets close to a Bible. Why do they get so excited? This is a story I unpacked extensively in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

I cannot think of a time in American history when a United States president brandished a Bible in this way. Most American presidents have gone to church. Most American presidents have, at one point or another, cited the Bible. And many American presidents have used Christianity for political purposes.

But Trump waved the Bible as a kind of talisman–a material object waved as a symbol of spiritual and political (the two are often inseparable in the minds of many white evangelicals) power. The words of the scriptures were not important. They never have been to Donald Trump:

Trump and BIble

I don’t think Trump really believes that the Bible has any spiritual power in the way that his evangelical base believes that it does. (Think about it–have you ever seen Trump reading from a Bible?) But he does believe the Bible, as a material object, is a book enchanted with magic political powers. On Monday he used this magical book as a prop in a public performance of Christian nationalism. (On Bible “performances” see Seth Perry’s excellent book Bible Culture & Authority in the Early United States).

And now on to the American Bible Society.

Whitney Kuniholm, senior vice-president of the American Bible Society in Philadelphia, has issued an official statement about Donald Trump’s use of the Bible during his St. John’s Church photo-op. Here is Kate Shellnut at Christianity Today:

In this time of pandemic fear and social isolation, in this time of racial injustice and senseless violence, in this time of economic uncertainty and generational pain, we should be careful not to use the Bible as a political symbol, one more prop in a noisy news cycle,” said Whitney T. Kuniholm, senior vice president of the American Bible Society.

“Because, more than ever, we need to hear what’s true. ‘Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!’ (Amos 5:24 NIV). ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…’ (Ps. 23:4 KJV).”

What should we make of this statement?

First, it is worth noting that the American Bible Society would never have made such a statement prior to the 1990s. Until recently, the Society did not interpret the Bible. (More on this below). If Christians couldn’t decide whether the Bible should be employed to promote social justice or uphold law and order, the American Bible Society stayed out of the debate. The Society did not even take a stand against slavery in the Civil War. Southern slaveholders needed Bibles too. It also tried to rise above the sticky doctrinal

Bible Cause Cover

Society publications were fond of using the phrase “the Bible doing its work” to describe the effect the book had on sinners and potential converts. These publications are filled with stories of Bibles that would not burn when unbelievers tried to destroy them by fire and Civil War soldiers who claimed that a pocket Bible stopped enemy bullets. Even if the Bible was never read or opened, it was enchanted and could thus serve a divine purpose.

If Trump’s stunt at St. John’s Church occurred in the 19th-century, I have no doubt that the Society’s magazine would print testimonial letters written to the “Bible House” in New York City by people who had a spiritual experience from witnessing the Bible brandished by such an important person in such an important setting. Again, the agents of the America Bible Society got the book in the hands of the right people and then simply let the Bible do its work. The correspondence proved it.

Second, it is worth noting that the Society’s statement about Trump’s visit to St. John’s church suggests that the Bible should not be used as a “political symbol.” On one level, Whitney Kuniholm’s statement is consistent with the history of the organization. The American Bible Society has never endorsed any political candidates or entered into specific political debates.

But on another level, the American Bible Society has always championed the kind of Christian nationalism that Trump displayed at St. John’s Church. To be fair, the Society never saw the promotion of Christian nationalism as a “political issue.” The claim that America was a Christian nation in need of the word of God was an uncontested one for much of the Society’s history.

Here is more from The Bible Cause:

The ABS never let its constituency forget that it was the American Bible Society. The Society never operated from the fringes of American life. While it has been willing to work with any Christian body interested in promoting the Bible, the ABS has always gravitated toward the particular expression of Christianity that its board and staff believed to be the moral guardians of America’s status as a Christian nation. This was rather easy in the nineteenth century, a time when evangelical religion held cultural power. But in the twentieth century, particularly after the Fundamentalst-Modernist controversies of the 1920s, this required more of a conscious decision. As we will see, for most of the twentieth the ABS made its peace with the Ecumenical Movement as embodied  in the National Council of Churches, but with American presidents, businessmen, and celebrities who were associated with these historic denominations. Since the 1990s, as the power of mainline Protestantism to shape the culture waned, the ABS cast its lot again with evangelicalism.

The evangelicals who cheered Trump’s use of the Bible at St. John’s Church believe that he was doing his part to bring the sacred text to the heart of American political and cultural life. He was not only proclaiming the divine authority of the Bible, but he was also affirming the idea that the United States is a Christian nation. By merely displaying the unopened Bible before the cameras, Trump was telling the world that the nation’s most cherished values–in this case law and order–stem from this book. The ABS–for good or for bad–has always embraced a similar view and they have struggled in recent decades to adapt such a view to a more diverse and pluralistic society.

Third, if recent history is any indication, the American Bible Society should actually celebrate, not condemn, Trump’s use of the Bible. Let me explain.

For much of its history, the American Bible Society measured success in terms of how many Bibles it was able to send around the world. Insiders called this the “tonnage” approach to Bible work. One of the criticisms of the tonnage approach was that it was impossible to gauge the spiritual impact of the scriptures on people’s lives apart from the anecdotes and stories told through the correspondence of colporteurs, agents, and constituents. It was one thing to spend millions of dollars producing and distributing Bibles, Testaments, and scripture portions, and quite another thing to know if those scriptures were simply placed on a shelf, treated like a family talisman, or actually read. While the Society had always accepted this as a valid critique of its organization, there was never any serious attempt to try to respond to it apart from something akin to the mantra “let the Bible do its work.” Ship Bibles and let God do the rest.

This all began to change when the American Bible Society moved from a mainline Protestant organization to an evangelical one. I wrote about this shift, which occurred in the 1990s, in the final chapter of my book The Bible Cause, but I also published a shorter version of the story here. Under the leadership of President and CEO Eugene Habecker, the Society stopped measuring success by tonnage and started measuring success through something that was eventually called “scripture engagement.” (As noted above, they also did away with the “no note or comment” policy).

Today, scripture engagement is at the center of the Society’s mission. The end goal of scripture engagement is to expose people to the Bible in the hope that they will pick-it up, read it, be transformed by its life-changing message, and then work to restore the Christian fabric of American culture that has been ripped apart by the forces of secularization. The first step is exposure. Though ideally, a full engagement with the Bible would require a person to actually open-it-up and read the text, a simple encounter with the closed book, whether on a television show or through museum glass at a place like the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C., could get the ball rolling. (I wrote about this in the context of the Museum of the Bible in a chapter of this book). The advocates of scripture engagement are confident that “the Bible will do its work.” This idea of scripture engagement is at the heart of the Society’s new Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, which will open soon on the Independence Mall in Philadelphia.

So needless to say, it surprised me that the American Bible Society came out so strongly against Trump’s photo-op. Why aren’t they pleased that Trump has the entire nation talking about the Bible? The Society could not have asked for a better “scripture engagement” moment. In fact, Christianity Today is reporting that the Society is taking the opportunity to give away free Bibles.

When Trump stood before St. John’s Church’s and lifted a copy of the Bible, he was proclaiming that the law and order of the United States was based on the Old and New Testament scriptures and that he would be God’s agent to advance such a view of American life. Millions of people around the world were “engaged” with the Bible on Monday. The folks at American Bible Society may not like Trump’s style, but they have been endorsing this kind of thing since 1816.

What People Have Said About *The Bible Cause*

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Recently someone asked me for a review of my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).  Here are a few:

The Bible Cause is a sagacious telling of history; Fea turned what I had anticipated to be a rather pedestrian and insignificant story into a poetically strong historical narrative with rich sociological lessons.” — Joseph T. Cochran , American Theological Library Association

“Fea is at his best when interweaving this story of a new nation with one of that country’s most important religious organisations as both struggled to establish the boundaries of faith and public life. This struggle continues through to the book’s skilfully written last pages. The Bible cause is required reading for scholars interested in American religious nationalism, evangelicalism, mission history and history of the book.” — Joseph S. Moore, Gardner-Webb University, Journal of Ecclesiastical History

“Fea’s work is comprehensive and insightful, and his study will complement an array of recent historical scholarship on American Christian print culture and biblicism.”-Shari Rabin, Journal of Religion

“For two hundred years, supporters have opened their wallets to fund the [American Bible Society], trekked into unknown lands on its behalf, and distributed Bibles with its name stamped inside the cover. Fea tells this story perceptively and with care. He ably sets the ABS in the context of US history in a way that makes The Bible Cause especially helpful for those interested in the history of missions, US imperialism, the Bible (both in the United States and globally), and biblical translation. Ultimately, Fea’s work offers a well-researched and thoughtfully argued account of the institution and people who dedicated themselves to the Bible cause.”-Andrew Klumpp, Reading Religion

“By integrating anecdotes of colorful and heroic agents such as P. M. Ozanne, Young Bin Im, and Frances Hamilton, Fea makes organizational history an enjoyable read. In an institution dominated by white men, he also goes out of his way to stress the importance of laypeople and women in accomplishing the society s goals…[The book] will be of most interest to historians of the early republic, national identity, and American religion.”–Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains

“Fea’s work is scholarly but accessible…Readers who are interested in the Bible in popular culture or American religious history will find this an engaging read.”–The Bible Today

“Fea’s work, which will appeal to anyone interested in American religious history, offers a well-written account of the history of a group that has had a tremendous impact on religious life in the United States and worldwide, adapting to new situations and technologies while remaining true to its original mission.” –Augustine J. Curly, Library Journal

“John Fea’s history of two hundred years of the American Bible Society is full of unusually perceptive insights. The book shows how the society advanced both evangelistic and nationalistic purposes, sustained great activity at home and abroad, balanced heavenly-minded goals with up-to-date business savvy, promoted an old religion through modern technologies, and prospered with inter-denominational cooperation while surviving considerable controversy. It is a splendid book to mark a noteworthy anniversary.” –Mark A. Noll, author of In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783

The Bible Cause is far more than a definitive history of the American Bible Society, though it succeeds admirably in that respect. John Fea also tells a broader story about American culture, how religion came to play such a central role in shaping national identity and how, in turn, secular ideals have shaped American belief and behavior. It is an important story, told with affection, care, and thoughtful critique.” –Margaret Bendroth, Executive Director of the Congregational Library & Archives

“In an engaging survey of the American Bible Society, Fea leads us through Bible distribution in ever-widening circles. His expansive sweep highlights dissemination on the U.S. frontier, within the war-ravaged communities of the postbellum American South, and around the globe. He shows how the Good Book both followed and accompanied U.S. imperial aspirations, and also how its influence motivated believers to see America as a Christian nation united by reverence for the Word.” –Laurie Maffly-Kipp, author of Setting Down the Sacred Past: African American Race Histories

“This comprehensive history, written to commemorate the American Bible Society (ABS) bicentennial, explores the ABS’s roots, guiding philosophies, evolving mission, and influence domestically and internationally . . . Fea references ‘sensational accounts of the struggles faced in Bible distribution’ included in ABS publications, and highlights individuals such as Frances Hamilton, ABS’s first female agent, who stayed in Mexico through the 1910 Revolution, and ‘Aunt Sue,’ an African American ABS volunteer who in 1943 boarded a bus full of whites to explain how the Bible would bring racial harmony. These stories put a human face on this national movement.”–Publishers Weekly

“Institutional histories are tricky to write.  Fea should be commended for completing in 2016 what no less a scholar than Kenneth Scott Latourette was unable to finish in 1966.”–Religion in American History

“John Fea has written a lively and reasonably comprehensive bicentennial history of the American Bible Society (ABS)…this outstanding public history deserves careful consideration from both religious executives and university scholars.”–The Journal of American History

When Bibles Survive Fires

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Over at The Washington Post, Lindsey Bever reports on Bibles that survived a church fire in West Virginia.  Here is a taste:

Within hours, the small West Virginia church where the Rev. Phil Farrington and his congregation had worshiped for the past several years was gone.

The pastor had received a call from the fire department early Sunday morning, telling him that there was a fire at his church, Freedom Ministries, in Daniels, about 70 miles southeast of Charleston.

“We rushed out there,” he told The Washington Post on Tuesday. “I sat down on the ground and cried and watched it burn.”

Firefighters from several departments worked for hours to beat the blaze — as the flames swallowed the structure and smoke billowed high into the air. Fire officials said the structure sustained heavy damage. But when it was over and firefighters were combing through the rubble, they uncovered church possessions that had survived: Bibles. Farrington said the sacred texts had been scattered throughout the sanctuary, most in seat-back pockets for parishioners and one that was kept on the pulpit for him.

The Coal City Fire Department posted pictures on Facebook showing the Bibles, which had been collected into a pile on the soot-stained ground.

“Though odds were against us, God was not,” the fire department wrote in the post over the weekend. “Picture this, a building so hot that at one point in time, firefighters had to back out. In your mind, everything should be burned, ashes. Not a single bible was burned and not a single cross was harmed! Not a single firefighter was hurt!”

Farrington said he sees it as a sign from God that nearly two dozen Bibles were untouched, as were three crosses — two wooden crosses on the walls inside the church and one on the rooftop made of stone.

“In the midst of the fire, God’s word will always stand,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

This reminded me of the following passage from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (p.64).

In 1840, ABS agent Sylvester Holmes stumbled upon a woman near Nashville, Tennessee, trapped in an abusive marriage with a “whiskey lover” who became enraged whenever she read her Bible.  One day that husband, presumably in a drunken stupor, decided he was going to burn his wife’s Bible.  He ripped it from her hands and threw it into the fire where it was “consumed to ashes.”  As soon as the Bible began to burn, the “wretched” husband lost the use of his hand and could not speak.  In a similar story, a German man living in Syracuse, New York, took the Bible he received from an ABS agent and threw it into a fire, but he “could not make it burn.”  He eventually took the Bible out of the fire and, “in its singed state,” began to read it, leading him to request another Bible from the agent.  

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.