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

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.

*Common Place* Reviews *The Bible Cause*

Bible Cause CoverThe new Common-Place is here and it includes Sonia Hazard‘s review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  Hazard wanted me to say more about the Bible as a piece of material culture.  It’s a fair criticism.

Here is a taste:

Fea wrote The Bible Cause at the invitation of the American Bible Society. Other reviewers have suspected that their warm relationship explains the adulatory tone that crops up in the book. I wonder if an examination of the material record might have forced a more critical posture toward some of the textual sources as well. A material examination of the American Bible Society’s nineteenth-century Bibles would have shown that for all its professed emphasis on Bibles “without note or comment” and its promotional self-image as a Bible depository for the common people, the society was also intimately concerned with appealing to the tastes of the wealthy and the emerging middle class. Consumerism and class are part of the American story as well.

In the opening pages of The Bible Cause, Fea announces that he takes to heart the words of the retired general secretary of the American Bible Society: “The Bible Cause is about people” (1). Fea beautifully brings to life the people of this organization. It may be selfish to ask for more from a book replete with richly drawn portraits of individuals and careful accounting of their efforts. But surely for one of the country’s leading publishers—whose goal was to produce and distribute printed objects—the American Bible Society was about things as well as people.

Read it all here.

American Bible Society’s Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is a Go


In Summer 2015 the American Bible Society moved from New York City to Philadelphia. It currently rents two floors in the Wells Fargo building at 5th and Market streets.  And according to this article at, it is ready to move forward with its $60 million dollar Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.

Full disclosure:  At a very early stage of this project I served as a historical consultant.  I attended one meeting and offered some suggestions.  I am no longer involved in the project.

Here is a taste of the article:

This $60 million project seeks to help explain the influence of the Bible on American history. It also hopes to activate the ground floor of the fortress-like Wells Fargo building, improving its interactions with its surroundings.

At Wednesday’s Art Commission’s conceptual review of the project, the managing director of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center, Patrick Murdock, laid out the Society’s vision with an assist from the project’s architects.

The Center will seek to enliven the underutilized mid-block pedestrian path just to the north of the Wells Fargo building, which connects 4th and 5th streets.

The public space will feature a new 14,100 square foot building, a restructured garden, wood benches, and a stage area will cover the delivery ramp that trucks use to access the building’s basement. It could be used for performances or gatherings, open to the public, even when it isn’t being put to official use.

All told, the new project covers a total of well over 50,000 square feet.

I wrote about this project in the Epilogue of my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.

Here is a taste:

This brings us to the recent ABS decision to leave New York City after 199 years and move the organization to Philadelphia, where it now occupies two floors in the Wells Fargo Building on 401 Market Street, just steps from Independence Hall.  The move was driven by financial concerns.  The 1865 Broadway Bible House needed 25-50 million dollars’ worth of repairs in order to meet the city building code.  The ABS owned both the twelve-story building and thirty-seven additional stories of New York City airspace.  For [CEO Roy] Peterson, the decision to sell the building and move to another location was a matter of Christian stewardship.  He imagines what the ABS will be able to do with the money from the sale in terms of promoting its agenda of scripture engagement….

Peterson has also managed to do some revisionist history to help justify the transition to Philadelphia.  He suggests that despite the ABS’s 199-year presence in the city, New York was never the Society’s true identity.  On one level, Peterson is correct.  The ABS was founded in New York because of the hospitality of the New York Bible Society, which supported [founder Elias] Boudinot’s plan for a national Bible society and agreed to host the meeting that established it.  While it was certainly possible that the ABS might have ended up in another city, the fact remains that it did end up in New York and it remained there for two centuries.  It is hard to dismiss two centuries of history.  If, as Peterson notes, the ABS “inadvertently” made New York its identity when “it was never supposed to be our identity,” the fact remains that between 1816 and 2015 the American Bible Society was a New York City institution.

Peterson is quick to note that Philadelphia was Elias Boudinot’s hometown.  According to his will (a copy of which Peterson, at least at the timer he was interviewed, had sitting on his desk), Boudinot had left land to the city.  The new ABS president is not willing to go any farther with this argument other than to note that an ABS move to Philadelphia, at least as history is concerned, may not be as random as some would like to make it out to be. Bible Cause Cover Peterson, however, is more certain about how the transition to Philadelphia will allow the ABS to connect itself once again to the story of the United States.  What better place for the ABS to celebrate its bicentennial in May 2016 than the place where America was born?  This was a place where God and country came together in 1776, and with the ABS only a stone’s throw away from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Peterson is hoping that the Society can help middle-class Americans remember that fact.

Peterson wants to the ABS, with a soon-to-be constructed Bible Discovery Center highlighting the history of the Bible in the United States, to become a Philadelphia tourist attraction.  He estimates that after three years in Philadelphia over 250,000 people will come to the Bible Discovery Center to “hear the story of the Bible.”  Peterson wants the “best of the best” to help him in the construction of this Discovery Center, and that is why he has turned to the Green family, the owners of the retail craft store Hobby Lobby.  The Greens made national headlines in 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled that they did not have to violate their conscience by conforming to a part of the Affordable Care Act that would have forced them to provide certain contraceptives to Hobby Lobby employees.  In the last several years, the Greens have been active in a host of philanthropic activities on behalf of the evangelical community and are currently a major ABS donor.  Peterson is excited that the Greens have been willing to help the ABS Bible Discovery Center get off the ground by sharing some of the intellectual property it has gathered in the process of building their soon-to-be-opened Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

Civil War Bullets and Pocket Bibles

bible in CiviL WarThe other day someone asked me if my book on the American Bible Society covers the role that Bibles played in “protecting” Civil War soldiers.

Yes, it does.

Here is a taste of Chapter 7 of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).

The chapter is entitled “A Bible House Divided.”

Many soldiers viewed the Bible as a holy book with spiritual power apart from the words contained therein.  Even if the Bible was not being read, it still had the mystical power to provide spiritual solace in the most frightening of times as long as it was somehow connected to one’s body during the thick of the battle.  It was common for soldiers heading off into battle to pull their pocket Testaments out of their knapsacks and place them in the breast pockets of their shirts.  The object of such a move, according to the ABS, was “to have the Word of God with them if they should fall in battle, to be the lamp of their feet and the light of their path, even if called to the last march through the dark valley.”  One soldier in Yorktown, Virginia pulled a worn-out Testament from his pocket and told a chaplain that he had carried the book during the entire Peninsular Campaign.  He pointed to the outside of his coat pocket where a hole was developing over his heart in the exact size of an ABS Testament.  When the chaplain asked him if he had been reading the worn-out Bible, the soldier slapped his hand on the battered Bible and declared, “I would not take five dollars for that book! It has been with me thus far through the war!”  Oftentimes the armies used ABS Bibles as a means of identifying dead soldiers on the battlefield in the wake of a particularly bloody battle.  One soldier described the Bible Cause CoverTestament as a kind of “headstone.”  It was not only a symbol of a dead soldier’s experience with Christian faith, but if he wrote in his Bible, as many were inclined to do, it might be the only means by which anxious parents and friends could identify the body.

Sometimes a Bible in the shirt pocket could save a soldier’s life by stopping an enemy bullet.  As might be expected, these stories appeared over and over again in ABS publication.  While it is unlikely that a pocket-sized ABS testament was thick enough to protect a soldier from a direct hit from a direct hit, these books were probably capable of shielding soldiers from spent bullets–balls that were near the end of their useful range.  The ABS and its auxiliaries were quick to compare the spiritual and physical protections that the Bible offered Civil War soldiers.  The Bible could save a soldier’s life and could save a soldier’s soul.  John Hampden Chamberlain, a Virginia military officer, jokingly wrote in a letter to his mother that he had yet to meet “the man whose life was saved by a pack of cards in his breast pocket.”

Americans Aren’t Reading the Bible

Bible Cause CoverA recent study by LifeWay Research found that Americans have a positive view of the Bible, but they are not reading it.

Here is a taste of Bob Smietana’s synopsis of the report:

NASHVILLE, Tenn.— Americans have a positive view of the Bible. And many say the Christian scriptures are filled with moral lessons for today.

However, more than half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible.

Less than a quarter of those who have ever read a Bible have a systematic plan for reading the Christian scriptures each day. And a third of Americans never pick it up on their own, according to a new study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research.

Small wonder many church leaders worry about biblical illiteracy, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

“Most Americans don’t know first-hand the overall story of the Bible—because they rarely pick it up,” McConnell said. “Even among worship attendees less than half read the Bible daily. The only time most Americans hear from the Bible is when someone else is reading it.”

Read the rest here.

Smietana also notes, drawing on data from the American Bible Society, that 87% of Americans have a Bible in their home.

And now for some historical context.

All of this reminds me of the story I tell about former American Bible Society CEO Eugene Habecker in chapter 27 of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  Back in 1996, Habecker was concerned that Americans were not reading the Bibles sitting on their family bookshelves.

For those of you who don’t want to buy the book, I summarize the story in an article at Christianity Today titled “How the American Bible Society Became Evangelical.”


“Good News for Modern Man” Turns 50!


The December 21 print edition of The Christian Century included my article “A Bible Translation for Everyone.”  The piece reflects on the fiftieth anniversary of the American Bible Society’s Good News for Modern Man New Testament.

A version of that piece now appears on the Century website.  Here is a taste:

For a baby boomer named Rick, the cover of Good News for Modern Manevoked a flood of wonderful memories. Responding to an online survey that I conducted on the impact of this version of the Bible, Rick reported that in the late 1960s he was a member of a youth group in California which sang folk-rock Christian songs using acoustic guitars. Rick’s church gave out copies of Good News for Modern Man like candy. As youth group started each week, he and his friends would crowd together “and somebody would start tossing—literally tossing—the Testament and a brown Youth for Christ songbook” to everyone in attendance. Like typical adolescent boys, Rick and his friends got rowdy sometimes, and they used the copies of Good News to beat one another over the head until the youth pastor calmed everyone down.

Tom, another respondent to the survey, remembered that in 1972 he was a charismatic good-newsCatholic participating in an ecumenical Jesus People prayer meeting with Pentecostals. When they weren’t on the ground speaking in tongues (which Tom called a “joyous babble in the Spirit”) they were playing “Bible roulette” with their copies of Good News for Modern Man. Someone would randomly read a passage aloud, and one or two people in the group would comment on how the particular passage spoke to them.

Released by the American Bible Society in September 1966, Good News for Modern Man—subtitled The New Testament and Psalms in Today’s English Version—quickly became a cultural phenomenon and one of the most successful religious publications in American history. For the price of a quarter, the English-speaking public (and eventually the world) could read the Bible in a language that was (in the words of ABS publicity materials) “as fresh and immediate as the morning newspaper.”

Good News for Modern Man was the brainchild of Eugene Nida, an ABS linguist who pioneered the “dynamic equivalence” approach to Bible translation. At the heart of this theory is the idea that the best translation of a Bible text is one that allows readers to forget they are reading a translation at all. Nida was one of the first Bible translation Bible Cause Covertheorists to take the linguistic position of the reader this seriously. A good translation, he argued, would arouse in the reader the same reaction that the writer of the text hoped to produce in his “first and immediate” readers. For Nida, the test of a translation is how well the readers understand the message of the original text, the ease with which they can grasp this meaning, and the level of involvement with the text that a person experiences as a result of reading the translation.

Read the rest of this version of the piece here or read the entire piece in hard copy in the December 21, 2016 print edition of The Christian Century.  

Or get the entire story of the American Bible Society in my latest book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.



*The Bible Cause* Selected as Church History Book of the Year at Jesus Creed Blog

Bible Cause CoverScot McKnight, the proprietor and author of the Jesus Creed blog, has chosen The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society as his church history book of the year. Needless to say, I couldn’t be more happy and honored!   This means a lot since McKnight and Jesus Creed was one of my inspirations for entering the blogosphere back in 2008.

Here are Scot’s kind words about The Bible Cause:

Enter the Bible, and in particular, the American Bible Society, and it should not take long to see in the picture to the right an open Bible in one hand and American flag in the other. A recent and exceptional book by Messiah College historian, John Fea, called The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, tells this story through one institution — the American Bible society — but in so doing Fea demonstrates the constant intersection of Bible and nation building. I recommend this book for all churches and for all schools, colleges and universities. The impact of the ABS is of magnitudes and often enough totally unknown. Fea is an exceptional historian of the church in America. His expertise in connecting ABS to American church history is all over this book. Those who read the New Testament in Greek or the Old Testament in Hebrew or the Septuagint in Greek read from an ABS or United Bible Societies produced edition. Many of the most important tools used in Bible studies today were produced by or in cooperation with the ABS. Every major translation of the Bible today translates the Hebrew and Greek texts produced in conjunction with ABS and UBS. This alone justifies the importance of knowing the story told by Fea.

Thanks, Scot.


Why I Missed a Conference Session Devoted to My Book


I was supposed to be in San Antonio this Saturday.  I did not make it.

The Society for Comparative Research on Iconographic and Performative Texts devoted its annual session at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) meeting in San Antonio to my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  S. Brent Plate of Hamilton College organized the session and recruited David Morgan (Duke), Laurie Maffly-Kipp (Washington University), and Julius Bailey (University of Redlands) to give papers on the subject of the book.  I was scheduled to respond to their presentations.

Needless to say I was flattered and greatly honored to have The Bible Cause featured in this way.  How often does one have an entire conference session devoted to his work?  It would be my first meeting of the AAR and my first visit to San Antonio since the Advanced Placement United States history reading left Trinity College for a convention center in Louisville.  It was looking forward to hearing some jazz on the River Walk and trying to score some Spurs tickets.

I agreed to participate in this session well before my oldest daughter had decided where she would be attending college.  She eventually chose Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan because it is a faith-based school with a stellar academic reputation and a very strong NCAA Division 3 women’s volleyball program.

When I agreed to go to San Antonio on the weekend of November 18, 2016 I had no idea that the AAR conference would conflict with the NCAA Division 3 national championship game in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Nor could I have predicted that Calvin would be playing in that game.

The decision to skip to San Antonio was an easy one, but I sincerely appreciate the graciousness shown to me by Brent, David, Laurie, and Julius.  I was disappointed that I could not attend a session devoted to my book, but I am glad that I was in Oshkosh last weekend to watch my freshman daughter, the starting right-side hitter, contribute to Calvin’s NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP victory!!!

Since I could not be there, Brent read my comments.  Here they are in full:

Good morning.  As you probably know by this point of the session, I am not in San Antonio this weekend for what would have been my first meeting of the American Academy of Religion.  I am writing instead from Oshkosh, Wisconsin where my daughter, a freshman at Calvin College, is competing for an NCAA Division 3 national championship in women’s volleyball.  I am honored that the Society for Comparative Research on Iconographic and Performative Texts has chosen to devote a session to The Bible Cause and grateful to Brent Plate for bringing together a group of panelists whose work I have read and greatly respected.  These kinds of events don’t happen very often in a scholar’s life, but neither do opportunities to see one’s daughter compete at such a high level.  I hope you understand my dilemma and my decision not to be with you today.

If I was with you today to talk informally about the book I would probably say a word or two about the challenge of writing this kind of institutional and anniversary history.  The American Bible Society asked me to write a bicentennial history of the organization, but I negotiated the academic freedom to write it in the way I wanted to write it.  I realized that the ABS took a great risk in letting me do this, especially when many of their leaders would have preferred some kind of providential or hagiographical history.  Having said that, my audience for this book was not Bible Cause Coverscholars.  While I hoped the book would be useful to historians, and perhaps make some contribution to our understanding of American religious history and American history more broadly, but I also wanted to produce a volume that be accessible to the educated layperson.  As I wrote I thought about the person who at one time or another has donated money to the Bible Society or has a vested interest in the dissemination of the Bible in the United States and abroad. 

In the end, the book has received some positive and negative reviews.  The negative reviews have chided me for failing to achieve critical distance from my subject matter and for not going far enough in my deconstruction of the stories the Bible Society has told about itself. The American Bible Society has distanced itself from the book because it does not fit well with the “brand” that the current administration is trying to create.  (The administration at the ABS changed considerably during the writing of this book).  At the Bible Society’s 200th anniversary gala last May—a massive event attended by several thousand people at the Philadelphia Art Museum—the book was never mentioned.  When a group of Messiah College humanities majors visited the American Bible Society last week for a career exploration event (my spouse, a career counselor at the college, was in attendance) the book was not displayed anywhere in the Society’s Philadelphia office and the historical presentation the students received from ABS staff did not mention it.

Needless to say, the response to the Bible Cause has been an interesting one.  I doubt I will be writing another history of a still-functioning religious institution anytime soon.

But enough about the book’s reception.  This is a session on the American Bible Society and print culture and I am pleased to respond to the three presenters.

David Morgan’s response to The Bible Cause focuses on the way American evangelicals have interpreted the Bible.  Morgan compares William Miller (a person, I might add, who was not connected in any way to the American Bible Society) and his literal reading of the Bible with ABS founder Elias Boudinot’s efforts to interpret the Bible in a way that incorporated non-Biblical literature and the insights of non-Christian thinkers.  In the process, Morgan seeks to complicate the prevailing scholarly narrative—a narrative often linked to historians such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Theodore Dwight Bozeman—that all nineteenth-century Amerivcan evangelicals (and by implication 20th and even 21st-century evangelicals) read the Bible in a “common-sense” way.  As Morgan concludes: “All the talk about common sense and plain style notwithstanding, it becomes evidence that the Evangelical construction of the Bible is no simple matter.”

Morgan is no doubt correct, but I wonder if Boudinot’s approach to biblical interpretation is an aberration, at least for the nineteenth century.  Granted, I am sure that there were evangelical Bible scholars who saw the necessity of interpreting the scriptures in conversation with non-Biblical and non-Christian sources, but I have my doubts about whether this is how most of the laypeople who supported the American Bible Society, and the colporteurs, peddlers, and agents who did its work across the United States, thought about biblical interpretation.  These folks were probably much more attracted to William Miller’s concordance and common sense readings of the text than Boudinot’s nearly unreadable tomes.

Laurie Maffly-Kipp’s remarks bring the Mormons into the story of the “Bible Cause.”  Of course she is correct when she says that the American Bible Society believed that Mormons “would never read the Bible correctly.”  The irony that Maffly-Kipp calls attention to in her comments is worth repeating.  The American Bible Society was in the business of distributing the Bible “without note or comment” and letting churches, denominations, and the Holy Spirit help the recipient make sense of it and apply it to their spiritual lives. But this broad-based mission was narrowly confined to a particular kind of church and denomination, and the Holy Spirit was clearly a Protestant.

I did have a small section on the Mormons in the original draft of The Bible Cause, but I had to cut it out for lack of space.  Here is a small taste of that section:

In the 1870, Rev. Nelson Reasoner, the ABS agent for eastern California and Nevada, canvassed Utah territory to see if the roughly 120,000 followers of the late Joseph Smith living in the territory would welcome the Bible.  (The ABS was not willing to enter Utah if the Mormons were not interested in the Protestant scriptures).  Reasoner met with Brigham Young who told him that most of the people of Utah owned Bibles, but he gave the ABS agent permission to travel throughout the territory.  When Reasoner found enough people “destitute” of the Bible, the ABS started its work in Utah.  Reasoner found that Mormons were eager to obtain copies of the Bible in order to have “a more complete record of God’s revelation” to humankind.  Reasoner’s successor, Rev. H.D. Fisher, was invited to present the Bible Cause in the “Mormon meeting-houses” and Sabbath schools and was received cordially by the Mormon leadership.  In fact, the Mormons worked closely with a comparatively small number of “Gentiles”—mostly Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians—on the establishment of county and branch auxiliaries.  One Mormon auxiliary Bible society hired three colporteurs to distribute Bibles.

Fisher did have his struggles in Utah.  Because Mormons donated heavily to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, they did not give money to the ABS to degree that Fisher had hoped that they would.  Of course the ABS and its agents in Utah were no fans of Mormon theology and church teaching.  Fisher noted that “Bible circulation and reading is the only antidote to the abounding evils of rapidly constituted communities, far removed from centres [sic] of Christian activities and influences.”  In a veiled attack on the Book of Mormon, Fisher expressed his interest in bringing the Protestant scriptures to a region of the country “where other books have been for a half a century substituted as of equal or superior authority to the Bible.”  By 1885, after roughly fifteen years of work among Mormons, Fisher concluded that the ABS investment in Utah was too expensive and was yielding too few Protestant converts.  Mormons continued to cling to what Fisher believed were extra-biblical revelations and few of the inhabitants were willing to purchase ABS Bibles, forcing Fisher to give them way—“an expensive proposition.”

Julius Bailey’s paper is extremely helpful in putting a sharper point on my treatment of the American Bible Society and slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War.  It does not surprise me that African American newspapers and black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass were strong critics of the Bible Society’s decision to leave the distribution of Bibles in the South to the pro-slavery leaders of local auxiliary societies.  For example, in 1849, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery society invited a fugitive slave from Kentucky named Henry Bibb to address its annual meeting in New York.  Bibb’s speech was critical of the Bible Society because it “Had not done all that it might have done” to bring Bibles to the slave population.  Instead, he told his audiences of white abolitionists, the Bible Society had given slaves “the go-by.”  Bibb made it clear that the leaders of several ABS auxiliaries in Kentucky were slaveholders.  In fact, a man who had once sold him to another slaveholder in New Orleans was the secretary of one of these auxiliaries.

Bailey’s research reminds me that there is more research to be done about the American Bible Society’s position on the distribution of the Bibles to slaves in antebellum America.  Frankly, I wish my research had taken me further down this road.  A careful reading of African American newspapers would have made my discussion of this topic much stronger.

In the end, there is still much to say about the American Bible Society’s influence on American history and its intersection with a variety of sub-themes in American history including women’s history, labor history, lived religion, Native-American history, African-American history, and especially the missionary movement in virtually every part of the world.  Fortunately, the American Bible Society has a rich archive (if it ever finds its way out of storage in the wake of the Society’s recent move to Philadelphia) that will enable future scholars to take the story of the Bible and religious print culture in some promising directions.

The Bible Cause Cake

“Accolades in the Athenaeum” is one of the great traditions at Messiah College.  Whenever a faculty member publishes a new book the professional development office throws a small party in a room in the campus library called “The Athenaeum.”

Today my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society  was celebrated.  I am so grateful to all of my colleagues who came to celebrate its publication with me.  Someone even baked a cake!


The Bible Cause in East Tennessee


Last week I drove down Interstate 81 into the Cumberland Gap to give the annual Kincaid Lecture at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.  I had never been to this part of Tennessee before and it was a beautiful day for driving. (I also had my satellite radio tuned to channel 20–E Street Radio!).  The university is located adjacent to Cumberland Gap National Park.

I had never heard of Lincoln Memorial University before Tom Mackie, the Director of the Lincoln Library and Museum, invited me to visit.  My lecture was titled “The Bible in the Age of Lincoln: The American Bible Society and the Origins of Christian America.”  It focused on the creation of the American Bible Society, the role of benevolent associations and Christian reform movements in antebellum America, and the American Bible Society’s attempt to supply a Bible to every American family and do it in two years (1829-1831).


Lincoln Memorial University has a fascinating history.   As its website notes:

Lincoln Memorial University grew out of love and respect for Abraham Lincoln and today honors his name, values, and spirit. As the legend goes, in 1863 Lincoln suggested to General O. O. Howard, a Union Army officer, that when the Civil War ended he hoped General Howard would organize a great university for the people of this area.

Mackie runs a museum and library that contains the largest collection of Lincoln artifacts in the country and some important archival collections of prominent figures from the 19th-century.  During my tour of the library I got to see Lincoln’s cane, English china that Lincoln purchased in 1858, a traveling exhibit on Lincoln and the Constitution, a piece of Lincoln’s hair, porcelain vases created to promote the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, every picture of Lincoln ever taken, and a bunch of ephemera commemorating Lincoln’s death and legacy.  Mackie is completing a doctoral dissertation on this ephemera that situates Lincolnalia in the fields of memory, material culture, and dime store museums.  It is going to make a great book.

At Lincoln Memorial University


Next week  (Sept. 22) I am making my first visit to Harrogate, TN. I will be delivering the Kincaid Lecture at Lincoln Memorial University.  My lecture is titled: “The Bible in the Age of Lincoln: The American Bible Society and the Origins of Christian America.”

Here is the press release from LMU:

Harrogate, Tennessee, August 18, 2016—Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) and the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum will present the 2016 Kincaid Lecture Series at 10 a.m. on Thursday, September 22, 2016. Dr. John Fea will present The Bible in the Age of Lincoln: The American Bible Society and the Origin of Christian America based on his book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, $29.95).

 “While his book gives us a seminal history of an organization that has influenced American and world cultures, Dr. Fea’s presentation will closely examine the bible of Lincoln’s time and how it shaped policy and society during the Civil War,” Museum Director Thomas Mackie said. “I am sure his insights will inspire each of us to examine how the Bible is impacting the current election.”

In The Bible Cause, Fea examines the American Bible Society (ABS), whose primary mission at its founding in 1816 was to distribute the Bible to as many people as possible. In the book, Fea demonstrates how the organization’s mission has caused it to intersect at nearly every point with the history of the United States. Today, ABS is a Christian ministry based in Philadelphia with a $300 million endowment and a mission to engage 100 million Americans with the Bible by 2025.

“The Bible Cause is far more than a definitive history of the American Bible Society, though it succeeds admirably in that respect,” said Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives. “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.”

Fea serves as professor and chair of the department of history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and is the author of a blog entitled The Way of Improvement Leads Home. He teaches courses including United States History to 1865, Colonial America, Revolutionary America, Civil War America, Teaching History and Social Studies, History of American Evangelicalism and Pennsylvania History.

Fea is the author or editor of four other books including Why Study History?:Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic); Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (Westminster/John Knox Press); Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press) and The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Supported by the Dr. Robert L. Kincaid Endowed Research Center, the lecture is free and open to the public. A book signing and dessert reception will take place at 6 p.m. in the museum. For more information or to register, contact Program and Tourism Director Carol Campbell at 423.869.6439.

The Dr. Robert L. Kincaid Endowed Research Center promotes the scholarly study and public understanding of the influence created by the Judeo-Christian Ethic upon the era and the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum is located on the historic campus of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Housing one of the top five Lincoln and Civil War private collections in the world, the Museum is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.  For more information about this and other programs at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, call 423-869-6235.

Lincoln Memorial University is a values-based learning community dedicated to providing educational experiences in the liberal arts and professional studies. The main campus is located in Harrogate, Tennessee.

“The Christian Century” on the 200th Anniversary of the American Bible Society

Bible Cause CoverCheck out Celeste Kennel-Shank’s piece on the 200th anniversary of the American Bible Society.  I was happy to contribute.

Here is a taste:

As the American Bible Society marks its 200th anniversary, and after a series of leadership changes and a recent move to Philadel­phia, its leaders are looking to the nation’s past in planning for the future.

“When you turn 200 and you’re looking at another century, you ask really big questions,” said Geof Morin, senior vice president for ministry mobilization.

One question is, Who in the world today cannot read scripture in their own language?

There are about 1,800 languages in which scripture does not exist, Morin said. The ABS estimates it will take about ten years to provide scripture to them.

While translation has always been part of the society’s work, there is now “a sharpened focus” on it thanks to current president Roy Peterson, Morin said. Peterson, who spent decades working on Bible translation, joined the ABS in 2014.

The mission of the organization remains what it was in 1816: making the Bible available to all people in a way they can understand and afford. But “the work of doing that is slightly different in 2016 than it was in 1816,” Morin said.

The ABS continues to distribute Bibles, currently through partnerships in 200 countries and territories.

After 199 years in New York City, the society moved last year to new headquarters in Philadelphia, with a 25-year lease on two floors of a building shared with Wells Fargo.

The building is just off of Indepen­dence Mall, which attracts 2.5 million visitors each year. The society has been getting to know its Jewish neighbors: on one side of the building is the National Museum of American Jewish History and on the other Congregation Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuously meeting synagogue in the United States.

Albert E. Gabbai, rabbi of Mikveh Israel, shared with the ABS an idea he first had about 25 years ago, a few years after he became the leader of the congregation: to create a Religious Heritage Trail, like the Freedom Trail in Boston. Nearby Christ Church, where many revolutionary leaders attended, would be a another stop on the trail.

Read the rest here.


The Bible Cause in The Wall Street Journal

Bible Cause CoverCheck out Darryl G. Hart’s review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society in today’s Wall Street Journal!

Here is a taste:

For the past 50 years or so, the Bible—the collection of sacred Jewish and Christian texts—has taken a back seat in American politics. To be sure, various political leaders and many citizens have desired public recognition of Holy Writ as a source of truth and morality. But since the Supreme Court ruled in A bington v. Schempp (1963) that prayer and Bible reading were unconstitutional in public-school opening exercises, public officials and government agencies have understood that to invoke, endorse or promote the Bible for official purposes is to invite contempt—and a legal challenge. This situation obscures an older history of Bible politics, a time when officials of Western nations not only relied on biblical norms in executing their tasks but also adopted policies to ensure that their subjects and citizens had access to sacred texts.

The granddaddy of state-sponsored Bibles was the King James Version (1611), an English translation commissioned by King James I in response to petitions from Puritans for wider access to Scripture. In authorizing a translation, James facilitated religious uniformity and delicately handled biblical material that his political opponents might use to challenge his authority, such as the narratives of Israel’s monarchs that feature divine judgment for abuses of royal power. Yet in shoring up his rule, James also put his stamp on the English-speaking world. For more than three centuries the KJV was unrivaled in use on both sides of the Atlantic by politicians (think William Wilberforce) and church leaders (remember Billy Graham?).

Readers unfamiliar with this intertwined history of politics and proselytizing may regard the cover of John Fea’s “The Bible Cause,” which features a man holding a Bible in one hand and waving a U.S. flag with the other, as nostalgic, creepy or worse. The man pictured is an agent of the American Bible Society (ABS), the organization whose history Mr. Fea narrates from its founding in 1816 to its bicentennial celebration this year. The society’s initial goal was to place a Bible in every American home, a target that prompted four major printing and distribution campaigns as the nation’s population grew during the 19th century. ABS also sent Bibles overseas: Between 1875 and 1916, it distributed roughly 21 million copies among the Chinese. Even so, the ties between the wide distribution of the Bible and America’s evolving self-definition are much stronger than even the cover’s image suggests.

The rest of the review is behind the Wall Street Journal paywall, but if you really want to read it (and I know you do!) head to your local news stand and pick-up a copy.

Hart asks a brilliant question–one that I wish I had thought about.  “What happens when you take something that is special and make it ubiquitous? In other words, to what degree did ABS operations render a holy book trivial?”


The GOP Platform on Bibles in Public Schools: Some Historical Context

Bible in SchoolI case you haven’t heard, the Republican Party wants to bring the Bible back into public schools.  The GOP platform encourages public high schools to teach elective courses about the Bible.  The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown has a great piece on this effort.  Here is a small taste:

Several GOP delegates said that they aren’t seeking to inculcate schools with Christianity, but they are trying to make sure that young people are acquainted with a document that has played a significant role in shaping Western culture.

“This is not designed to teach religion in the schools as a means of proselytizing,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, and a GOP delegate from Louisiana who supported the Bible-in-schools provision. “You can’t really fully understand the American form of government and society without some understanding of the Bible.”

The article goes on to cite Southern Methodist University religion professor Mark Chancey‘s study of already-existing Bible courses in Texas public schools.  Another taste:

In 2013, the Texas Freedom Network used public records requests to study the curriculum, lessons and assignments given to students in Bible-related courses in 57 districts and three charter schools.

For example, the preface of a book used in the Dayton Independent School District reads: “May this study be of value to you. May you fully come to believe that ‘Jesus is the Christ, the son of God.’ And may you have ‘life in His name.’”

In contrast, Chancey described other assignments and curriculum as academically rigorous and constitutionally sound. Students in the Grapevine Independent School District, for example, were asked to show their understanding of literary devices — such as simile, metaphor, allusion and personification — by writing about how those devices are used in Psalm 103.

Chancey, who is now working on a book on the history of Bible courses in public schools nationwide, said that teaching about the Bible in a legal fashion is easier said than done.

“Even with the best of intentions, people’s own biases creep into their presentation of the material,” Chancey said. And occasionally, he said, “some teachers use these courses deliberately as Trojan Horses to promote their own religious beliefs over others.”

In Chancey’s view, the call for teaching about the Bible is the Republican party’s response to the growing numbers of Americans who identify with no religion, or with religions other than Christianity.

“The timing of this is not accidental. It’s a reaction to the current demographic trends and the increasing Christianization of party elites,” he said. He said he believes that an “educated citizenry” needs an understanding of all major world religions, not just Christianity.

Some districts were doing a good job treating the Bible’s contents as the subject of academic study, according to the organization’s analysis, conducted by Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University. But many were not.

“Unfortunately, a fair number of courses are blatantly and thoroughly sectarian, presenting religious views as fact and implicitly or explicitly encourage students to adopt those views,” Chancey wrote.

Courses were rife not only with religious bias but also with factual errors, he found, and most were taught by teachers who had not taken any college-level courses in biblical, religious or theological studies. Some schools were using curriculum materials that presented the Bible as historical fact, and others used materials that explicitly called on students to adopt one particular faith.

As some of you know, the Supreme Court removed mandatory devotional Bible reading from public schools though the 1964 Abington v. Schempp decision. Interestingly enough, the largely Protestant American Bible Society, the largest distributor of Bibles in the United States in 1964, supported the Supreme Court’s decision.  This, however, did not stop them from getting more Bibles into public schools.

Here is how I described it all in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society:

Perhaps the most significant political and cultural issue that the ABS had to deal with in the early 1960s was the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Abington v. Schempp the decision that struck down the mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools. Abington v. Schempp followed on the heels of Engel v. Vitale, the verdict that made prayer in public schools unconstitutional.  Both of these decisions drew heavy fire from American Christians.  In August 1963, George Gallup concluded that 70 percent of Americans supported prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  The debate over religion in public schools heightened over the course of the next several years as legislators, the most prominent being Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen, proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow prayer in public schools, essentially overturning the court’s decision in Engle v. Vitale.  The so-called Dirksen Amendment…did not directly challenge Abington v. Schempp, but many ordinary Americans believed that if Engel v. Vitale could be overturned, so could Abington v. Schempp  Dirksen was their champion.

The American Bible Society did not make any formal statement about Abington v. Schempp…until popular support for the Dirksen Amendment began to find its way into letters Bible Cause Coveraddressed to the Bible House.  About one month before the amendment reached the Senate for a vote, Mary Peabody of Hancock, New Hampshire, wrote to the ABS to call attention to the “valiant effort” that Dirksen was making to bring the Bible back into public schools.  (She obviously misunderstood that the Dirksen Amendment was about school prayer, not Bible reading).  Her letter was stapled to a postcard with an image of Jacob Duche, the chaplain to the First Continental Congress, praying in Christ Church, Philadelphia, with several of America’s founding fathers on their knees surrounding him.  Peabody was present in Washington during hearings on the proposed amendment and was astonished to learn that the Methodist Church and the Seventh Day Adventists opposed it.  As representatives from both of these Protestant denominations made their cases before the Senate, Peabody lamented that there was no one present to “oppose or answer their wicked arguments.”  Unless an organization like the ABS was committed to “rouse the nation” to protest against the “atheism” and “immorality” that Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp represented, the amendment would fail and “Freedom of Religion” would be lost….

The ABS replied to nearly every letter that it received about Abington v. Schempp by putting a positive spin on the Supreme Court decision. [Secretary Robert] Tayl0r’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 the public schools.”  Taylor ripped into local school boards for giving people the opposite impression.  In fact, as Secretary Homer Ogle wrote to another correspondent, “the Supreme Court is 100% behind the idea of teaching the Bible in the public schools,” and 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, the ABS saw it as an opportunity.

In January 1966, the [Bible Society] Record ran a news report on a recent meeting of the ABS Advisory Council.  The Society asked the members of the Council a simple question: “Should the Bible be included in a public school curriculum?”  This, of course, was a very different kind of question than the one taken up by the Supreme Court in Abington v. SchemppThe issue for the ABS was not whether the Bible could be used in public schools for devotional purposes, but whether it could be part of a school curriculumThe article quoted from Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion in the Schempp case:

“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 consistent with the First Amendment.”

With the use of the Bible in the curriculum as a very real option, the ABS was ready to embark on a program to bring Biblical literacy to public school children by providing schools with resources to help them teach the Bible as literature.  When it came to this issue, Taylor was a realist.  He was willing to accept the fact that the days of devotional Bible reading in schools were over.  The ABS would thus throw its resources behind the cause of Biblical literacy.  In an interoffice memo titled “The Objective Teaching of the Bible in Public Schools,” Taylor informed his staff that Schempp offered the ABS an “unusual opportunity.”  If any organization was equipped to advocate for the Bible in the school curriculum is was the ABS.  He announced that a program of “research and experimentation” devoted to this issue was already under way in the state of Indiana, supported by the Lilly Endowment.  Taylor was not willing to completely write off the possibility that the academic study of the Bible could lead to spiritual transformation among young readers. He ended his letter to one concerned ABS members by reminding him that “God works in mysterious ways…and it is quite possible for us to move from a rather perfunctory Bible reading and prayer period in schools to a vital study of the Holy Scriptures.  If this is to occur, it demands the dedicated wisdom of many Christians.