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The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society
The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society
John Fea
Oxford University Press, 2016
384 pp., 38.99

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Peter J. Thuesen

"Letting the Bible Do Its Work"

A history of the American Bible Society.

In 1956, my father, Theodore Thuesen, was a newly ordained pastor in the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, a small denomination founded by Danish immigrants. Because his parish was in Newark, New Jersey, the denomination asked him to be its representative at the annual meeting of the Advisory Council of the American Bible Society in New York City. A photo taken at that event shows him, then just 28 years old, with the other 73 delegates, most of them older, representing 50 Protestant denominations. All the people look dressed for church—the men in suits, many of the women wearing hats. The photo bespeaks the ABS's aim at midcentury to bring all the mainstream denominations (within Protestant confines, though Catholics and Orthodox would be added in later years) under its ecumenical umbrella.

Fifty-seven years later, in 2013, the ABS invited me to a meeting as a historical consultant for a proposed exhibit on the Bible in America. By then, the Society had moved from 450 Park Avenue (its home from 1936 to 1966) to 1865 Broadway, a prime location near Columbus Circle. Hoping to entice passers-by into its renovated, street-level atrium, the Society had installed flat-screen TVs to show an endless loop of scenes from the evangelical miniseries The Bible (2013). The atmosphere there during my visit, with young New Yorkers sipping coffee and browsing smartphones under digital images of a cinematic Jesus, struck me as radically different—more edgy in a nondenominational, evangelical sort of way—from the picture of my father in 1956 at what might as well have been an assembly of the National Council of Churches.

John Fea captures this transformation perfectly in his meticulous, deeply researched account of the American Bible Society, published to coincide with its 2016 bicentennial. Though organizational histories can be "chloroform in print" (to borrow Mark Twain's description of the Book of Mormon), Fea draws on correspondence and other archival sources to tell a lively story not only of institutional successes but also of interpersonal squabbles and ideological showdowns. Though the ABS commissioned Fea's book, he had full academic freedom, which he used to produce a history that is more complex and revealing of wider themes in American religious history than the teleological and basically triumphalist account penned by American missionary Henry Otis Dwight at the Society's centennial in 1916.

Indeed, in some ways, Fea's narrative is that of American religion writ large since the early republic. A central argument of the book is that evangelical Protestants were the unofficial establishment in the 19th century and mainline Protestants in the 20th century—and in both periods, the ABS aligned itself with the group in power. Since the turn of the 21st century, the Society has again cast its lot with evangelicals—a good bet, in Fea's view, given that "evangelicalism is still a potent force in American public and religious life, and is spreading like wildfire around the world." Yet as Fea's account also makes clear, alignment with evangelicalism has come at a cost, namely the reduction (though not complete elimination) of the ties to the mainline and secular academic worlds that once put the Society at the forefront of biblical scholarship.

To be sure, the founding goal of the ABS was not primarily to advance scholarship but to distribute what the Society's constitution called the version "now in common use" (the King James Bible) to as many people as possible. The Society's first president, Elias Boudinot, the onetime president of the Continental Congress, was not a scholar but an avid amateur student of biblical prophecy who wrote The Age of Revelation (a rebuttal to Tom Paine's attack on the Bible in The Age of Reason) and who believed that Napoleon was likely the Antichrist. Boudinot and his colleagues helped give rise to the assumption that still animates the ABS today—that if all Americans simply had access to the Bible and took its message to heart, factionalism and prejudice would be replaced by a spirit of patriotic self-sacrifice. As Fea puts it, the "success of American nationalism, which the ABS founders understood in terms of a republican spirit of disinterestedness, depended on the word of God." It was a beautiful idea but also a naÏve one, and though Fea does not say so bluntly, his narrative suggests that this vision was plagued with difficulties from the beginning. For one thing, such a view of Christian civilization risks excluding those Christians for whom apostolic fullness is not confined to the pages of Scripture. Not surprisingly, the ABS's relationship with Catholics was tense at best through most of the 19th century, especially after the Society in 1852 declared the Bible to be absolutely sufficient as a rule of faith and practice. Even some Protestants were uncomfortable with absolute biblicism: an early opponent of the ABS was the Episcopal bishop of New York, John Henry Hobart, who insisted that the Book of Common Prayer needed to be distributed alongside of Scripture.

Nevertheless, ABS leaders in the 19th century remained steadfast in their conviction that simply putting the Scriptures in the hands of Americans and "letting the Bible do its work," as the Society's promoters were fond of saying, would solve the nation's problems. To this end, the Society orchestrated a number of "General Supply" campaigns (in 1829, 1856, 1866, and 1882) designed to bring a Bible to every American household. None of these campaigns actually achieved the goal, partly because of overly ambitious timetables and partly because distribution depended on local auxiliaries, which varied considerably in efficiency and resources as well as in the inclusivity of their missionary zeal. (In the antebellum period, for example, the ABS did not challenge the Southern auxiliaries' refusal to distribute the Bible among slaves—a decision that provoked criticism from abolitionists.)

The Society still succeeded in distributing millions of Bibles, a feat that made it a shining star in the constellation of organizations in the 19th-century Benevolent Empire. Even such a skeptic as Mark Twain was impressed with the frenetic activity he witnessed on a visit to the Bible House in New York, quipping that he "enjoyed the time more than I could possibly have done in any circus." Indeed, the Society's distribution efforts were hardly confined to the General Supply campaigns. In 1866, thanks to fundraising by missionary Isaac Bliss, the ABS opened a Bible House in Constantinople, despite tensions with the Turkish government. The Society also seized upon wars as prime opportunities for distribution, handing out more than 3 million New Testaments to soldiers during the Civil War and 4.5 million Testaments or Scripture portions, most of them vest-pocket size and bound in khaki, during World War I. In the aftermath of World War II, the Society shipped more than 2 million Bibles to Germany in a bid to neutralize the lingering effects of Nazi fascism.

By the 1940s, the ABS was also moving beyond mere distribution of the Scriptures to advance the biblical scholarship and translation that would become its 20th-century hallmark. In 1943, the Society hired a young scholar, Eugene Nida, who had just received a PhD in linguistics from the University of Michigan. A committed ecumenist, he came to embody the ABS's 20th-century alignment with the liberal ecumenical movement as well as with secular academe. The Society was already hinting at a more liberal direction in the 1920s when it refused to take a stand in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Then in the early 1950s, thanks in part to Nida's influence, the Society amended its constitution to allow for distribution of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, sponsored by the National Council of Churches. The RSV was anathema to fundamentalists and many evangelicals because it was the first scholarly translation that dared to treat the Old Testament on its own terms as a Jewish text (as symbolized by its correct use of "young woman" rather than "virgin" in Isaiah 7:14, the alleged prophecy of Christ's virgin birth).

Of course, as Fea rightly points out, engagement is a harder thing to quantify than books distributed.

Even while supporting the RSV, Nida had begun to imagine another Bible translation that would be, in its own way, equally pathbreaking. The new version would be grounded in his theory of "dynamic equivalence," or thought-for-thought translation, not word-for-word. Nida also engaged the services of Annie Vallotton, a Swiss artist, to produce line illustrations for the new version. Like the translation itself, with its modern, colloquial language, her simple drawings, which omitted human facial details, were designed to let readers of varied cultural backgrounds see themselves in the biblical text.

The result was Today's English Version, published in its first installment in 1966 as Good News for Modern Man, which became the bestselling American paperback of the early 1970s. To millions of people, the TEV made the Bible more accessible than ever before, and for this it won the endorsement of leaders ranging from Billy Graham to Boston's Cardinal Cushing.

Not everyone liked the plain spokenness of the new version. The ABS received numerous complaints because of the version's rendering of the Virgin Mary as "pregnant" (rather than "great with child," as in the KJV). And some evangelicals, including Christianity Today editor Harold Lindsell, were suspicious of the theological liberalism and higher biblical criticism that they felt undergirded the translation. Nida shrugged off the criticism, telling staffers in an internal memo that "I am afraid we will simply have to ride out this wave of combative conservatism." He also derided Lindsell's "radical position with regard to so-called 'inerrancy'" and predicted it was only a matter of time before "more responsible" evangelicals stopped taking him seriously.

Nida, however, underestimated the staying power of Lindsell's brand of conservatism. Just as the complete TEV was being published in 1976, the New International Version, a conservative evangelical translation, was coming onto the scene. It was sponsored by the New York (later, International) Bible Society, an ABS auxiliary until 1913, when it began moving in a more conservative direction. Destined to become the bestselling modern translation, the NIV restored the "virgin" of Isaiah 7:14 (the TEV, like the RSV, had opted for "young woman"). The NIV's emergence paralleled the rise of the Religious Right in politics and the decline of membership in the mainline denominations. By the 1990s, the National Council of Churches, once a bastion of the liberal Protestant establishment, was a shadow of its former self. With the mainline looking increasingly like a sinking ship, some of the ABS's board members began to wonder if the Society should hitch its fortunes to evangelicalism instead. Such a realignment began during the presidency of Eugene Habecker, who had a doctorate in business administration and had previously served as president of the evangelical Huntington College in Indiana. On his watch (1991-2005), the ABS eliminated from its mission statement the wording, contained in the Society's original constitution, that the Bible was to be distributed "without note or comment." Instead, the new watchword became "engagement," or getting people to "experience [the Bible's] life changing message." As Habecker's ally on the board, Lamar Vest, a leader in the National Association of Evangelicals, explained it, the ABS was moving away from judging its ministry in "tonnage" (that is, in numbers of Bibles distributed) and toward new methods, including new technologies, of engaging people with the biblical teachings—a goal consistent in many ways with Nida's commitment to "dynamic equivalence" in translation. (Nida, as Fea writes, "hoped that people would read the Bible, understand it, and be 'transformed by it message' "; the same could be said of Habecker.)

This shift did not sit well with everyone on the staff or the board. David Burke, a Johns Hopkins-trained scholar who was then head of the translation department, worried aloud that abandonment of the "without note or comment" philosophy would lead to "doctrinal positioning." He called on the ABS to remain true to its founding principle. Eventually, after Habecker drastically reduced the translation department's staff amid a budgetary crisis, Burke resigned in protest. By then, Habecker had appealed to the board for a vote of confidence; roughly 80 percent of the board supported the changes he had instituted, and the members who opposed him had begun to resign. In his May 2003 report to the board, Habecker declared triumphantly that "we are shifting from a distribution-only mindset to a Scripture-engagement mindset."

Of course, as Fea rightly points out, engagement is a harder thing to quantify than books distributed: How does one measure spiritual growth or life change? Under current president Roy Peterson, the ABS has entrusted this task to the Barna Group, an evangelical polling firm known for its "spiritual indicators" of where American society is headed. The ABS is also moving at full throttle into the digital age and is developing a multimedia Bible Discovery Center (with technical help from the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame) at its new headquarters in Philadelphia, just steps from Independence Mall. In 2015, after 199 years in New York City, the Society sold the Bible House at 1865 Broadway for $300 million to a real estate developer. The move to Philadelphia, Elias Boudinot's hometown, not only shored up the Society's finances but also symbolically restored the centrality of the Bible to the cradle of American democracy.

Yet as much as the ABS has always promoted the Bible as the antidote to America's moral ailments, the fact remains that this is not a universally accepted Christian or American vision but a distinctively Protestant and evangelical one. Fea's recognition of this cultural particularity is among the many strengths of his splendid history. His book left me unsettled about the evolution of the ABS—and of American Protestantism in general—in the 60 years since my father was a delegate at the Bible House. Though there are some continuities (the ABS still sponsors biblical scholarship under the banner of its Nida Institute, for example), it is hard to shake the feeling that what is being lost in this age of digitized, sound-bite evangelism is the biblical text itself in all of its prophetic strangeness. Also lacking is the recognition that even evangelicals themselves disagree on what it really means to be a biblically engaged society. At the individual level, it may be enough simply to "let the Bible do its work," as the ABS founders optimistically urged. But at the societal level, any biblical cure for America's moral ills must pass muster in the religiously pluralistic context of our democracy.

Peter J. Thuesen is professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and author of In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible (Oxford Univ. Press). His latest book project is entitled Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather.

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