Editors’ Note: Neil Young reviews John Fea’s The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society. Later this week, David Hammack offers his own perspective on the book.
Last year, the American Library Association recorded a new entry on its annual list of the ten most challenged library books. For the first time ever, the Bible joined the ranks of top offenders, along with 2015’s other titles, including “Fun Home,” “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and “Two Boys Kissing.” At the same time, the Bible continues to be regularly ranked as Americans’ favorite book.
How to explain the Bible as both the privileged and the pariah in American public life? It might be too easy to see the Bible’s split standing as reflective of the nation’s religious divide, a book as fiercely beloved by its adherents as it is besmirched by its opponents. Popular narratives of religion and politics in the United States further propel this divide, rendering American public life as a battle between religious traditionalists and secular progressives.
Since the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling that banned devotional Bible readings in public classrooms, the Bible has figured prominently in that story. Christians seek to push the Bible back into the public square, not only though restoring school prayer and Bible reading but also through bringing biblical values to bear on supposedly secular questions, particularly political matters of gender and sexuality. Secular progressives defend American public life from such impositions, guarding the nation’s religious neutrality against theocratic aims.
It’s a tidy tale, of course. But tidy tales hide messy untruths and flatten the compelling divergences and inconsistencies that animate American history. In this particular case, the Bible’s contested status among Christians gets overlooked by a simplistic narrative that divides the world between believers and skeptics pitted against each other rather than each grappling with their own internal issues. And yet throughout American religious history, Christians have debated questions of the Bible, including its proper translation, its authority, and its inerrancy.
Religious historians have provided rich scholarship on how those disagreements often propelled theological innovations, denominational divisions, and religious realignments. But one of the surprising pleasures of John Fea’s new book, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, is how Fea shows that these debates lurked inside and shaped the development of the nation’s most important benevolent society devoted to the Good Book.
Founded in 1816, the American Bible Society organized to produce and distribute Bibles throughout the world. Dispensing Bibles across a vast country with rudimentary transportation networks presented constant challenges, but whatever logistical hurdles the ABS faced were eased by a spirit of unity within the organization. ABS leaders believed they had one task before them: ensuring every American had a Bible in his or her hand. After that, the ABS trusted the Holy Spirit to do the rest, enticing and conscripting the Bible’s readers into the Christian faith.
That business model depended on deeply-held Protestant beliefs about the intercessory work of the Holy Spirit, but it also established certain institutional practices, including a growing central administration devoted to tracking and promoting how many Bibles it distributed annually, that ultimately hampered the ABS’s ability to assess its own effectiveness at converting Americans to Christianity and strengthening their faith through deeper biblical engagement. In the meantime, the ABS’s Protestantism played out in other ways, namely a latent anti-Catholicism that tinged the Society’s efforts throughout the nineteenth century. At its founding, the ABS opened itself to partnership with Catholics in distributing the Bible. But as Catholic immigration to the United States surged after 1830, the ABS spurned any Catholic associations and committed its work to spreading the Protestant Bible as a weapon against Catholicism. ABS publications warned against the growing “Catholic menace,” and ABS agents derided the Catholic Church for promoting superstitions and heretical rituals among its members.
Only the “volume of truth,” as one ABS publication put it, could turn back the papist tide. By that, the ABS meant the Authorized Version of the Bible or the King James Version (KJV), as it was commonly known. The Catholic Church prohibited its members from reading the King James Version, thus denying Catholics from the soul-saving truth that the ABS believed its official version alone provided. From its start, the ABS had sidestepped potential skirmishes among its Protestant members by publishing KJV Bibles “without note or comment” that might betray a denominational perspective. Now in championing the King James Version against the Catholic Church’s opposition to it, the American Bible Society used its Bible to not merely spread the Christian message but to push back against those who falsely claimed the Christian mantle.
ABS antagonism towards Roman Catholics dissipated in the twentieth century, following larger national trends. Fea argues the American Bible Society tended to align itself with the “particular expression of Christianity that its board and staff believed to be the moral guardians of America’s status as a Christian nation.” In the nineteenth century, this gave the ABS a decidedly evangelical cast; in the twentieth century, mainline Protestants dominated the ABS, religious moderates and liberals who increasingly made links with Catholics. Champions of social justice, the mainline Protestant leaders of the ABS believed that the Bible could solve many of the world’s problems, yet evangelicals griped that the ABS promoted the Bible more as an agent of social reform than catalyst for individual regeneration. In truth, the ABS continued to do what it had always done: publishing and distributing the Bible as widely as possible. But evangelicals weren’t wrong to see different motivations behind the ABS’s efforts in the twentieth century.
The ABS’s decision in the mid-twentieth century to replace the King James Version with new translations of the Bible further alienated the evangelical community. ABS executives worried that many Americans failed to read their Bibles because they struggled to understand the ornate language of the KJV. In developing both the Revised Standard Version and the Good News Bible, the ABS wanted to give the Scriptures an accessible and readable language more Americans could grasp. A Word made fresh, you might say, for a generation of Americans who had allowed their KJV Bibles to grow dusty with disuse. To do so, the translators for the RSV used what they called “dynamic equivalence,” a method that sought to convey a verse’s meaning from the original language rather than a direct word-to-word translation. Evangelicals objected most to the RSV’s failure to translate the Hebrew word for “young woman” into “virgin” for a verse from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, thus stripping a prophecy of Jesus’ birth from the text. Evangelical critics couldn’t help seeing the RSV’s translators as the latest front in the modernist war against the Gospel, scholarly experts more devoted to the tools of scientific rationalism and historical criticism than the plain truth of the Christian message.
While evangelical criticisms of the ABS were theologically motivated, they also revealed the challenges of an organization that, like many other philanthropies at the time, had spent the twentieth-century professionalizing its staff and bureaucratizing its practices. Trained in product marketing, management science, and other professional skills, ABS staff approached their mission as corporate middle managers focused on their quarterly reports. Those processes maximized organizational efficiencies and provided reams of data for ABS staff to review, but distribution numbers couldn’t say much about the qualitative question of how the Bible was changing Americans’ lives. In the end, as twentieth-century technologies and expertise provided the ABS with more accurate ways to track and assess its philanthropic work, they also generated larger existential questions regarding purpose and effectiveness for the organization to consider.
Those questions felt all the more potent because they occurred in a period of transition for the organization, as the ABS began to align itself with the booming evangelical movement in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1991 appointment of Eugene Habecker, a seasoned administrator at several evangelical universities, as the ABS’s president and CEO – a newly created title – reflected both the organization’s religious realignment and its new sense of itself as a professionally-run ministry. Habecker reorganized the ABS’s bloated administrative structure and trimmed the Board of Trustees, giving its evangelical members a larger presence. He also directed the staff to unite around a common purpose, by which he meant something different from simply distributing as many Bibles as possible. Some longtime ABS workers bristled at what they saw as an evangelical overtaking of the organization, leading many to leave.
In the years since, the ABS has increasingly looked more like an evangelical ministry than an interdenominational Christian benevolent society. Leaders of the ABS argue the organization has returned to its original purpose, but that mission relies on a sophisticated and professionalized staff that looks far different than the door-to-door book peddlers who had once been the organization’s foot soldiers. The American Bible Society’s final chapter has not been written, for sure. But John Fea has provided a thorough and thoughtful history of this ever-evolving organization’s first two hundred years.
Neil J. Young is the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics (Oxford, 2016). He co-hosts the history podcast Past Present and writes frequently on religion and politics for publications including the New York Times, Slate, and Politico.