New Works in the Field

Another Interpretation of “The Bible Cause”: David Hammack Reviews Fea’s History of the American Bible Society

Editors’ Note: David Hammack reviews John Fea’s The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford, 2016). Neil Young reviewed the book last week.

As a sponsored celebration of two hundred years of the American Bible Society intended for a friendly audience, The Bible Cause is remarkably comprehensive and thoughtful. Its acknowledgement of debates and conflicts might appeal to scholars and practitioners who have an interest in the actual workings of board-led nonprofits. It honestly acknowledges some of the many deep religious disputes among Protestants that shaped the editing and translation of the bible for Christians. Because religious purposes still attract substantially more donations than any other cause, and because “religion” continues to be prominent among the purposes of giving defined as worthy of tax exemption by the U.S. federal government (and by state and local governments), this history of one of America’s largest and most venerable religious charities deserves some attention from readers of HistPhil. In both its inclusions and its omissions, this work throws some light on disputes that continue to the present.

A reader of The Bible Cause can just begin to see why American Protestants of the revolutionary generation and the next 150 years favored the principle of separation of church and state and generally opposed government enforcement of any but the most general religious standards. A book less concerned with finding a useable past for the American Bible Society’s present direction – less concerned to support the view that ABS history has led directly to the current ABS insistence on a particular understanding of Protestant belief and practice, and on some very specific public policy demands – would have paid more attention to the organization’s substantial recent diversion from its former policies. But that would have been a different book for a different audience.

As might be expected, The Bible Cause makes much of the participation of some ABS founders, and their fathers, in the American Revolution, of the society’s relation to the westward movement, to nineteenth-century economic development, to soldiers in the war for Texas, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II, to support for American missions in “the Levant” and Asia, and to post-World War II public culture and to the leadership of Dwight D. Eisenhower. In contrast to interpretations of American history advanced by self-described evangelical, conservative writers like Marvin Olasky, who insist that America should return to what they insist was the small, limited, virtuous government of the nineteenth century, this book’s first chapters emphasize the close association between the bible cause and the Federalists who worked for a strong national government.

Particularly notable is this book’s frank discussion of the ABS as a “benevolent” or “nonprofit” organization controlled by a diverse and changing board of directors and largely supported by earned income. The Bible Cause acknowledges several of the disagreements and difficult decisions that occupied the board at every period in its history. Thus the board early determined to print only bibles that were broadly acceptably to America’s main Protestant denominations in part because they contained neither notes nor pictures to supplement the text. Through the nineteenth century the board explicitly left distribution by sale and gift in the hands of local auxiliaries, and deferred to local auxiliaries that refused to provide bibles to African-Americans or made other limiting decisions. Although Catholics were invited to the founding meeting, from its first years until Vatican II, the board saw the provision of “scripture-only” bibles as a significant way to oppose Catholicism.

The Bible Cause treats some important later debates with equal frankness. Responding at the beginning of the twentieth century to the refusal of white Christians in the South to engage with African-Americans, to the national acceptance of segregation in the wake of Plessy v Ferguson, and, Fea suggests, to the continued development of American commerce, the ABS replaced regional auxiliaries with the Protestant denominations (and a special ABS agency for African-Americans) as agents of bible distribution. Fea also provides some reference to the gradual estrangement of the ABS from the “mainline” Protestant denominations, to its now very close ties to contemporary Evangelical Protestantism and to its very recent willingness to take sides in Protestant theological debates and its recent efforts to cooperate with Catholics. At each stage, he notes, the society’s board has had to deal with internal dissention and external critics. At many stages over the 200 years, criticism has focused on the ABS emphasis on sales and earned income.

A less celebratory overview of the history of the American Bible Society would pay more attention to several matters that this account notes only in passing. The Bible Cause, it seems to me, exaggerates the unity of evangelical Protestantism through the nineteenth century. It mentions the anti-mission Baptists, and acknowledges the early Episcopalian insistence on a book of common prayer rather than a generic bible, but it ignores other strong disagreements. While Presbyterians played important roles within the society, many Presbyterian leaders opposed nondenominational benevolent and mission societies like the ABS. Congregationalists often failed to maintain good relations with Presbyterians. Dissenting Presbyterians and many Congregationalists refused to cooperate with slavery. Baptists get little attention, and the Stone-Campbell denominations are missing from the index. Less surprisingly, perhaps, the first reference to Lutherans (often treated as non-evangelical) appears only on p. 266.

From the Revolution to the mid-20th century, the most prominent groups of American Protestants agreed that they must manage such conflicts among themselves if they were to advance their religious aims while also building a strong nation. To accomplish these purposes, they emphasized the individual conscience, agreed to respect most differences among Protestant denominations, and strove in many ways (though certainly not in all) to maintain a separation of church and state. As the dominant publisher of a bible acceptable to most Protestants, the American Bible Society played a central role in these efforts from its founding in 1815 to its cooperation with the National Council of Churches in the 1950s. This role, even more than the society’s pioneering work as a printer and publisher on a massive scale, long made the ABS one of America’s most notable nonprofits.

The Bible Cause acknowledges effective slaveholder opposition to giving bibles to slaves, but avoids the larger topic of ante-bellum (and, indeed, post-bellum) opposition to literacy for all African-Americans, slave or free. The treatment of bible and other missions to Native Americans, Mexicans, the Ottoman Empire, and China, is written entirely from within an evangelizing Protestant perspective. From the mid-twentieth century, more modest and skeptical accounts of mission work have raised many questions about Protestant understandings and motives; increasingly, recent accounts of missions have put their greatest emphasis on the views and feelings of the native peoples the missionaries were seeking to convert.

Not surprisingly, given its celebratory purposes, this book passes in silence over the diverse uses of the bible in recent controversies over civil rights, women’s rights, reproduction, sexual orientation – and the role of religion in public life, government policy, and party politics. In its introduction, the book reports that Roy Peterson, current president of the American Bible Society, believes that religious liberty is experiencing a “radical attack” in the United States. Disappointingly, this book does not evaluate that belief, examine the ways in which American Protestants historically turned to the separation of church and state and a policy of mutual respect and forbearance as a means of managing religious conflict, or consider why so many Protestants have abandoned the commitment to those practices. Instead, The Bible Cause concludes only by noting the influence of particular evangelical groups on the current board, and the board’s decision to work with the Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby stores, in building a new Bible Discovery Center in Philadelphia, two blocks from the Liberty Bell.

-David C. Hammack

David C. Hammack is Haydn Professor of History at Case Western Reserve University and a past president of the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action.  His books include Making the Nonprofit Sector in the United States: A Reader (1998, 2000), and Ideals and Visions, Leverage and Self-Help: Foundations in America’ Regions, forthcoming from Indiana University Press. 


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