With their concern for the translation, production, and distribution of the scriptures, Bible societies are relatively recent institutions, but the concept underlying their worldwide activity is ancient. The notion that the Bible should be in the language of the people prompted the Hellenistic Jewish community of the third century BCE to produce a Greek translation (Septuagint) of the Hebrew Bible. Inspired by this example, the early eastern Greek‐speaking church began to produce translations of the Bible in a variety of languages so as to make sure that the gospel would be known as widely as possible. Likewise, the Roman church produced its own edition of the Bible, in the “vulgar” Latin of the common people, which became the most widely used translation in the western church for a thousand years, the Vulgate.
Although there were some attempts in medieval scriptoria to mass‐produce copies of the Bible, the process was slow, and the handwritten copies issued were enormously expensive. With the invention of movable type for printing (about 1456), the situation changed, and the Bible began to be translated into vernacular languages and commercially produced for general circulation. It was, however, not until the evangelical revival in the eighteenth century and the consequent formation of missionary societies, principally in the United Kingdom, that the importance of scripture translation and publication began to be fully recognized. These missionary societies placed special emphasis on the use of the scriptures in preaching and teaching ministries, and included scripture distribution among their ongoing programs.
The organization of this period which most completely resembled the later Bible societies was a direct outgrowth of the Pietistic movement, the von Canstein Bible Institution of Halle, organized in 1710 to supply inexpensive scriptures to the poor of Germany. Although the von Canstein group confined its efforts to Germany and eastern Europe, by the end of the eighteenth century it had achieved the remarkable record of circulating over three million low‐cost Bibles and New Testaments.
Meanwhile, across the English Channel a great awakening had begun, generated in large part by the preaching of John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. Missionary societies were formed to spread the gospel, and often their first assignment was to master the local language in order to translate the Bible. Thus William Carey (1761–1843), a shoemaker who had taught himself both Hebrew and Greek, went to India under the auspices of his Baptist Missionary Society and launched a translations program at Serampore; he participated in thirty‐five translations. Robert Morrison (1782–1834), sponsored by the London Missionary Society, produced in Canton and Macao the first Chinese translation of the Bible, though he was broken in health and working against incredible odds. A bit later, Robert Moffat (1795–1883), David Livingstone's father‐in‐law, went to Capetown to begin his distinguished career as a pioneer missionary, his first duty being to produce a translation of the Bible in seTswana. Still others followed, and as their numbers increased and their tasks became more demanding, they and their parent societies at home found themselves, in view of their many other commitments, unable to meet the rapidly growing needs for Bible translation and production. It became clear that a new strategy was required, calling for an organization that would be concerned solely with the translation and production of scriptures for the missions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The British and Foreign Bible Society.
The formation of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) on 17 March 1804, was the answer. Nearly three hundred people met in the London Tavern to discuss the place of Bible distribution in Christian work and witness. Despite their deep doctrinal and ecclesiological differences they agreed to form a society whose single purpose would be to print the scriptures, without note or comment, and to distribute them without financial gain, in the British Isles and throughout the world.
The new Society grew rapidly, and within a decade there were throughout the British Isles over two hundred local groups called auxiliaries that were committed to supporting the cause. Equally important, other Bible societies, patterned after the BFBS, were being formed on the European continent and in North America.
American Bible Society.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Bible societies were being organized in several states and in many county seats and principal cities of the fledgling republic. In a period of less than ten years, more than 130 such regional Bible societies were established. There were fifteen “female” Bible societies among them, the first being the Female Bible Society of Geneva, New York (1813). A similar development took place in Canada, where auxiliaries of the British and Foreign Bible Society were established.
The resulting situation was far from satisfactory, for while some communities were well served, others were destitute of scriptures. This was particularly true of the growing West in the United States, where it was reported that not a single Bible could be found in many of the new settlements and where vernacular scriptures were desperately needed in the former French and Spanish territories. The need for some kind of a central organization became increasingly evident, and a call finally went out to create a “General Bible Society.” Fifty‐six delegates met in New York on 8 May 1816, agreed to establish a new national organization called the American Bible Society (ABS), adopted a constitution modeled on the British one, and issued an “address” to the people of the United States in which they said of the new society that “local feelings, party prejudices, sectarian jealousies are excluded by its very nature. Its members are leagued in that, and in that alone, which calls up every hallowed, and puts down every unhallowed, principle—the dissemination of the scriptures in the received versions where they exist, and in the most faithful where they may be required.” Many of the provincial societies merged at once with the new national body, but some preferred an “auxiliary” status and a few opted to remain independent, some maintaining separate organizations to the present.
Thus, by the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century, Bible societies were firmly established in Europe and North America, and their distinctive purpose and mission had become widely recognized and generally approved. As they developed, they became noted for the involvement of large numbers of lay men and women, often giving them precedence over their clergy members. They also became widely respected for the ecumenical composition of their boards and staff, for they were careful to maintain close relationships with all Protestant groups; active Roman Catholic participation in their programs did not occur until the middle of the twentieth century. They also developed an enviable reputation for careful scholarship both in publishing source texts and in providing quality translations in an incredible number of languages; they also have been (and continue to be) a significant presence in the development of linguistic theory and practice. Similarly, they maintained through the years a policy of strict impartiality in offering their services and productions to all; to that end they remained extremely cautious in avoiding the inclusion of doctrinal notes or comments in their publications. Throughout they held fast to their founding principle to present to all persons an opportunity to possess the scriptures in their own tongues, with price as no barrier to ownership.
The United Bible Societies.
Throughout the nineteenth century, most of the Bible societies confined their activities to work within their national borders. The ABS and BFBS, and to a lesser extent the National Bible Society of Scotland (NBSS) and the Netherlands Bible Society, were a conspicuous exception. These four “missionary” Societies met needs not only in their own countries but also moved out across the world to engage in scripture translation and distribution, largely following the missionaries of their own national churches, with little communication or consultation among themselves. At first there was little friction, but as the overseas outreach of these larger societies continued to expand, areas of duplication and tension began to appear. Some experimental comity arrangements were made in the early years of the twentieth century, preparing the way for a formal consultation in London in 1932 involving three of the principal societies at work in overseas areas, namely, the ABS, BFBS, and NBSS. The London meeting led to innovative cooperative efforts, particularly between the ABS and BFBS in places such as Brazil and Japan, and to a larger conference in 1939 at Amsterdam, when it was proposed to create a kind of world council of Bible societies. The outbreak of war in Europe, however, made it impossible to carry out those plans.
Following the war, in 1946 at a conference held at Haywards Heath in England, sixty‐three delegates from twelve European Bible societies and the ABS brought into being the United Bible Societies (UBS), a loose federation of national societies. The UBS has flourished and serves today as a valuable center of coordination, appraisal, and strategic planning.
Working in concert through the UBS, more than seventy‐five Bible societies worldwide have been able to improve their service to churches and missions through greatly improved and accelerated translation techniques, efficiently coordinated production centers, wider interconfessional relationships, and the use of more scientific marketing methods.
Laton E. Holmgren