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Bible Societies

Protestant groups established to publish and propagate Bible globally

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Bible Societies.—Protestant Bible Societies, established for the purpose of publishing and propagating the Bible in all parts of the world, are the logical outcome of the principle: “The Bible, and the Bible alone is the religion of Protestants.” Precisely to what extent that theological formula is held true even by the stanchest evangelicals, may be a matter of dispute, but the consistent and heroic efforts of the Bible societies to provide a version of the sacred text in every tongue and to supply the ends of the earth with Bibles, can scarcely be explained unless Chillingworth’s famous formula be taken to mean literally that the possession of a copy of the Bible is an indispensable means of salvation. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that the societies for the world-wide propagation of the Bible, like the Protestant missionary societies, are a late outgrowth of Protestantism. It is well known that the sects did not seriously bestir themselves about mission work until two hundred years after the Reformation, and historically the Bible societies are an appendage and a consequence of the missionary organizations. Some efforts were made to provide a systematic dissemination of Bibles as early as the time of Charles I of England, and before the formation of Bible societies on a scale of world-wide activity, there existed a number of organizations which made Bible distribution a feature of their work. Among them were, (I) The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (1698), which spread copies of Holy Writ in England, Wales, India, and Arabia; (2) The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales (1662); (3) The Society for Sending Missionaries to India, founded in 1705 by King Frederick of Denmark; (4) The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (1701), which devoted a large share of its attention to the American Colonies; (5) The Scottish Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge among the Poor (1750); (6) The Naval and Military Bible Society (1780). The foundation of these and similar societies was but an indication of the vast work that was to come. The great reaction against the religious apathy, and, indeed, infidelity of the English people in the eighteenth century brought with it the foundation of numerous missionary societies, and this new enthusiasm for Christianity resulted in the foundation of the most famous and the most effective of all Bible societies, The British and Foreign Bible Society, March 7, 1804. The first impulse to the formation of this organization was given by a group of Nonconformist ministers and laymen, but when completely formed, the society included an equal number of members of the Established Church and of the various sects. Its avowed purpose was “to encourage the wider circulation of the Bible without note or comment”. At present, the British and Foreign Society is governed by an executive committee of 36 laymen,. 15 from the Church of England, 15 dissenters, and 6 foreign members who must reside in or near London. The growth and work of this society have been extraordinary. It controls, according to the latest statistics (1906) almost 8,000 auxiliary societies; 5,729 in Great Britain and 2,224 abroad. Its translations of the sacred text number about 380. Its operations in India have been particularly thorough, but in every country where its agencies are established, its work can only be measured in vast figures. It disposes annually of about 5,190,000 copies of the Scriptures (whole Bibles, New Testaments and other portions), and spends each year £250,000 ($1,210,000). In the hundred years of its existence, this society has distributed 186,680,000, volumes at an expenditure of £14,194,000 ($68,699,000). There have been numerous offshoots, some in the nature of developments, others schisms, but the size, wealth,. and prestige of the parent society have always. overshadowed those of its children and its rivals. Mention must also be made of the Hibernian Bible Society, and the National Bible Society of Scotland,. the names of which sufficiently designate their field of labor.

On the Continent, Count Canstein founded a German Bible Society in 1710. Others were established at Nuremberg (1804), Berlin (1806), Saxony (1813), and Schleswick-Holstein (1826). The Berlin society was united with the Prussian Bible Society in 1814. The Danish Bible Society dates from 1814, the Russian from 1812; a Bible society was founded in Finland in 1812, one in Norway in 1815, one in the Netherlands 1813, one in Malta in 1817, and one in Paris 1818.

In America, we find the Continental Congress so impressed with the scarcity of Bibles that in 1777 it passed a resolution calling for the printing of 20,000 copies. Facilities were not at hand for the fulfilment of such a work, and it was not done. But in 1782, Congress commended the publication of the Bible which had just been made in Philadelphia. There had been local Bible societies in the Colonies, but these were not united with the American Bible Society until 1816. This society has become next in size and in importance to its counterpart, the British and Foreign Bible Society and in 1907 controlled 620 auxiliary societies in the United States and 11 agencies in the Latin-American countries and elsewhere. The Society has no established agency in Europe, but maintains correspondents in Norway, Sweden, Russian Finland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, Italy, and Austria. In these countries it either cooperates with the National Bible societies, or lends assistance to the local Protestant churches. For example, the American Bible Society has been cooperating closely for the last fifty years with the Methodist Episcopal Church in Bremen, Germany, and in that time and place has assisted in the publication of over a million volumes of Scripture. The American Society has extended its efforts into the Levant, a regular agency being established in Constantinople. It works in conjunction with the Protestant missionaries in Bulgaria, Turkey, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, and the Sudan. In these countries alone, it has distributed over 3,000,000 volumes during the past half-century. All told, the copies of the Bible, or parts of the Bible distributed by the American Bible Society for one year, ending March 31, 1906, were 2,236,755, and during the ninety years of its work it has disposed of 78,509,529 volumes.

After being duly impressed by these figures and those of the still more prolific British Society, the Catholic reader naturally questions whether the amount of good done is, after all, to be measured by the number of volumes distributed. A considerable number of Protestant missionaries have already answered the question negatively, and if we may judge from many letters from ministers in the mission field, there is a growing feeling among thinking Protestants that the promiscuous distribution of the Bible “without note or comment” is a doubtful means of propagating Christian doctrine. Even as a means of proselytism, the scattering of Bibles seems not to produce the expected results. A missionary on the Malay peninsula, among others, complains that although thousands of Bibles were distributed, it was, so far as he could learn, “with scarcely any perceptible benefit”. He “did not hear of a single Malay convert on the whole peninsula”. The natives of the missionary countries are, according to reports, eager to obtain books from the societies, but agents and missionaries and bishops have reported that in many cases the volumes were used for vulgar and profane purposes. Indeed, the reckless distribution of the Scriptures in too many cases becomes an occasion for the profanation of the written Word, rather than for the growth of religion. Instances of abuse of the Bible could be collected freely from the letters of missionaries, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

But for deeper reasons than this, the attitude of the Church toward the Bible societies is one of unmistakable opposition. Believing herself to be the divinely appointed custodian and interpreter of Holy Writ, she cannot without turning traitor to herself, approve the distribution of Scripture “with-out note or comment”. The fundamental fallacy of private interpretation of the Scriptures is presupposed by the Bible societies. It is the impelling motive of their work. But it would be likewise the violation of one of the first principles of the Catholic Faith—a principle arrived at through observation as well as by revelation—the insufficiency of the Scriptures alone to convey to the general reader a sure knowledge of faith and morals. Consequently, the Council of Trent, in its fourth session, after expressly condemning all interpretations of the sacred text which contradict the past and present interpretation of the Church, orders all Catholic publishers to see to it that their editions of the Bible have the approval of the bishop. Besides this and other regulations concerning Bible-reading in general, we have several acts of the popes directed explicitly against the Bible societies. Perhaps the most notable of these are contained in the Encyclical “Ubi Primum” of Leo XII, dated May 5, 1824, and Pius IX’s Encyclical “Qui Pluribus”, of November 9, 1846. Pius VIII in 1829 and Gregory XVI in 1844, spoke to similar effect. It may be well to give the most striking words on the subject from Leo XII and Pius IX. To quote the former (loc. cit.): “You are aware, venerable brothers, that a certain Bible Society is impudently spreading throughout the world, which, despising the traditions of the holy Fathers and the decree of the Council of Trent, is endeavoring to translate, or rather to pervert the Scriptures into the vernacular of all nations.

It is to be feared that by false interpretation, the Gospel of Christ will become the gospel of men, or still worse, the gospel of the devil. “The pope then urges the bishops to admonish their flocks that owing to human temerity, more harm than good may come from indiscriminate Bible-reading. Pius IX says (loc. cit.): “These crafty Bible Societies, which renew the ancient guile of heretics, cease not to thrust their Bibles upon all men, even the unlearned,—their Bibles, which have been translated against the laws of the Church, and often contain false explanations of the text. Thus, the divine traditions, the teaching of the fathers, and the authority of the Catholic Church are rejected, and everyone in his own way interprets the words of the Lord, and distorts their meaning, thereby falling into miserable errors”.

Thus are given the chief reasons of the opposition of the Church. Furthermore, it can scarcely be denied that the Bible societies, by invading the Catholic countries and endeavoring to foist the Protestant versions upon a Catholic people, have stirred up much discord, and have laid themselves open to the charge of degrading the Sacred Book by using it as an instrument of proselytism. Still in almost all the books and pamphlets which are written to show the results of Bible propagandism, naive complaints are made by the writers that the Catholic priests forbid the dissemination of the Scriptures among their people. The societies do not offer to supply Catholics with Catholic Bibles, fortified with the ecclesiastical Imprimatur, and supplied with the necessary notes of explanation. If such an offer were refused, there might be some pretext for the complaints of the societies, but so long as they follow their present course, it must be evident that they have small ground for wonder if the authorities of the Church oppose them. The true attitude of the Church towards the popular use of the Scriptures is shown by the establishment of the Society, di San Geronimo, for the translation and diffusion of the Gospels and other parts of the Bible among the Italian peoples.

There have been many dissensions and some schisms among the members of the Bible societies themselves. At the very foundation of the British and Foreign Bible Society Bishop Marsh, consistently with the principles of the Church of England, objected to the printing of the text, “without note or comment”, and recommended the addition of the Book of Common Prayer. The objection was, of course, overruled. In 1831, the British and Foreign Bible Society decided to demand belief in the Trinity as a requisite to membership. This led to a schism and the foundation of the Trinitarian Bible Society. Another schismatic society, originating from a doctrinal difference, is the Bible Translation Society a body composed of Baptists who were dissatisfied because the original society’s Bibles did not translate the texts which relate to baptism by words that would signify immersion. Again, from the American Bible Society, there has been a schism of Baptists, originating, as in England, over the translation of baptizein. This dissident body, founded in 1837, is called The American and Foreign Bible Society. This organization in turn experienced a secession, the recalcitrants forming the American Bible Union, in 1850.


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