The Bible Cause

A History of the American Bible Society

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John Fea
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     2016.
     384 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190253066.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Bible Cause, John Fea explores the American Bible Society (ABS) and the plucky Christians who built and sustained it. Published to coincide with the ABS’s 2016 bicentennial, the book offers a chronological institutional history peppered with quotations from letters written by supporters (and occasionally critics) and tales from agents working across the United States and the globe. At its heart, this book argues that two motivating commitments have driven the history of the ABS. Since its founding in 1816, it has sustained a belief in the power of the Bible to lead people to salvation and has maintained a cultural mandate to build a Christian society in the United States and throughout the world.

Over two centuries, founding fathers, intrepid colporteurs, and savvy businesspeople embraced the ABS’s twin beliefs. In pursuing these goals, the institution worked to transcend traditional denominational barriers, although throughout much of the ABS’s history many members drew the line at including Catholics. The ABS’s commitment to distribute Bibles free from notes or comment consistently exhibited this interdenominational Protestant character. In addition to working across denominational lines, Fea traces how the ABS also pursued its evangelistic and nationalistic agenda by cozying up with culturally powerful Christian groups, embracing innovative methods of sharing the Bible and periodically honing its organizational structure to fit institutional and cultural needs.

Fea furthers his argument through chronologically organized thematic chapters that trace the development of the ABS from its founding in the wake of the US Revolution to the relocation of its headquarters to Philadelphia in 2015. Each chapter offers an account of individuals, actions, and policies as they relate to the ABS’s Bible-distribution efforts. For example, chapters feature the ABS’s activities during the period of antebellum reform, the World Wars, the Communist takeover of China, and its translation of new versions of the Bible for English-speaking audiences in the 1960s and 1970s—most notably the Good News for Modern Man and Good News Bible. Fea’s explorations of the contentious process of finalizing these new English translations are particularly strong and engaging portions of the study.

The geographic diversity of The Bible Cause stands out as one of its most welcome elements, poignantly illustrating the ABS’s ever-expanding sphere of influence. New York City remains the ABS’s hub, but the book is not just about the leaders at ABS headquarters. Fea offers a rich exploration of the ABS’s efforts to provide Bibles first on the US frontier and later to other nations. He accomplishes this by quoting from letters written to the ABS from everyday supporters and from accounts written by agents working in locations ranging from nineteenth-century Mexico to war-torn Korea in the mid-twentieth century. In doing so, Fea illustrates the expansive influence of the ABS and the deep investment in its goals by men and women around the globe.

The Bible Cause also insightfully explores how the ABS sidestepped some of the most contentious issues that divided Christianity in the United States over the past two hundred years. For example, debates about slavery and the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy did not rip the society in two because the ABS avoided stepping into the heart of these conflicts. When referencing the ABS’s stance on these significant theological controversies, Fea helpfully notes both the motivations for this equivocation and the consequences of it. He suggests that the society’s persistent commitment to interdenominational work and distributing the Bible as widely as possible led it to forge its own path in an attempt to maintain the broadest constituency possible.

Some of Fea’s most intriguing contributions are the insightful connections he draws between the ABS and larger developments within Christianity and culture in the United States. He argues that the ABS has deftly worked more closely with some Christian groups at different periods in its history based on which groups held the most powerful Christian voices in US culture. Fea highlights how the ABS aligned with a broad coalition of Protestants during the nineteenth century, yet for most of the following century, it partnered more specifically with members of the moderate and progressive Protestant mainline. More recently, with the decline of mainline Christianity’s cultural influence in the late twentieth century, the ABS pivoted to be more in line with ascendant evangelicalism. By tracing these changing postures, Fea astutely tracks changes within Christianity in the United States over the past two centuries.

The Bible Cause moves at a brisk pace. It manages to provide a comprehensive account of a two-hundred-year-old global institution in just over three hundred pages. The large scope of the project means that further exploration might be possible with regard to a number of themes touched on in the book. For instance, even though a handful of women appear throughout the book, the role of women in the ABS might be further developed. Additionally, Fea nicely treats the relationship between the ABS and global missions, yet the rich connection between ABS agents and missionaries holds promise for future exploration by scholars interested in both missions and US imperialism.

For two hundred years, supporters have opened their wallets to fund the ABS, trekked into unknown lands on its behalf, and distributed Bibles with its name stamped inside the cover. Fea tells this story perceptively and with care. He ably sets the ABS in the context of US history in a way that makes The Bible Cause especially helpful for those interested in the history of missions, US imperialism, the Bible (both in the United States and globally), and biblical translation. Ultimately, Fea’s work offers a well-researched and thoughtfully argued account of the institution and people who dedicated themselves to Bible cause.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Klumpp is a doctoral student in American religious history at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
May 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Fea is Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College, in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

Keywords: 

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