American Bible Society Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The founding of the American Bible Society was a major step in the Christian evangelical movement of the early nineteenth century. In addition to its own publication work, the society began providing funds to missionaries for the translation and printing of Bibles. Its goal was to provide Bibles to as many people as possible, without endorsing any particular doctrinal or denominational positions.

Summary of Event

The outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in 1775 American Revolution (1775-1783);and Bibles[Bibles] brought to a halt the importation of Bibles from England. The result was a shortage of Bibles at a time when there was a strong desire to reignite the evangelistic fires of the First Great Awakening Great Awakening, First (1739-1742). In 1777, to help satisfy the growing demand for Bibles, the Second Continental Congress Continental Congress, Second voted to purchase twenty thousand Bibles from Holland. A representative from New Jersey, Elias Boudinot, cast the vote of that state in favor of the purchase. American Bible Society Bible societies;American Bible Society Christianity;Bible societies Boudinot, Elias Missionaries;and Bible societies[Bible societies] [kw]American Bible Society Is Founded (May 8, 1816) [kw]Bible Society Is Founded, American (May 8, 1816) [kw]Society Is Founded, American Bible (May 8, 1816) [kw]Founded, American Bible Society Is (May 8, 1816) American Bible Society Bible societies;American Bible Society Christianity;Bible societies Boudinot, Elias Missionaries;and Bible societies[Bible societies] [g]United States;May 8, 1816: American Bible Society Is Founded[0880] [c]Religion and theology;May 8, 1816: American Bible Society Is Founded[0880] [c]Organizations and institutions;May 8, 1816: American Bible Society Is Founded[0880] Mills, Samuel J. Morse, Jedidiah Caldwell, John E. Jay, William

When the American Revolution ended in 1783, Bibles from England reappeared in American bookstores, but a desire to alleviate the need to import them by printing American Bibles had already been ignited. Robert Aitken Aitken, Robert had printed some in Philadelphia during the revolution, but they were more expensive than those imported from England. It was a British Bible that inspired young Abraham Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Bible[Bible] in his Kentucky log cabin. American-printed Bibles soon became less expensive, however, and by the end of the eighteenth century they were being printed in cities throughout the United States. The Second Great Awakening Great Awakening, Second;and Bibles[Bibles] (1790’s-1830’s) increased the demand for them.

In 1804, the British and Foreign Bible Society British and Foreign Bible Society Bible societies;British and Foreign Bible Society was founded in England. The vision of that organization soon spread to the entire world. Reports about its work were circulated in America in a journal called The Panoplist Panoplist, The , founded in Boston in 1805 by Jedidiah Morse, Morse, Jedidiah who urged the formation of similar societies in the United States.

American Bible Society poster issued during World War I to solicit public support for its program of providing servicemen with copies of the New Testament. General John J. Pershing (1860-1948) commanded the American Expeditionary Force sent to Europe in 1916.

(Library of Congress)

The first such U.S. society was the Philadelphia Bible Society, Philadelphia;Bible society founded in December, 1808. Its constitution became a guide for future societies, specifying that, in order to avoid denominational and doctrinal controversy, all Bibles had to be without notes. Some felt that the Philadelphia Bible Society should expand to encompass the entire nation, but others thought that a centralized society would become unwieldy and lose its focus. The latter group believed that the proliferation of local societies would better meet the needs of the nation: Local groups could each serve their own communities while still communicating, cooperating, and possibly sharing funds to meet national needs.

Circulars were sent to leaders of various denominations throughout the country, urging them to establish local Bible societies. By 1814, there were more than one hundred state and local Bible societies in the United States. The goals of each were to provide Bibles to those too poor to buy their own and to extend their services to foreign lands when possible. The British and Foreign Bible Society sent grants of three hundred to five hundred dollars to each of the sixteen state societies and, by the end of 1816, had given more than eight thousand dollars to support the American work. The leaders in America rewarded the British with such titles as “Venerable Parent.”

There were still many, however, who felt the need for a national Bible society. As a result, on May 8, 1816, fifty-six delegates representing state and local societies from New England to Kentucky and North Carolina met in the Garden Street Dutch Reformed Church in New York City. In addition to ministers, the delegates included lawyers, editors, judges, doctors, bankers, and businessmen. Denominations represented included Presbyterians, Presbyterians;and Bible societies[Bible societies] Congregationalists Congregationalists;and Bible societies[Bible societies] , Methodists, Methodists;and Bible societies[Bible societies] Episcopalians, Episcopal Church Baptists Baptists;and Bible societies[Bible societies] , Quakers, Quakers;and Bible societies[Bible societies] and members of the Dutch Reformed Church Dutch Reformed Church . Together, they decided to form the American Bible Society.

Of the delegates who met on that historic day, five men were most important. Samuel J. Mills Mills, Samuel J. had been among the first to raise the call for a national society. As a student at Andover Theological Seminary Andover Theological Seminary (founded by Jedidiah Morse Morse, Jedidiah in 1807), Mills had joined with like-minded students to form the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1810. Mills traveled widely in America for this board, especially west of the Appalachian Mountains. The moral conditions and shortage of Bibles he encountered in that area spurred his desire to help found a national Bible society. After participating in the founding of the society, Mills went to Africa to survey the need for Bibles on that continent. He died on the return trip.

After reporting on the work of the British and Foreign Bible Society in The Panoplist Panoplist, The , Jedidiah Morse traveled from Massachusetts to Georgia, helping found local Bible societies. In 1809, he began urging the Philadelphia society Philadelphia;Bible society to assume national leadership, publishing appeals from missionaries such as William Carey Carey, William in India India;missionaries in for Bibles in native languages and reporting on the travels and appeals of Samuel Mills Mills, Samuel J. Morse, Jedidiah . Morse was on the committee at the May, 1816, meeting that drafted the constitution of the American Bible Society.

The most persistent voice on behalf of a national society was that of Elias Boudinot, the president of the New Jersey Bible Society. After a long career as a national political leader, Boudinot devoted his last years to philanthropic endeavors. Much of this work involved Native American Native Americans;and missionaries[Missionaries] causes, such as the Brainerd Mission in Tennessee, inspiring Buck Watie Watie, Buck , a young Cherokee, to visit Boudinot in 1818 on his way to the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. Later, Watie registered at the school under the name Elias Boudinott, using two t’s to distinguish himself from his benefactor. During his years as a Cherokee leader, the second t was dropped.

In 1814, the New Jersey society appointed the first Elias Boudinot to a committee studying the need for a national society. Based on its report, a resolution was adopted on August 30 calling for the establishment of such a society. Boudinot circulated the resolution and answered in writing the objections of those opposed. In May, 1815, he won the support of the Connecticut Bible Society, and others soon followed. Finally, on January 31, 1816, Boudinot issued a call for a convention to meet in New York City in May to form a national society. However, because of illness he could not personally attend that meeting.

As the corresponding secretary of the New York Bible Society, John E. Caldwell Caldwell, John E. was at first opposed to the creation of a national society, even though, after being orphaned during the American Revolution, he was raised in the household of Elias Boudinot. However, in 1815 he gave his support to Boudinot’s plan, and he was the host for the May, 1816, meeting. William Jay Jay, William , meanwhile, was the recording secretary of the Westchester, New York, Auxiliary Bible Society. His father, John Jay Jay, John , who had been the first chief justice of the United States, was its president. In March, 1816, William Jay sent to Boudinot a sixteen-page memoir, in which he espoused the need for Bibles in both the Christian and non-Christian areas of the world. Boudinot circulated this appeal prior to the May meeting. It was reprinted by Caldwell in The Christian Herald, anonymously at Jay’s request.

When the organizational convention of the American Bible Society began on May 8, 1816, Joshua Wallace, replacing the ailing Boudinot as the delegate from New Jersey, was elected chairman. Lyman Beecher Beecher, Lyman , a young pastor from Connecticut, acted as secretary. An extremely valuable conventional delegate was Gardiner Spring Spring, Gardiner , for sixty-three years pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City. James Fenimore Cooper Cooper, James Fenimore [p]Cooper, James Fenimore;and Bible societies[Bible societies] , the novelist, was among other well-known delegates.

In the afternoon of the opening day of the convention, without a dissenting vote, a resolution was adopted to form a national Bible society. On May 11, meeting in New York City Hall, the first officers of the new society were elected, including Elias Boudinot as the first president. By the end of 1816, the British and Foreign Bible Society had given about fourteen hundred dollars to its new American counterpart.


The American Bible Society helped spread Bibles throughout the United States and the world. Upon the death of Elias Boudinot in 1821, John Jay Jay, John [p]Jay, John;and Bible societies[Bible societies] was elected president of the society. Three U.S. presidents, John Quincy Adams Adams, John Quincy [p]Adams, John Quincy;and Bible societies[Bible societies] , Rutherford B. Hayes Hayes, Rutherford B. [p]Hayes, Rutherford B.;and Bible societies[Bible societies] , and Benjamin Harrison Harrison, Benjamin [p]Harrison, Benjamin;and Bible societies[Bible societies] , later served on the board of the society, and Abraham Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Bible societies[Bible societies] was a strong supporter.

The first translation printed by the society was the Book of John in the language of the Native American Native Americans;and Bible[Bible] Delaware tribe. Other nineteenth century achievements of the society include providing Bibles to immigrants and to riders of the Pony Express. During the U.S. Civil War, a special pocket Bible was printed to give to men on both sides, with a special truce created so it could be given to Confederate soldiers. Beginning with the U.S. Navy Navy, U.S.;and Bibles[Bibles] in 1817, society Bibles have been given to American military personnel.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">American Bible Society. Accessed December 15, 2005. Provides the mission statement of the American Bible Society, plus a historical time line. Includes detailed coverage of the society’s ongoing work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dwight, Henry Otis. The Centennial History of the American Bible Society. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1916. A detailed account of the background, founding, and first century of the society. Gives excellent coverage to the individuals involved in the founding.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nord, David Paul. Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Argues that the American Bible Society was central to the creation of an American mass media. Bibliographical references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wosh, Peter J. Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth Century America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. Puts the American Bible Society in the context of other social movements. Covers organizational changes and historical shifts; concludes with an epilogue entitled “From Missionary Basis to Business Basis? Isaac Bliss’s Strange Lament.”

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Categories: History