British and Foreign Bible Society Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The rise of Christian evangelicalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries brought with it a number of religious societies established to spread Protestant Christianity and exert European influence throughout the world. The British and Foreign Bible Society was an important example of that trend.

Summary of Event

The British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) was founded in 1804 with the seemingly simple aim of providing Bibles for as many people as possible in their native languages with neither commentaries nor notes. In the process of fulfilling this goal, the society had a significant impact on the British printing industry and translated the Bible into many languages. British and Foreign Bible Society Christianity;evangelism [kw]Foreign Bible Society Is Founded, British and (1804) [kw]Bible Society Is Founded, British and Foreign (1804) [kw]Society Is Founded, British and Foreign Bible (1804) [kw]Founded, British and Foreign Bible Society Is (1804) British and Foreign Bible Society Christianity;evangelism [g]Great Britain;1804: British and Foreign Bible Society Is Founded[0210] [g]British Empire;1804: British and Foreign Bible Society Is Founded[0210] [c]Organizations and institutions;1804: British and Foreign Bible Society Is Founded[0210] [c]Religion and theology;1804: British and Foreign Bible Society Is Founded[0210] Charles, Thomas Hughes, Joseph Jones, Mary

A devout and determined Welsh teenager is credited with inspiring the society’s founding. When Mary Jones (later Lewis) was sixteen, she saved money to purchase a Bible in Welsh and walked twenty-five miles to another town, Bala, to purchase one. Until then, she had to walk two miles to a neighbor’s home each time she wanted to read the Bible, as her family did not own a copy. The Welsh Bible was both expensive and difficult to obtain. As she had been warned, all the copies in Bala had been claimed. Upon hearing her story, however, the Reverend Thomas Charles gave her one of the claimed copies. Several years later, in 1802, Charles shared Jones’s story with his fellow members of the Religious Tract Society and suggested that they form a society to provide Bibles to the people of Wales. The Reverend Joseph Hughes Hughes, Joseph is credited with expanding Charles’s Charles, Thomas idea by asking, “Why just Wales? Why not the world?”

The effort brought together members of the Church of England;and British and Foreign Bible Society[British and Foreign Bible Society] Church of England and Dissenters (non-Anglican Protestants). The committee established to govern the BFBS was deliberately designed to reflect the society’s ecumenical and international aspirations, with secretaries being named from Anglicans, Dissenters, and foreigners. One foundational guideline was to exclude commentary and notes from the society’s Bibles in an effort to remain as ecumenical, or broad-spirited, as possible within a Protestant context. It can be seen as a tribute to BFBS influence and importance that other societies brought out competing versions of the Bible in line with their own particular doctrines and traditions. One early example of a “what to include” controversy the BFBS faced involves the Apocrypha, a set of texts included in Roman Catholic Bibles. Lutheran and Anglican Bibles included the Apocrypha in a separate section, whereas groups with Calvinist leanings excluded it completely. After much debate, BFBS officials decided to exclude the Apocrypha from future editions of the Bible.

Before Bibles could be printed and distributed, they had to be translated into the languages of their intended audiences. Sometimes translators had to create a written form of a spoken language or dialect before the translation work could begin. Hence translation was key to the society’s mission. Books commemorating the society’s milestones, such as its 1904 centennial, devote much space to stories of dedicated translators spending years living with a population in order to learn the intricacies of its language fully enough to make the Bible come alive within that language.

The society soon developed a reputation among its paper suppliers, printers, and book binders as a demanding customer. It could well afford to be, given the high volume of orders it placed. BFBS organizers took full advantage of emerging technologies available to them and experimented with new means and methods of production, such as using machines instead of artisans to bind Bibles. They were also early adaptors of more rapid and efficient printing technologies, such as the steam press.

Within England, people usually had to pay for BFBS Bibles, with society representatives coming to their homes on a regular basis to collect installments. Only after all or most of the price had been paid were Bibles delivered. These prices, however, were subsidized—sometimes heavily in the case of the poor. Several rationales lay behind the payment plan for the so-called lower classes. It was thought that recipients would value their Bibles more if they had to sacrifice a little to obtain them and that setting aside a little each week toward a goal would instill fiscal discipline. Also, as with other social and moral reform movements, it was thought that regular contact with middle-class volunteers who collected for and distributed the Bibles would have an uplifting influence on those in poverty.

Distribution within England was handled through volunteers, associations, and sometimes small storefront shops. (During the 1850’s, the domestic volunteer visitors would be largely supplanted by colportage, a system in which paid agents visited homes and sold the Bibles.) Abroad, the political and economic climate affected the society’s activities. French emperor Napoleon I was threatening to conquer Great Britain. The Irish were contending with famine and economic hardship. The British Empire and its influence were spreading.

These realities affected the society in direct and indirect ways. For example, the BFBS made sure to produce a French-language edition to benefit French prisoners of war, and it also worked to place English-language Bibles in the hands of British prisoners. Just as the domestic poor of Britain were viewed as “benighted” and in need of uplifting contact with their supposed social betters as well as with the Word of God, the world beyond Britain’s shores was often viewed as being in dire need of Christianity and the “civilizing” influence of British culture. Therefore, sea captains, adventurers, and merchants, as well as colporteurs, were engaged to distribute Bibles. In some cases, Bibles would precede missionaries Missionaries;and Bible societies[Bible societies] by years, so when the missionaries finally arrived in a given area, they would find the people already familiar with the basic story and precepts of Christianity.

The activities of the BFBS were very expensive, despite the cost-cutting efforts and technical prowess of the society’s officials. Therefore, the society sought donations, and some of its supporting members found unique ways to support the cause of spreading the Christian message by providing Bibles. One supporter even taught a pet parrot to ask passersby for contributions and placed a small bag outside the bird’s cage to collect these donations. When the bird died, a sign asking for donations was hung in the cage and the bag remained.


More than two hundred years after its founding, the BFBS continues to distribute Bibles worldwide, maintaining its traditions of utilizing the newest technologies available to produce and distribute the Bible and of making Scripture available to as many people as possible in as many forms as possible. The society now uses machine-assisted translation to increase the number of languages in which its text is available. It also produces audio and video versions of the Bible in various languages.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Batalden, Stephen K., and Kathleen Cann, eds. Sowing the Word: The Cultural Impact of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 1804-2004. Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England: Sheffield Phoenix, 2004. A collection of nineteen academic papers discussing the society’s impact on various countries it has worked, stories of Bible translators, the role of women in the society, and other issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cain, Peter, and Tony Hopkins. British Imperialism, 1688-2000. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 2001. Analyzes British imperialism by reference to the unique features of Great Britain’s economic development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Canton, William. The Story of the Bible Society. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1904. Written to commemorate the society’s centennial, this book maintains a laudatory tone.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howsam, Leslie. Cheap Bibles: Nineteenth-Century Publishing and the British and Foreign Bible Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Examines the relationships between the BFBS, its suppliers, and its customers between 1804 and the 1860’s. Traces the economics and changing technologies involved in large-scale production and distribution of Bibles as well as its cultural implications.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. A chapter titled “The Bible in the Victorian Home” looks at the Bible as an element of American popular culture, particularly during the Victorian era.

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Categories: History