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The Bible CauseA History of the American Bible Society$

John Fea

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190253066

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190253066.001.0001

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The Bible is the Religion of Protestants

The Bible is the Religion of Protestants

(p.61) 6 The Bible is the Religion of Protestants
The Bible Cause

John Fea

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter covers two dimensions in the history of the American Bible Society (ABS). First, it examines the ABS approach to the Bible and argues that the ABS took a distinctly Protestant approach to the Bible Cause through its principle of “no note and comment.” By publishing Bibles without interpretive notes or commentary, the ABS was making an effort to be as ecumenical as possible. This played out particularly in a controversy over how to translate the Greek word immerso. Second, this chapter examines the way in which this Protestant approach to the Bible led to a staunch anti-Catholicism. The Catholic church in America warned its parishioners against receiving ABS Bibles and, on occasion, even burned these Bible publicly.

Keywords:   Bible in America, Protestantism, Catholicism, anti-Catholicism, Lyman Beecher

In 1829, an American Bible Society agent working in the western United States met a young female Irish immigrant—let’s call her Mary—who, he claimed, was “rigidly educated in the Roman Catholic faith.” Before arriving in America Mary was planning to spend her life in an Irish convent, but when her father decided to migrate he brought her with him. Upon arrival Mary continued to practice Catholicism under the watchful eye of her father, who the ABS agent described as a “very wicked man, but bigotedly attached to the forms and ceremonies of his church.” She was trained to believe that there “was salvation in no other.” Mary’s spiritual life took a drastic turn when a young neighbor boy who was playing in her house dropped a portion of a New Testament he had carried with him. She picked up the pages and began to read, concealing the book from her father, who had taught her that it was a sin to read the scriptures “without note or comment.” In the course of her reading Mary became convinced that Catholicism “would not answer in the last great day.” She came to grips with the sinful state of her soul and became anxious about her salvation, all the while keeping her spiritual searching away from her father for fear of punishment. Without a teacher to explain what she was reading, Mary pressed on, guided only by the words of the small New Testament portion. As the anxiety-induced tears rolled down her face, she eventually came to grips with “the pardoning love of God, through a crucified Saviour” and found that the pages of the Bible—those “leaves from the tree of life”—had healed her “wounded spirit.”

A revival had commenced in Mary’s town and she decided, unbeknownst to her family, to attend several of the meetings. As Mary watched, new converts paraded to the front of the church to make public professions of faith, and she “felt an ardent desire” to do the same. The agent counseled Mary, but she knew that as soon as word of a conversion reached her father he would “immediately banish her from his house.” She even feared that his rage might lead him to “take her life.” As the agent wrote, “I had never before thought it possible for an individual, in this land of freedom, to be placed in circumstances so trying.” (p.62) As the ABS agent continued to talk with Mary he was surprised at just how much she knew about the Protestant way of salvation, despite the fact that she had no one to instruct her and no books to read beyond the Testament that “had fallen into her hands” and “the teachings of that Spirit which had indicted the Word.” Eventually Mary did make a profession of faith and joined the local Protestant church. The ABS provided her with a full Bible—Old and New Testaments—to replace the portion she had been reading. She received it with “tears of gratitude.” Mary continued to hide her newfound faith, and her new Bible, from her father, and prayed that someday he too might come to saving faith in Christ.1

Mary’s story tells us several things about the American Bible Society in the decades preceding the American Civil War. The ABS believed that the Bible had the spiritual power to send people like Mary on an entirely new trajectory of life. It was no mere coincidence that Mary stumbled across this Bible on the floor of her house. It was a providential act of God. The agents working on behalf of the Bible Cause were appointed to deliver the word of God wherever it was needed, but they also believed that the Bible was a supernatural book that could lead people to salvation without the aid of a preacher or teacher. Mary’s story was published in the monthly Extracts to show that the Bible, without any commentary, could bring people into the Kingdom of God, defeat a growing Catholic menace, and advance the cause of Protestantism in America. Though ABS agents often took opportunities to preach and teach, most of the time they merely dropped off a copy of the Bible at a house, on a train or a ship, or to someone they met on the road—and let the Spirit do the rest. The ABS agent who encountered Mary was not only recording yet another story of personal salvation, but he was relaying an uplifting account of another soul saved from tyrannical Catholicism. Mary’s strong-willed father, a man who she believed might kill her for becoming a Protestant, was representative of all that was wrong with Rome. Indeed, the agent had never thought it was possible “in this land of freedom” for the life of an “individual” to be placed in jeopardy because of her religious convictions.

The American Bible Society rarely dabbled in the work of Protestant theology. This was an organization of lay leaders (mostly businessmen), not professional theologians. It did not work with churches or denominations—at least not yet. The Society was tasked with distributing the Bible without note or comment through its auxiliaries and letting the Holy Spirit deliver its life-changing message. Yet one would be hard pressed to argue that the ABS did not operate with certain generic theological assumptions about its work. As Rev. T. V. Moore of the First Presbyterian Church of Richmond told a gathering of Bible leaders at the organization’s thirty-fifth anniversary in 1852, “there are certain doctrinal positions which unquestionably underlie her (ABS) organization, without which that organization must speedily fall to the ground.” (p.63) For example, at the time of Moore’s speech, the ABS affirmed that the very words of the Bible were inspired by God giving it an “absolute sufficiency as a rule of faith and practice.” Since the Bible was a direct revelation from God, it was true and without error. The ABS went so far as to state that God is “embodied” in the very words of Scripture and “the light of His unutterable brightness is enshrined in these wondrous syllables.” This view of verbal plenary inspiration implied that anyone who could read would be able to use common sense to understand the meaning of its words.2

But at the core of the ABS mission was the distribution of the Bible “without note or comment.” As we have seen, the ABS tried to rise above the sticky doctrinal issues that distinguished one denomination from another and focus its attention on what united all Protestants—a belief in the redemptive power of the word of God. The American Bible Society printed and distributed the King James Version of the Bible without commentary or marginalia. In 1824, Jeremiah Day, president of Yale College, explained the importance of this practice:

Should not the Scriptures . . . be accompanied with notes and comments? So far as commentators enable us to understand what we read, we may be grateful for their aid. But we are not to look for improvements on a revelation from heaven. The volume of immutable truth is not to be wrought into a more perfect form by metaphysical refinement. It will not be in a higher degree, the wisdom of God, and power of God to salvation, when translated into the technical language of modern theological systems.3

The message was clear. The Bible was not meant to be interpreted. The Bible’s salvific message was self-evident in the words of the inspired text.4

ABS publications were fond of using the phrase “the Bible doing its work” to describe the effects the book had on sinners and potential converts. For example, as he prepared to send his son off to college a Christian father worried that the young scholar would lose his faith during the course of the experience. So he purchased “an elegant copy” of the Bible and, without his son’s knowledge, placed it at the bottom of his trunk. Shortly after the son’s arrival at college the father’s worst fears were realized. “The restraints of a pious education were soon broken off,” and the young man “proceeded from speculation to doubts, and from doubts to denial of the reality of religion.” One day, while “rummaging through his trunk,” he found the “sacred deposit” that his father had placed there. In a spirit of indignation, the young man decided that he would use the Bible to clean his razor after his daily shave. Each day he used the blade to tear a leaf or two out of the “Holy Book” until half of the volume was destroyed. (p.64) But one morning, as he “was committing this outrage” to the text, several verses met his eye and struck him “like a barbed arrow to his heart.” These verses were like a “sermon” to him, awakening him to the wrath of God and leading him to “the foot of the cross.” There was no need to provide rational answers to the young man’s skepticism—the “Sacred Volume” had “done its work.” It had led him “to repose on the mercy of God, which is sufficient for the chief of sinners.”5

The words of God without “note or comment” even had the power to bring spiritual vitality to the insane. In 1852, an ABS agent visited a Maryland Hospital for the Insane and began reading the Gospel of John to one hundred and forty inmates gathered for Sunday morning services. Before he could finish reading the passage, one of the inmates arose and “gave vent to his feelings in prayer.” Another wept. A third patient raised his hands in the air. A man who held a “prominent and responsible position in the community” stood up, “gazed intently” at the agent, and then turned to the audience in a way that seemed to suggest his “gloomy habit of his mind was at least momentarily removed.” The lesson, of course, was that these mental patients responded to the word of God in a powerful way, “but little was said in explanation of the portion selected.” The Bible, “bore its own testimony, it made that impression of its divine origin, on the minds of those treated as irrational, and separated from the rest of man as injurious to themselves or others.” The agent was quick to note that his story did not mean that in all cases “insanity” would be “lulled to rest by the reading of a few passages of the God’s Word,” but it was worth mentioning, he added, that “the book must be divine which could make its impression through the veiled intellect, or carry its consoling influence to the seared affections of the wildest insanity.”6

In 1840 ABS agent Sylvester Holmes stumbled upon a woman near Nashville, Tennessee, trapped in an abusive marriage with a “whiskey lover” who became enraged whenever she read her Bible. One day the husband, presumably in a drunken stupor, decided he was going to burn his wife’s Bible. He ripped it from her hands and threw it into the fire where it was “consumed to ashes.” As soon as the Bible began to burn, the “wretched” husband lost the use of his hand and could not speak.7 In a similar story, a German man living in Syracuse, New York, took the Bible he received from an ABS agent and threw it into a fire, but he “could not make it burn.” He eventually took the Bible out of the fire and, “in its singed state,” began to read it, leading him to request another Bible from the agent.8 Another agent in New York encountered a man, “full of cursing and bitterness,” who would not permit a Bible to be left in his house. Since the agent did not want to leave the man’s farm without depositing a copy of the word of God, he decided to leave a copy in the barn. (After all, he (p.65) concluded, “our Blessed Savior once lay in a manger.”) The very presence of the Bible in the nearby barn caused the unregenerate owner to think constantly of his “rashness and guilt.” After several days his spiritual “distress became so great, that he went out to the barn in search of the rejected volume.” He turned to the gospels and read the story of Jesus’s birth in a lowly manger. He repented of his sins and “consecrated himself to God through faith in Jesus Christ.”9

The managers and agents of the ABS lived in an enchanted world where books in barns could convict men of sin and those who burned sacred scriptures suffered negative consequences. This was a world in which men and women could pick up a copy of the Bible on a ship or railcar and immediately turn to a verse or passage that spoke to a specific need. Though there were some who probably believed that the Bible was a kind of talisman or amulet, most ABS agents believed that the Bible’s apparent magical powers could be easily explained by an appeal to the third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit. When those in charge of the ABS talked about the Bible “doing its work,” what they were really saying was that the Holy Spirit was illuminating the Bible in such a way that touched the hearts of those who encountered it and its message. Though the influence of the Spirit’s work in shedding light on the message of the Bible could come quickly and abruptly, as in the case of an evangelical revival, it usually had a “slow, silent, effective influence” on the reader. This was the same kind of spiritual power that “moves the deep tides of the oceans and holds and guides the planets in their spheres.” If the ABS could just get the pure word of God, without note or comment, in the hands of every person in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.10

In keeping with its “no note or comment” policy, the ABS avoided translations that seemed to favor the theological beliefs of specific denominations. The first major test to this policy was the proper way to translate the Greek word baptizo. In 1835, the British Baptist Mission in Calcutta, India, appealed to the ABS for help in funding a second edition of a translation of the New Testament in the Bengali language. The Mission turned to the ABS after the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) refused to fund the translation because baptizo—the Greek word for “baptism”—was translated in a way that implied the practice of immersion. The BFBS believed that this translation favored a Baptist understanding of the sacrament and thus excluded denominations that believed in sprinkling or pouring as a form of baptism. The representatives of the Baptist mission in Calcutta thought that the BFBS, in refusing to publish the translation, was displaying its own denominational preferences. They were quick to point out that ten of the twelve members of the BFBS committee on translations were paedo-Baptists. In order to get the necessary funds needed for the publication of their Bengali New Testament, (p.66) the members of the Calcutta mission would “look to America for more liberality than at home.”11

The ABS appointed a special committee to study the request from Calcultta. It concluded that the ABS would only sponsor Bible translations that all Protestant denominations could “consistently use and circulate.” It reaffirmed its commitment to publishing Bibles “without note or comment” in English, and, as far as foreign translations were concerned, appealed to a clause in its Constitution that forbade the ABS from supporting translations that promoted “local feelings, party prejudices,” and “sectarian jealousies.” Fourteen of the fifty-six members of the Board of Managers opposed the resolution—most of them Baptists. Following the decision, Spencer Cone, a Baptist who served the ABS on this special committee, resigned his post as the Corresponding Secretary of the ABS and several Baptist members of the Board of Trustees followed his lead. The dissenters organized a new Bible society called the American and Foreign Bible Society, which quickly printed a copy of the New Testament that translated baptizo with the word “immerse.” Meanwhile, the ABS leadership did spin control with its Baptist constituency. It explained that its decision not to fund the Bengali New Testament was made on the basis of the ABS’s denominationally neutral translation policy and not as a rejection of immersion as a form of baptism.12

The ABS took a decidedly Protestant and American approach to the Bible. The Bible was a book of liberty. It not only taught individuals how to be free from the bonds of sin and the devil, but it was wholly compatible with the kind of political liberty that flowed naturally from the American Revolution. In December 1830 the ABS published a circular, written by “an intelligent layman,” titled “The Bible: A Religious Constitution.” The circular was a manifesto on the subject of religious freedom written by an author who was clearly sympathetic to the Bible Cause. He argued that a person’s right to religious liberty came not from a “compact with his fellow-creatures,” but was rather a “matter between him and God.” The Bible was the source of religious freedom in the sense that it “guarantees the conscience of the Christian against the encroachments of ecclesiastical ambition.” In fact, the “Sacred Scriptures” were nothing short of a “bill of rights dictated by the Holy Spirit—a charter granted by the Deity himself!” The Bible was a Christian “Magna Carta.” It was a book to which ordinary people should appeal whenever their rights were threatened.13

The ABS commitment to distributing a Bible without note or comment, and its belief that the Bible was essential to the freedoms enjoyed by citizens of the United States, led the Society to see Catholicism as a serious threat. In the decades prior to the Civil War the ABS made it clear to its constituency that the Roman Catholic Church was a false version of Christianity. If not checked, (p.67) it had the power to undermine the American republic. At the time of its founding, the ABS seemed willing to include Roman Catholics in the interdenominational Bible Cause. Catholics were welcomed at the founding of the ABS in May 1816 and in its early years the organization worked closely with the Catholic bishop of New Orleans in the distribution of French-language Bibles in Louisiana. It also published Spanish versions of the Bible translated from the Latin Vulgate and distributed Bibles to Catholic congregations in Argentina and other parts of South America. Though ABS Bibles were popular in these Catholic regions of the world, the Society’s decision to publish them without the so-called Apocryphal or deuterocanonical books, and without Catholic commentary or notes, ultimately presented an obstacle to distribution.14

But between 1830 and 1870 the Catholic population in America increased by 1,300 percent, from about 318,000 in 1830 to 4.5 million in 1870. Between 1846 and 1851 over 1 million people fled Ireland during the infamous potato famine. By 1850, Catholicism was the largest religious body in the United States.15 The ABS was very aware of these demographic trends. Located in New York City, its staff had a first-hand look at the social and cultural transformation. The New York Bible Society, for example, noted that “Irish Roman Catholics” constituted “almost the entire population” in some parts of the city. In an 1847 report the New York society described the Irish immigrants as “extremely ignorant and generally bigoted.” They had beliefs and practices that were foreign to Protestant America such as transubstantiation, the use of holy water, and the practice of praying to the Virgin Mary.16

ABS publications during the 1840s and 1850s described “the rapid influx of foreigners” bringing with them “the prevalence of infidelity, of Papacy, Mormonism, and other soul-destroying delusions” that could only be countered by the spread of the “volume of truth without delay over all our land.” An ABS agent in Iowa wrote, “Catholics, aware of the future importance of Iowa, are pouring in their population with a rapidity truly alarming to those who have come here to find a home for themselves and families.” ABS agents feared that “the Papists” were making the city of Indianapolis “one of their strongholds.” It was time for all Bible-loving Protestants to “redouble their efforts” in the dissemination of the Holy Scriptures as the “surest means” of keeping the Protestant settlers of Indianapolis “free from the errors of Popery.” After all, “Rome cannot take root in soils impregnated with the salt of divine truth.”17

The ABS was also concerned that Catholic social teaching was incompatible with Protestant notions of American progress. In 1843, ABS president John Cotton Smith believed that Roman Catholics were using the religious freedoms afforded to them by the United States to spread beliefs that undermined modern life. Catholics fought against the use of the King James Version in schools, built churches that served as “monuments of papal superstitions,” and (p.68) manipulated the “American system of free elections.” William Adams, another ABS supporter, argued that the places in the world where Catholics had a stronghold were often characterized by “decay, degradation, and suffering.” These were places where “commerce droops, agriculture sickens, and useful arts languish.” He contrasted the woeful state of Catholic countries with those that championed the Protestant faith: “Pass over the Alps into Switzerland, and down the Rhine into Holland, and over the channel to England and Scotland, and, what an amazing contrast meets the eye!” These countries, according to Adams, were known for their “industry, neatness, [and] instruction for children.” These were modern nations—countries that had embraced Enlightenment progress in the form of liberty and free economic growth. They were modern because they allowed people to read the Bible, “and happy are the people who are in such a case.”18

Catholics, on the other hand, believed that individualism—particularly as it informed Protestant interpretations of the Bible—eroded the authority of the Church. As long as American progress was rooted in the autonomous liberty of the individual, the Catholic Church would reject it in favor of a more collective approach to Christianity. Smith, of course, saw things differently. He believed he was living in a new age of liberty in the United States. The legacy of the American Revolution was coming to fruition in the form of greater political participation, increased economic opportunities, and the rapid rise of evangelical Christianity. He refused to stand by and allow “the boasted light of the nineteenth century” to be “overspread with the darkness of the sixteenth”—a darkness which had been overcome by the Protestant Reformation. “Romanism” was a religion characterized by the “dungeons and tortures” of the Inquisition and a long history of “papal denomination.” Protestantism, the religion of the Bible, was a religion of freedom. Catholicism was a threat to democracy and all forms of religious liberty. It substituted the truth of God for the theological reflections and inventions of men.19

What was most disturbing for the ABS was the refusal of Catholic priests to allow their parishioners to read the King James (the “Authorized”) Version. According to the Council of Trent, the official Catholic Bible was the Latin Vulgate. Public readings, sermons, and translations needed to be based on its text. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church forbade laypersons from interpreting the Vulgate. This was the responsibility of the “Holy Mother Church.” The only English-language Bible permitted by the Catholic Church was the so-called Douay Version, a translation made by English Catholic exiles in 1582 (New Testament, published in Rheims, France) and 1609 (Old Testament, published in Douay, France).20 Priests in the United States took the Council of Trent’s decrees seriously, making the ABS’s work of Bible distribution very difficult in heavily Catholic communities. Dozens of ABS agents complained (p.69) in letters to New York, that priests were forbidding their parishioners from accepting Bibles with the organization’s imprint. An ABS agent in Ulster County, New York, described a common practice among the Catholic laity he encountered: “I have visited the most difficult districts personally, and on presenting a Bible, the first thing is to look at the title page and then return the book.” One woman asked for an ABS Bible, but added that she would need to conceal it from her priest or else he will “lay a penance upon me that I shall not be able to bear.” This story fits well with the ABS belief that the Catholic laity were “afraid to receive the Bible.”21 Some Catholic priests went so far to advise parishioners to burn copies of the King James Version. ABS publications reprinted several articles related to the “Champlain Bible burning” of 1842. Champlain was a town near the Canadian border with a large population of French Catholics. When the Jesuits in the town learned that the ABS had distributed Bibles to Catholics, they required all those who possessed one of these Bibles to make a confession and turn over their Bibles to be burned in a public bonfire. A similar incident occurred in Buffalo around 1850, although in this case the burning was stopped by “the interference of a good woman” who promised to take the Bibles and distribute them among the city’s Protestants.22

The ire of the ABS faithful was particularly stirred when the Pope himself decided to comment on the prevalence of Protestant Bible societies. In 1844, Gregory XVI issued an encyclical warning Catholics about Protestant attempts to convert them. Though he believed that all Protestant denominations were a threat to Catholicism around the world, Gregory specifically called out “the Bible Societies” as worthy of specific attention. He described them as an “army, uniting together for one common object, namely to publish the books of the Holy Scriptures translated into every vernacular tongue, in an infinite number of copies, and to distribute them indiscriminately … as to induce every one to read them without the aid of an interpreter or guide.” Later in December 1849, Pius IX issued a similar encyclical. He pointed to “recent improvements in the art of printing” as being responsible for the “various insidious measures, of which malicious enemies of the church, and of society, endeavor to avail themselves for seducing the people … to their wicked designs.” Catholics should “be on their guard,” he added, “against the poison, which cannot fail to be imbibed by the reading of such books.” Pious also reminded Catholics that “no person whatever is warranted to confide in his own judgment, as to [the Scriptures’] true meaning, of opposed to the holy mother church, who alone and no other, has received the commission from Christ … to decide upon the true sense and interpretation of the Sacred Writing.” The American Bible Society published both of these Encyclicals in the Bible Society Record, and, as might be expected, used them to show the backwardness of Catholic nations when compared to the freedom and progress of Protestant nations.23

(p.70) The ABS concerns about defeating the Catholic threat and spreading Protestantism in the West often intersected with national politics. In June 1845, the United States became embroiled in a border dispute with Mexico. The Rio Grande River served as the border between Mexico and the newly annexed state of Texas. President James K. Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to Texas with 3,500 soldiers to ward off a possible Mexican invasion. When the Mexicans refused to negotiate with Polk (who not only wanted the Rio Grande border, but the territories of New Mexico and California as well), the president sent Taylor and his troops to the banks of the Rio Grande in an area that Mexico believed it possessed. In April 1846 a skirmish broke out in this region. Polk took the skirmish as an act of Mexican aggression and in May convinced Congress to declare war. Polk’s claims about what exactly happened in this disputed territory were controversial, and many questioned whether the Mexicans had indeed acted first, but the Mexican-American War—“Mr. Polk’s War”—had commenced.24

ABS leadership followed closely the events on the Rio Grande. Well before the hostilities broke out, the Society was distributing Bible in Texas. The new Republic of Texas, which was created by American settlers who had won their independence from Mexico in 1836, would serve as a “door through which, in the providence of God, the Gospel could be introduced into Mexico.” Roman Catholicism was the official religion of Mexico and many of the Americans who settled there in the 1820s and 1830s, including Stephen F. Austin, one of the heroes of the revolution, had converted to the Catholic faith as part of their settlement agreement. The Texas Bible Society, an auxiliary of the ABS, understood the Texas Revolution to be a victory for Protestantism over Catholicism. The managers reminded the ABS in 1841 that their republic had “just been rescued from the dominion of Popery.” The Texas Bible Society made sure that every family in the republic was supplied with a Protestant Bible and even asked the ABS to open a Bible depository in Galveston. But Catholic power was great. An ABS agent in Texas wrote that Catholics were establishing churches and “seminaries of learning” at a rapid rate.25

When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, ABS agents reported “evidence of great destitution of the Bible” in East Texas. George West wrote from Jefferson County, Texas, “there is perhaps a greater famine of the word of God in some of these counties than any others in the United States.” The few Protestant Bibles in the region were either “worn out” or “destroyed.” The ABS was prepared to fill the void. Like many evangelical Protestant benevolent organizations, it saw an opportunity to “vindicate her character as the true angel of mercy to the world, and to show that not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of God, the wounds of Texas must be healed; and never was there a time which so loudly called on (p.71) the Christian sower to go forth and sow.”26 The ABS responded by supplying Bibles to the American army in Mexico, the first of many opportunities the Society would have over the course of the next 150 years to provide Bibles for the military. Auxiliaries throughout the country gave Bibles to soldiers preparing to enter the Mexican theater. In 1847 the ABS sent 400 Testaments, earmarked for soldiers traveling down the Mississippi River on their way to Mexico, to Bible societies in Cincinnati and New Orleans, and another 1,350 were designated for troops leaving Indiana.27

In December 1845 an ABS agent in Granville, Massachusetts, reported to the ABS headquarters in New York news of a religious revival occurring in the town. As was quite common whenever an agent presided over such an awakening, he credited the renewed religious fervor to the distribution of the Bible. In a moment of spirit-filled exaltation, he ended his letter with a word of praise to God for all that was happening in Granville: “He has magnified the word above all thy name! The Bible! The Bible is the religion of Protestants!” Indeed, as the ABS made abundantly clear in the first forty years of its existence, the Bible was indeed the religion of the Protestants. The organization could testify again and again to the fact that the word of God, without note or comment, had done its work in the United States and done its work well. With the arrival of Catholics to American shores the ABS vision of forging a Christian, Protestant nation seemed to be in more jeopardy with each passing year, but the Board of Managers, the staff in New York, the agents in the field, and the faithful lay men and women who supported the organization, were confident that the Bible would continue to help Protestant light to triumph over Catholic darkness and American liberty to triumph over Catholic tyranny. Such confidence would be needed in the decades to come, as the United States—and the Bible Cause—would be rent asunder by civil war.


(1.) Extracts from the Correspondence of the ABS 25 (February 1830), 319.

(2.) Bible Society Record (hereafter BSR) 36:6 (June 1852), 11–12; George Marsden, “Everyone One’s Own Interpreter?: The Bible, Science, and Authority in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” in Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll, ed., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 79–100.

(3.) Extracts from the Correspondence of the ABS 35 (May 1824), 5.

(4.) Extracts from the Correspondence of the ABS 45 (May 1825), 5.

(5.) BSR 1:5 (May 1856), 95.

(6.) BSR 1:34 (April 1852), 135.

(7.) Extracts from the Correspondence of the ABS 39 (January 1841), 423.

(8.) BSR 34:4 (April 1855), 133.

(9.) BSR 2:4 (October 1852), 15.

(10.) BSR 16:5 (May 1846), 168.

(11.) The BFBS argued that if there was not a translation of the Greek word baptizo that did not favor one denomination over the other, then the word should simply be transliterated in the translated text. Creighton Lacy, The Word Carrying Giant: The Growth of the American Bible Society (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1977), 88; Margaret T. Hills, “Text and Translation: Principles and Problems, 1831–1860,” ABS Historical Essay 16, Part III, 1967, ABS Archives, New York, 12.

(12.) Lacy, The Word Carrying Giant, 90, 92; Annual Report of the ABS (New York: ABS, 1836), 26–27. In the 1850s Cone eventually left the American and Foreign Bible Society to form the American Bible Union. The purpose of this organization was to publish a distinctly “Baptist Bible.”

(13.) Extracts from the Correspondence of the ABS 34 (December 1830), 417–418.

(14.) Ivan Nothdurft, “The American Bible Society and Roman Catholicism, 1816–1979,” ABS Historical Essay 23, Part VII, Vol. I, n.d., ABS Archives, New York. As Protestants, the ABS leadership believed that the Apocryphal books, which were part of the Roman Catholic canon, were not inspired by God. BSR 5:3 (March 1865), 37–38.

(15.) Patrick Carey, Catholics in America: A History (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 30; Jay Dolan, The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 128.

(16.) BSR 24:9 (September 1847), 292.

(17.) Extracts from the Correspondence of the ABS 50 (November 1842), 593; BSR 9:3 (March 1845), 133; 22:5 (May 1847), 267.

(18.) Extracts from the Correspondence of the ABS 55 (November 1843), 4; BSR 1:3 (September 1849), 9.

(19.) Extracts from the Correspondence of the ABS 55 (November 1843), 4; John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: Norton, 2003), 25–37.

(20.) Gerald P. Fogarty, “The Quest for a Catholic Vernacular Bible in America,” in Hatch and Noll, ed. The Bible in America, 163, 166.

(21.) BSR 17:7 (July 1846), 178–179; 28:5 (May 1848), 362.

(22.) BSR 1:6 (December 1849), 21–22; 1:10 (April 1850), 37.

(23.) BSR 5:7 (July 1844), 75–76; 1:18 (December 1850), 71.

(p.324) (24.) For a history of the Mexican-American War see Robert W. Johannsen, To The Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in the American Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

(25.) Extracts from the Correspondence of the ABS 41 (May 1841), 460–461; BSR 5:7 (July 1844). On the Mexican-American War as a religious war see John C. Pinheiro, Missionaries of Republicanism: A Religious History of the Mexican-American War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(26.) BSR 25:11 (November 1847), 310.

(27.) Eric M. North and Dorothy U. Compagno, “Distribution of Scriptures in the U.S., 1841–1850,” ABS Historical Essay 14, Part IV, ABS Archives, New York, 125–128.