How the American Bible Society Became Evangelical
Image: American Bible Society

What happens to a historic organization that’s committed to circulating the Bible to as many people as possible when everyone who wants a copy of the Word of God already has access to one? How does such an institution continue its work when the Bible is so easily accessed via smart phones and apps? As we commemorate 200 years of the American Bible Society, we look back at a turning point in the organization’s history.

Bold Beginnings

In 1829, the American Bible Society (ABS) set out on a new campaign: to provide a Bible to every family in the United States and do it in three years. It was a bold move for the relatively young organization that was founded with the “sole object” of encouraging the wider circulation of the Bible “without note or comment.”

As the burgeoning United States moved westward, the leadership of the ABS became concerned that settlers in frontier regions—places like Alabama and Illinois—did not have access to the Word of God. If the ABS could get the Bible in the hands of these Americans, the gospel would advance, the moral foundation of the American republic would be strengthened, and the country would remain Protestant in the midst of a growing wave of Catholic immigration.

The General Supply was one of thousands of concentrated campaigns dedicated exposing people to the claims of the Bible. Founded in New York City in 1816 by some of the most prominent citizens in the nation—many of whom had led the country through the American Revolution a generation earlier—the ABS spent most of the 19th and 20th centuries bringing the Word to the world.The ABS called this mass distribution the “General Supply.” The work gained national attention, making the Society, in the minds of many Americans, the most important Christian benevolent effort in United States history.

A Shifting Reality

Fast forward to 1996. As the ABS celebrated its 180th anniversary, Eugene Habecker, the new CEO and president of the organization, thought it was time for a change in the way the Society carried out its historic mission. (Full disclosure: Habecker is the current chairman of the board of directors of Christianity Today.) Habecker read an October 28 New York Times article describing a major glut in Bible sales throughout the United States. It reported that the $200 million market for Bibles was “as flat as a leather Bible cover.” One publisher noted that the American market for the holy book had reached a saturation point.

Most experts blamed the problem on the rise of the so-called big box stores—Barnes & Noble, Walmart, and Sam’s Club—that also sold Bibles. The competition was fierce. Christian bookstores were going out of business, while others were returning hundreds of thousands of Bibles to publishers because they could not sell them.

“The people who have Bibles…don’t use them enough,” Habecker wrote, “or when they do, they don’t remember what they have read.”

A few days after this article appeared, the Times published a letter to the editor from Habecker. What bothered him the most about the article was the fact that so many Americans owned a Bible (he estimated that there was one in a least 90% of American homes), but few had any idea what was in it or how to engage with its content. “The people who have Bibles…don’t use them enough,” Habecker wrote, “or when they do, they don’t remember what they have read.”

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How the American Bible Society Became Evangelical