How the American Bible Society Became Evangelical

A look back at a major turning point in the 200-year history of the storied organization.
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.”

At the time of Habecker’s letter, the ABS circulation numbers were still very impressive—millions of Bibles sold and given away around the world. But the new CEO now wondered if distribution was the best measure of success.

From Service to Ministry

Times were changing and Habecker was ready to lead the ABS in a new direction. For most of the 20th century, the ABS understood itself as a service organization. It published Bibles, produced translations informed by the best and most innovative scholarship, and distributed those Bibles through sales and grants to as wide an audience as possible. The ABS leadership drew careful boundaries around what the ABS did and did not do. For example, the ABS wanted people around the world to be confronted with the message of Jesus Christ, but it did not engage in evangelism. The ABS sold Bibles to churches and denominations, but it did not make suggestions about how those groups should teach, interpret, or use the Bible. The ABS was part of the larger work of building the Kingdom of God, but it had explicitly limited its own role in such efforts.

Under Habecker’s watch (1991–2005), the ABS changed from a service organization to a ministry with the purpose of teaching Christians how to use the Bible. As a former college president—he served as president of Huntington University from 1981–1991—Habecker maintained an abiding concern for young believers. Not only did he want the youth of America to experience God through the Bible, but he also realized that without the next generation, the financial future of the ABS was in doubt.

When it came to moving the ABS in this direction, Habecker had a strong ally in Lamar Vest, a member of the Board of Trustees. Vest was a leader in the Church of God, a Pentecostal denomination headquartered in Cleveland, Tennessee. Vest also served as the chairman of the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.

“It seemed to me,” Vest would later say, “that our number one discussion on the board is how much money we have in the bank and how many Bibles we distributed, and so we are judging our success by our bank account and judging our ministry in tonnage.”

After sitting through his first several ABS board meetings, Vest grew frustrated with the proceedings and told Habecker that he was going to resign. “It seemed to me,” Vest would later say, “that our number one discussion on the board is how much money we have in the bank and how many Bibles we distributed, and so we are judging our success by our bank account and judging our ministry in tonnage.” How could the ABS pat itself on the back for shipping out “three more tons of Bibles this year than last year,” when, according to Vest, Bible knowledge and literacy was on the decline? Was the ABS in the business of putting a “ninth Bible on the shelf of the people who already had eight that they weren’t reading?” Habecker agreed, and he asked the Pentecostal from Tennessee to help him change things.

A Redefined Vision

Habecker eventually appointed Vest to chair a new “mission and vision” task force. In 2001, a new vision statement was presented to the board of trustees. It set the ABS on a new course. Prior to 2001, the ABS statement of purpose read:

“The purpose of the American Bible Society is to provide the Holy Scriptures to every man, woman, and child in a language and form each can readily understand, and at a price each can easily afford. This purpose, undertaken without doctrinal note or comment, and without profit, is a cause which all Christians and all churches are urged to support.”

Vest’s committee changed the statement of purpose to a mission statement that read: “The mission of the American Bible Society is to make the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford so that all may experience its life-changing message.”

The new mission statement came with two significant changes. First, it eliminated the phrase “without doctrinal note or comment.” Second, it added the clause “so that all may experience its life-changing message.” The changes seemed to suggest that the ABS could now participate in the practice of teaching and interpretation. It could publish Bibles with notes that were specific to a particular faith tradition. This new departure enabled the ABS to work more closely with churches and denominations and provide Bible “helps” that reflected the beliefs of a specific religious tradition.

Success would now be measured in changed lives—a result that a previous generation had believed was the work of the church.

Shortly after this, the ABS began to use the word “ministry” to define its programs. For example, the current ABS website describes the Society as a “Christian ministry that has been engaging people with the life-changing message of God’s word for nearly 200 years.” The ABS would no longer be primarily a service organization, a publisher, or a Bible distributor; it would now directly work to make sure that people’s lives were changed through their encounters with the Word of God. In doing so, Vest claimed to be answering what he called the “so what?” question—the reason why he and others should be advancing the work of the ABS. Habecker, Vest, and their ABS supporters described their new works as “Scripture engagement.” Success would now be measured in changed lives—a result that a previous generation had believed was the work of the church.

ABS Becomes ‘Interconfessional’

Habecker’s presidency, and the move toward scriptural engagement, also led to some changes in the religious identity of the ABS. These changes had an effect on the makeup of the board of trustees, the culture of its headquarters (historically called “The Bible House”), and the partners that the Society was willing to work with.

When Habecker arrived at the ABS in 1991, the board of managers (later board of trustees) was largely made up of men and women with ties to mainline Protestant churches. Habecker sought to change its religious identity by adding more Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians. The critics of this move believed that Habecker was trying to orchestrate an “evangelical takeover.” The CEO admitted that he was trying to reduce the number of board members who affiliated with mainline Protestantism, but he was motivated less by some kind of evangelical takeover and more by what he understood as the historic ABS commitment to embracing Christians of all persuasions.

Habecker believed that the large number of mainline Protestants on the board did not represent the demographic makeup of American Christians. Mainline churches were in decline. Evangelicalism was thriving. Catholicism remained the largest religious body in the United States. He was fond of using the term “interconfessional,” rather than “ecumenical,” to describe the religious makeup of the ABS board. “Ecumenical” carried too much baggage. For some, it was a worn-out term left over from midcentury attempts by organizations like the National Council of Churches or the World Council of Churches to create one, unified communion of Christians. It was a term that raised red flags for evangelicals.

Habecker’s decision to diversify the board emphasized both unity and difference.

Habecker’s decision to diversify the board emphasized both unity and difference. He hoped that every member might bear testimony to the belief that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” but in the process they would also keep strong ties to their specific ways of living out or practicing such a credo. While his use of the term “interconfessional” represented such a conviction, it was also a means by which Habecker was able to disconnect the ABS from its 20th-century links to the Protestant Ecumenical Movement.

Evangelicalism on the Rise

Habecker was very sensitive to the fact that those associated with the work of the ABS spoke a variety of religious languages. People expressed their faith in different ways. Yet anyone connected with life in the Bible House in this era could see that the culture of day-to-day ABS operations had taken on a decidedly different tone under Habecker’s leadership, a tone that might best be described as evangelical. Many welcomed the change. Others did not.

Habecker drew criticism for trying to create a culture in which members of the staff prayed for one another. Meetings were opened in prayer at a much higher rate than they had been before. Habecker and his staff brought a greater devotional flavor to the Monday morning voluntary meeting, “Moments for the Word.” One regular attendee of these meetings noted that each session usually ended with a very strong message about accepting Jesus Christ as one’s savior. And when, during a presentation at a staff meeting, one of Habecker’s vice presidents described the kind of person whom the ABS was trying to reach with the Bible as a “passionate Christ-follower,” he was reprimanded by a staff member who thought that such language was exclusive in nature and shouldn’t be used in the Bible House or in ABS literature.

Outside the Bible House, the ABS began working more closely with evangelical groups. In the past, the ABS had partnered most extensively with Protestant denominations (and eventually Catholic dioceses). The denominations would purchase Bibles, Testaments, and scripture portions from the ABS for congregational use or special events and programs. Most of the larger mainline Protestant denominations also donated money to the continuing work of the Society.

Under Habecker a new trend developed in the ABS grant-making practices. By 2005, the final of year of his presidency, the ABS was making large grants to ministries such as Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), an evangelical ministry on college campuses with a program for distributing Bibles to military personnel; Faith Comes by Hearing, an evangelical ministry that produces audio Bibles; and Scripture Union, an evangelism and discipleship ministry for youth and families. This trend continues today. For example, in 2013 and 2014, the ABS made grants to evangelical organizations such as Liberty University, Willow Creek Association, Child Evangelism Fellowship, Trans-World Radio, WorldServe Ministries, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism, Scripture Union, the Seed Company, and Campus Crusade for Christ. In addition to these new partners, in 2011 the ABS became a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an organization that keeps evangelical ministries and churches financially accountable to their constituencies.

“We are shifting from a distribution-only mindset to a Scripture-engagement mindset.”

In May 2003, as he was winding down his tenure at the ABS, Habecker’s report to the board of trustees proclaimed: “We are shifting from a distribution-only mindset to a Scripture-engagement mindset.” Today, the ABS takes Habecker’s call to Scripture-engagement very seriously. By 2025, under the leadership of current CEO Roy Peterson, the ABS wants to see 100 million Americans engaged with the Bible, Scriptures available in every world language, and the expansion of its endowment to $1 billion. It is an ambitious goal, not unlike the Society’s 1829 attempt to provide a Bible to every American family through the General Supply.

As the ABS enters into its third century of Bible work, it will undoubtedly look back in search of a useable past to help it move forward. It will also find that a lot has changed over the years. The commitment to bringing the Bible to the people who need it, however, remains the same.

Adapted from The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society by John Fea with permission from Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press 2016.

John Fea teaches American history and chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He blogs daily at www.thewayofimprovement.com and tweets @johnfea1

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How the American Bible Society Became Evangelical