Jump directly to the Content


American Bible Society Will Close Its $60 Million Museum

The Bible museum on Independence Mall in Philadelphia was open less than three years and had attracted fewer visitors than projected.
American Bible Society Will Close Its $60 Million Museum
Image: Emily Belz
The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia.

American Bible Society announced it will shutter its Faith and Liberty Discovery Center (FLDC), a Bible museum it invested more than $60 million into, after less than three years in operation.

ABS had projected that the museum, centrally located on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, would draw 250,000 visitors a year. The revenue from ticket sales for the museum show a much lower number, maybe as low as 5,400 visitors in fiscal year 2022 (the museum’s program revenue was $54,000 and full-priced tickets cost $10).

ABS’s new CEO Jennifer Holloran, arriving last month to an organization with a variety of financial and missional troubles, said in an email to staff on Wednesday that she and the board had agreed at their February meeting that “now is the time to proceed with this difficult but necessary action.” She quoted Ecclesiastes 3, writing that “everything that happens in this world happens at the time of God’s choosing.”

“The FLDC as conceived was a wonderfully innovative idea,” she wrote to staff. “That idea came with big possibilities and requirements to allow it to be functional in the long run. Unfortunately, despite the valiant efforts of our FLDC leadership and team, we have not been able to achieve the long-term sustainability that an experience like that needs to be successful.”

The museum opened in May 2021 when venues were still experiencing pandemic ripple effects, but it never rebounded like other places. CT visited the museum last month and only three visitors trickled in over a two-hour span.

ABS described FLDC as a $60 million museum when it launched in 2021, and it had $11 million in expenses in fiscal year 2022. ABS’s 2023 stewardship report showed the organization contributed another $9.4 million to the museum.

ABS rents the museum’s space, so it is unlikely to recoup the investment, but this decision halts the bleeding of some of that money. The organization pays occupancy of about $1.3 million a year, according to its tax filings. ABS declined to comment on what the resolution of the lease would be.

Donors to the museum include several churches like Elevation Church and Houston’s First Baptist Church. Hobby Lobby is also a sponsor. The Museum of the Bible, backed by the Greens who own Hobby Lobby, loaned items to the museum. Other major donors include Linda Bean of the L.L.Bean family.

“I am disappointed. I’m sure I’m not the only one,” said Peter Rathbun, who donated to the museum along with his wife because he became excited about it when he served as general counsel to ABS. “I’m disappointed because I believed it was a wonderful vision, and I have no reason at this point to think that it is not still a great vision.”

“It was a colossal waste,” said one former ABS employee who was not authorized to speak on the record.

According to multiple sources, ABS was not sending donors regular reports on the museum. ABS’s 2023 stewardship report simply thanks anyone who visited the museum.

ABS had a windfall from selling its $300 million building in New York in 2015 to move to a rented office space in Philadelphia. The museum became one selling point of relocating to the “birthplace of America.”

“The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center would never have been possible if we’d moved to Atlanta, Orlando or Dallas. It fits perfectly in Philadelphia,” said former ABS CEO Roy Peterson in comments to DickersonBakker in 2021. Peterson oversaw the launch of FLDC.

The FLDC’s board of managers is made up of senior ABS leadership, but the museum has its own executive director.

Some former employees in interviews saw the museum initiative as one sign of ABS’s search for an identity as an organization shifting away from some of its global work to help Americans engage with the Bible more.

The museum’s stated goal is to trace the “relationship between faith and liberty in America … by illuminating the influence of the Bible.” The museum focuses on the Bible but does not exclusively highlight Christians. Its thesis is more generic—that faith was a part of the American story—with features on figures like Jewish educator and philanthropist Rebecca Gratz.

The exhibits are largely digital, with high-quality animated videos and interactive displays developed by the same team that did the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. Historic items from ABS’s own extensive archives are on display, such as Helen Keller’s Bible in Braille. It also exhibits ABS’s copy of John Wesley’s “a calm address to our American colonies” in 1775, in which Wesley urges loyalty to the British crown.

Other organizations contributed items: Rev. Billy Graham’s notes for a sermon he gave in the former Soviet Union in 1988 are on display, courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. And Voice of the Martyrs contributed copies of Bibles it smuggles into North Korea via weather balloon.

The exhibits are organized under themes of “faith, liberty, justice, hope, unity,” and expound on the Bible’s role in events from the founding of the United States to the forced assimilation of Native Americans to desegregation to temperance to labor reform. The museum has a team of scholars that draw from some Christian colleges as well as churches.

Visitors can carry a “lamp” around and use it to touch different exhibits to save information they can access later. In the gift shop, visitors can purchase a Faith and Liberty Bible published by ABS, based on its Good News Translation.

In a press release announcing the closure, Holloran stated: “We look forward to reimagining what the future of content could look like through a publicly accessible, digitized format.”

With the Museum of the Bible providing many items at FLDC, CT asked Robert Briggs, then-CEO of ABS, in a 2020 interview how FLDC would be distinct from the Bible museum in Washington, DC. Briggs said that the FLDC would tell a more “targeted” story about “the influence of the Bible on the development of this nation.”

The museum is set to close to the public on March 28.

Support Our Work

Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month

Read These Next