BIBLE SOCIETIES, associations for translating and circulating the Holy Scriptures. This object has engaged the attention of the leaders of Christendom from early times. In an extant letter, dated A.D. 331, the emperor Constantine requested Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, to provide him with fifty copies of the Old and New Testaments for use in the principal churches in Constantinople. In 797 Charlemagne commissioned Alcuin to prepare an emended text of the Vulgate; copies of this text were multiplied, not always accurately, in the famous writing-schools at Tours. The first book printed in Europe was the Latin Bible, and Copinger estimates that 124 editions of the Vulgate had been issued by the end of the 15th century. The Italian Bible was printed a dozen times before a.d. 1500, and eighteen editions of the German Bible had already been published before Luther’s version appeared.
The Reformation quickened men’s interest in the Scriptures to an extraordinary degree, so that, notwithstanding the adverse attitude adopted by the Roman Church at and after the council of Trent, the translation and circulation of the Bible were taken in hand with fresh zeal, and continued in more systematic fashion.
Thus, the Revised French Geneva Bible of 1588, which was issued in folio, quarto and octavo, and became a standard text, bears the following note on the verso of the title: “Les frais de cet ouvrage, imprimé en trois diuerses formes en mesme temps, pour la commodité et contentement de toutes sortes de personnes, ont esté liberalemet fournis par quelques gens de bien, qui n’ont cherché gagner pour leur particulier, mais seulement de servir à Dieu et à son Église.” The Corporation for the Promoting and Propagating of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in New England (founded in 1649) bore the expense of printing both the New Testament and the Bible as a whole (Cambridge, Mass., 1663—the earliest Bible printed in America), which John Eliot, one of the Pilgrim Fathers, translated into “the language of the Massachusetts Indians,” whom he evangelized. In Arnauld’s Defence (1669) of the famous Port Royal version of the New Testament in French (issued, 1667), he states that it had been printed in many forms and sizes, including very cheap editions for the poor, and goes on to describe how its circulation was promoted by “les sacrifices que s’imposaient les pieux solitaires pour faire participer les plus indigents au bienfait de leur entreprise. Dès que leur traduction fut prête, ils envoyèrent de Paris un grand nombre de colporteurs chargés de la vendre au prix de revient et même, dans certaines circonstances, à des prix réduits; et ils couvrirent la dépense par des dons volontaires” (E. Pétavel, La Bible en France, p. 152).
To meet the cost of publishing the Finn Bible in 1685, the editor, J. Gezelius, bishop of Åbo, obtained an order from the Swedish government for the appropriation of certain corn-tithes, still known as Bibel Tryck-Tunnan. When the Finnish Bible Society began to publish editions of the Scriptures, the tsar Alexander I. contributed 5000 roubles from his privy purse, and ordered that these corn-tithes should again be appropriated to this purpose for five years from 1812. In 1701 at Frankfort-On-Main there appeared a quarto edition of the Ethiopic Psalter, whose editor, H. Ludolf, writes in his preface: “Quamobrem nullum gratius officium Christianae huic nationi a me praestari posse putavi, quam si Psalterium Aethiopicum, quod apud illos non aliter quam in membrana manuscriptum habetur, et caro satis venditur, typis mandari, ejusque plurima exemplaria nomine Societatis Indicae in Habessinia gratis distribui curarem.”
In 1719 appeared the first of numerous editions of the French
New Testament, connected with the name of the Abbé de Barneville, a priest of the Oratory at Paris. Impressed by the popular ignorance of the Scriptures, he himself translated, or caused others to translate, the New Testament into French from the Vulgate, and formed an association to distribute copies systematically at low prices. The prefaces to his various editions contain details as to the methods of this association, and repeatedly insist on the importance of reading the Scriptures. (On this Société biblique catholique française see O. Douen, Histoire de la société biblique protestante de Paris, Paris, 1868, pp. 46-51.)
Christian missionaries to non-Christian lands have naturally been among the most skilful translators and the most assiduous distributors of the Bible. The earliest complete Arabic Bible was produced at Rome in 1671, by the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide. Protestant missionary societies have engaged energetically in the task not only of translating, but of printing, publishing and distributing the Scriptures. Thus the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (founded 1698), besides its other activities, has done much to cheapen and multiply copies of the Scriptures, not only in English and Welsh, but in many foreign languages. Early in the 18th century it printed editions in Arabic, and promoted the first versions of the Bible in Tamil and Telugu, made by the Danish Lutheran missionaries whom it then supported in south India. The earliest New Testament (1767) and Old Testament (1783-1801) in Gaelic were published by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (founded 1709). The S.P.C.K. now publishes versions of the Scriptures (either complete, or in part) in 38 different languages (without reckoning versions of the Prayer Book in 45 other languages); and during 1905-1906 the S.P.C.K. issued in England 116,126 Bibles and 17,783 New Testaments.
The earliest noteworthy organization, formed for the specific purpose of circulating the Scriptures, was the Canstein Bible Institute (Bibelanstalt), founded in 1710 at Halle in Saxony, by Karl Hildebrand, baron von Canstein (1667-1719), who was associated with P.J. Spener and other leaders of Pietism in Germany. He invented a method of printing, perhaps somewhat akin to stereotyping—though the details are not clearly known,—whereby the Institute could produce Bibles and Testaments in Luther’s version at a very low cost, and sell them, in small size, at prices equivalent to 10d. and 3d. per copy, respectively. In 1722 editions of the Scriptures were also issued in Bohemian and Polish. At von Canstein’s death he left the Institute to the care of his friend August Hermann Francke, founder in 1698 of the famous Waisenhaus (orphanage) at Halle. The Canstein Institute has issued some 6,000,000 copies of the Scriptures.
In England various Christian organizations, which arose out of the Evangelical movement in the 18th century, took part in the work. Among such may be mentioned the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge among the Poor (1750); and the Society for the Support and Encouragement of Sunday Schools (1785). An institution was founded in 1780 under the name of the Bible Society, but as its sphere was restricted to soldiers and seamen the title was afterwards changed to the Naval and Military Bible Society. The first ship among whose crew it distributed the Scriptures was the “Royal George,” which had 400 of this society’s Bibles on board when it foundered at Spithead on the 29th of August 1782. The French Bible Society, instituted in 1792, came to an end in 1803, owing to the Revolution.
The British and Foreign Bible Society.—In 1804 was founded in London the British and Foreign Bible Society, the most important association of its kind. It originated in a proposal made to the committee of the Religious Tract Society, by the Rev. Thomas Charles of Bala, who found that his evangelistic and philanthropic labours in Wales were sorely hindered by the dearth of Welsh Bibles. His colleagues in the Religious Tract Society united with other earnest evangelical leaders to establish a new society, which should have for its sole object “to encourage a wider circulation of the Holy Scriptures, without note or comment.” This simplicity of aim is combined with a catholicity of constitution which admits the co-operation of all persons interested in the society’s object. The committee of management consists of thirty-six laymen, six of them being foreigners resident in or near London, while of the remaining thirty, half are members of the Church of England, and half are members of other Christian denominations.
Supported by representative Christian leaders, such as Granville Sharp, Zachary Macaulay, William Wilberforce, Charles Grant and Henry Thornton, with Lord Teignmouth, ex-governor-general of India, as its first president, and Dr Porteus, bishop of London, as its friendly counsellor, the new society made rapid progress. It spread throughout Great Britain, mainly by means of auxiliaries, i.e. local societies, affiliated but self-controlled, with subsidiary branches and associations (these last being often managed by women). Up to 1816-1817 the parent society had received from its auxiliaries altogether £420,000. This system continues to flourish. In 1905-1906 the society had about 5800 auxiliaries, branches and associations in England and Wales, and more than 2000 auxiliaries abroad, mainly in the British Colonies, many of which undertake vigorous local work, besides remitting contributions to London.
The society’s advance was chequered by several controversies. (a) Its fundamental law to circulate the Bible alone, without note or comment, was vehemently attacked by Bishop Marsh and other divines of the Church of England, who insisted that the Prayer Book ought to accompany the Bible. (b) Another more serious controversy related to the circulation—chiefly through affiliated societies on the continent—of Bibles containing the Deutero-canonical books of the Old Testament. In 1826 the society finally resolved that its fundamental law be fully and distinctly recognized as excluding the circulation “of those Books, or parts of Books, which are usually termed Apocryphal.” This step, however, failed to satisfy most of the society’s supporters in Scotland, who proceeded to form themselves into independent organizations, grouped for the most part round centres at Edinburgh and Glasgow. These were finally amalgamated in 1861 into the National Bible Society of Scotland. (c) A third dispute turned upon the admissibility of non-Trinitarians to the privilege of co-operation. The refusal of the society to alter its constitution so as formally to exclude such persons led to the formation (1831) of the Trinitarian Bible Society, which is still in existence. (d) A fourth controversy arose out of the restrictive renderings of the term “baptize” and its cognate terms, adopted by William Carey and his colleagues in their famous “Serampore Versions,” towards publishing which the society had contributed up to 1830 nearly £30,000. Protests from other Indian missionaries led the society to determine that it could circulate only such versions as gave neutral renderings for the terms in question. As a sequel, the Bible Translation Society was founded in 1839 to issue versions embodying distinctively Baptist renderings.
By one of its original laws the British and Foreign Bible Society could circulate no copies of the Scriptures in English other than King James’s Version of 1611. In 1901 this law was widened to include the Revised English Version of 1881-1885.
From its foundation the society has successfully laboured to promote new and improved versions of the Scriptures. In 1804 the Bible, or some part of it, had been printed in about fifty-five different tongues. By the year 1906 versions, more or less complete, had been published in more than 530 distinct languages and dialects, and in 400 of these the work of translation, printing or distribution had been promoted by the society. Translations or revisions in scores of languages are still being carried on by companies of scholars and representative missionaries in different parts of the world, organized under the society’s auspices and largely at its expense. New versions are made, wherever practicable, from the original Hebrew or Greek text, and the results thus obtained have a high philological value and interest. The society’s interdenominational character has commonly secured—what could hardly otherwise have been attained—the acceptance of the same version by missions of different churches working side by side. The society supplies the Scriptures to missions of every Reformed Communion on such terms that, as a rule, the books distributed by the missions involve no charge on their funds. Except under special circumstances, the society does not encourage wholesale free distribution, but provides cheap editions at prices which the poorest can pay. On the whole it receives from sales about 40% of what it expends in preparing, printing and circulating the books.
During the year 1905-1906 the society’s circulation reached the unprecedented total of 5,977,453 copies, including 968,683 Bibles and 1,326,475 Testaments. Of the whole 1,921,000 volumes were issued from the Bible House, London, and 1,331,000 were in English or Welsh, circulating chiefly in England and the British colonies. The other main fields of distribution were as follows:—France, 203,000 copies; Central Europe, 679,000; Italy, 117,000; Spain and Portugal, 120,000; the Russian empire, 595,000; India, Burma and Ceylon, 768,000; Japan, 286,000; and China, 1,075,000 (most of these last being separate gospels).
The society spends £10,000 a year in grants to religious and philanthropic agencies at home. Outside the United Kingdom
it has its own agencies or secretaries in twenty-seven of the chief cities of the world, and maintains depots in 200 other centres. It employs 930 Christian colporteurs abroad, who sold in 1905-1906 over 2,250,000 volumes. It supports 670 native Christian Bible-women in the East, in connexion with forty different missionary organizations. The centenary festival in 1904 was celebrated with enthusiasm by the Reformed Churches and their foreign missions throughout the world. Messages of congratulation came from the rulers of every Protestant nation in Christendom, and a centenary thanksgiving fund of 250,000 guineas was raised for extending the society’s work. During the year 1905-1906 the society expended £238,632, while its income was £231,964 (of which £98,204 represented receipts from sales). Up to the 31st of March 1906 the society had expended altogether £14,686,072, and had issued 198,515,199 copies of the Scriptures—of which more than 78,000,000 were in English.
In Scotland the Edinburgh Bible Society (1809), the Glasgow Bible Society (1812), and other Scottish auxiliaries, many of which had dissociated themselves from the British and Foreign Bible Society after 1826, were finally incorporated (1861) with the National Bible Society of Scotland, which has carried on vigorous work all over the world, especially in China. During 1905, with an income of £27,108, it issued 1,590,881 copies, 907,000 of which were circulated in China. Its total issues from 1861 to 1906 were 26,106,265 volumes.
In Ireland the Hibernian Bible Society (originally known as the Dublin Bible Society) was founded in 1806, and with it were federated kindred Irish associations formed at Cork, Belfast, Derry, &c. The Hibernian Bible Society, whose centenary was celebrated in 1906, had then issued a total of 5,713,837 copies. It sends an annual subsidy to aid the foreign work of the British and Foreign Bible Society.
Other European Societies.—The impulse which founded the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804 soon spread over Europe, and, notwithstanding the turmoils of the Napoleonic wars, kindred organizations on similar lines quickly sprang up, promoted and subsidized by the British and Foreign Bible Society. Many of these secured royal and aristocratic patronage and encouragement—the tsar of Russia, the kings of Prussia, Bavaria, Sweden, Denmark and Württemberg all lending their influence to the enterprise.
Within fourteen years the following Bible societies were in active operation: the Basel Bible Society (founded at Nuremberg, 1804), the Prussian Bible Society (founded as the Berlin Bible Society, 1805), the Revel Bible Society (1807), the Swedish Evangelical Society (1808), the Dorpat Bible Society (1811), the Riga Bible Society (1812), the Finnish Bible Society (1812), the Hungarian Bible Institution (Pressburg, 1812), the Württemberg Bible Society (Stuttgart, 1812), the Swedish Bible Society (1814), the Danish Bible Society (1814), the Saxon Bible Society (Dresden, 1814), the Thuringian Bible Society (Erfurt, 1814), the Berg Bible Society (Eberfeld, 1814), the Hanover Bible Society (1814), the Hamburg-Altona Bible Society (1814), the Lübeck Bible Society (1814), the Netherlands Bible Society (Amsterdam, 1814). These were increased in 1815 by the Brunswick, Bremen, Schleswig-Holstein, Strassburg and Eichsfeld (Saxony) Bible Societies, and the Icelandic Bible Society. In 1816-1817 came the Norwegian Bible Society, the Polish Bible Society and ten minor German Bible Societies. Twelve cantonal societies had also been formed in Switzerland.
Up to 1816-1817 these societies had printed altogether 436,000 copies of the Scriptures, and had received from the British and Foreign Bible Society gifts amounting to over £62,000. The decision of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1826 with regard to circulating the Apocrypha (see above) modified its relations with the most influential of these continental societies. Some of them were ultimately dissolved or suppressed through political or ecclesiastical opposition, the Roman Church proving especially hostile. But many of them still flourish, and are actively engaged in their original task.
The circulation of the Scriptures by German Bible Societies during 1905 was estimated as follows:—The Prussian Bible Society (Berlin), 182,000 copies; the Württemberg Bible Institute (Stuttgart), 247,000; the Berg Bible Society (Eberfeld), 142,000; the Saxon Bible Society (Dresden), 44,000; the Central Bible Association (Nuremberg), 14,000; the Canstein Bible Institute (Halle), the Schleswig-Holstein Bible Society, the Hamburg-Altona Bible Society and others, together 56,000.
During 1905, nine cantonal Bible societies in Switzerland circulated altogether 71,000 copies; the Netherlands Bible Society reported a circulation of 54,544 volumes, 48,137 of which were in Dutch; the Danish Bible Society circulated 45,289 copies; the Norwegian Bible Society circulated 67,058 copies; and in Sweden the Evangelical National Society distributed about 110,000 copies.
In Italy, by a departure from the traditional policy of the Roman Church, the newly formed “Pious Society of St Jerome for the Dissemination of the Holy Gospels” issued in 1901 from the Vatican press a new Italian version of the Four Gospels and Acts. By the end of 1905 the society announced that over 400,000 copies of this volume had been sold at 2d. a copy.
In France, the Société biblique protestante de Paris, founded in 1818, with generous aid from the British and Foreign Bible Society, had a somewhat restricted basis and scope. In 1833 the Société biblique française et étrangère was formed on wider lines; after its dissolution in 1863, many of its supporters joined the Société biblique de France, which dates from 1864, and represents chiefly members of the Église libre, and kindred French Evangelicals. During 1905 its issues were 34,475 copies, while the Société biblique protestante de Paris issued 8061 copies.
Of these non-British societies the most noteworthy was established in Russia. In December 1812, while “the last shattered remnants of Napoleon’s Grand Army struggled across the ice of the Niemen,” the tsar Alexander I. sanctioned plans for a Bible society, which was promptly inaugurated at St Petersburg under the presidency of Prince Galitzin. Through the personal favour of the tsar, it made rapid and remarkable progress. Nobles and ministers of state, with the chief ecclesiastics not only of the Russian Church but of the Roman, the Uniat, the Armenian, the Greek, the Georgian and the Lutheran Churches, found themselves constrained to serve on its committees. By the close of 1823 the Russian Bible Society had formed 289 auxiliaries, extending eastwards to Yakutsk and Okhotsk; and had received altogether £145,640. In 1824, however, Prince Galitzin ceased to be procurator of the Holy Synod, and Seraphim, metropolitan of St Petersburg, became president of the Russian Bible Society. And in 1826, soon after his accession, the tsar Nicholas I. issued a ukase suspending the society’s operations—after it had printed the Scriptures in thirty different languages, seventeen of which were new tongues, and had circulated 600,000 volumes from the Caucasus to Kamchatka. In 1828 Nicholas I. sanctioned the establishment of a Protestant Bible Society, which still exists, to supply the Scriptures only to Protestant subjects of the tsar (cf. Th. Schiemann, Geschichte Russlands unter Nikolaus I. vol. i. chap. ix.). In 1839 St Petersburg became the headquarters of an agency of the British and Foreign Bible Society, which enjoys special facilities in Russia, and now annually circulates about 600,000 copies of the Scriptures, in fifty different languages, within the Russian empire.
In America the earliest Bible society was founded at Philadelphia in 1808. Six more societies—including those of New York and of Massachusetts—were formed during 1809, and other societies, auxiliaries and associations quickly followed. In 1816 a convention of delegates representing 31 of these institutions met at New York and established the American Bible Society, with Elias Boudinot as president. All kindred organizations in the states gradually became amalgamated with this national body, and the federation was completed in 1839 by the adhesion of the Philadelphia Society (which now changed its name to the Pennsylvania Bible Society). Not a few noteworthy versions of the Bible, such as those in Arabic, 15 dialects of Chinese, Armenian, and Zulu, and many American Indian, Philippine, and African languages have appeared under the auspices of the American Bible Society. Turkish, classical Chinese, and Korean versions have been made by the American and British societies jointly. The society’s foreign agencies extend to China, Japan, Korea, the Turkish empire, Bulgaria, Egypt, Micronesia, Siam, Mexico, Central America, the South American republics, Cuba and the Philippines. In the year ending March 31st 1909 the income of the Society was $502,345, and it issued 2,153,028 copies of the Scriptures, nearly half of which went to readers outside the United States. The total distribution effected by the American Bible Society and its federated societies had in 1909 exceeded 84,000,000 volumes, in over a hundred different languages.
Authorities.—Besides the published reports of the societies in question, the following works may be mentioned: J. Owen, History of the First Ten Years of the British and Foreign Bible Society (London, 1816-1820); G. Browne, History of the Bible Society (London, 1859); Bertram, Geschichte der Cansteinschen Bibelanstalt (Halle, 1863); E. Pétavel, La Bible en France (Paris, 1864); O. Douen, Histoire de la société biblique protestante de Paris (Paris, 1868); G. Borrow,
The Bible in Spain (London, 1849); W. Canton, The History of the British and Foreign Bible Society (London, 1904 foll.); J. Ballinger, The Bible in Wales (London, 1906); T. H. Darlow and H. F. Moule, Historical Catalogue of the Printed Editions of Holy Scripture (London, vol. i. 1903, vol. ii. 1908).
(T. H. D.)