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Bible society

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A Bible society is an organisation dedicated to spreading the Christian message, by increasing the number of Bibles in the world. Depending on the organisation, their activities may include Bible translation; editing and producing new editions of the Bible, including audio books, e-texts, sign language Bibles, and other formats; publishing; printing; purchasing editions; and distributing Bibles. Many have also worked more widely to promote literacy and education to allow people to read and teach the Bible; run bookshops; publish other books; and be involved in educating or supporting clergy and lay preachers.[1]

Traditionally Bible societies are non-sectarian and focus on offering the Bible text itself rather than promoting interpretations or providing commentaries. Inevitably, they're not entirely non-sectarian, and religious doctrines influence the texts they produce and how they are distributed: in particular there were disputes over the Apocrypha and whether they should be omitted for reasons of cost or doctrine, or included on the grounds of inclusivity.[2]

Shortly after movable-type printing was brought to Europe, people began printing Bibles. The Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation both increased demand and supply of Bibles, but many people were too poor to buy a Bible or for some reason didn't want one. Early organisations included the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, incorporated in 1649; the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge founded in the UK in 1698 and still in operation; and the Canstein Bible Institute founded in Germany in 1710. New organisations were founded and operated in the 18th and 19th centuries, catering to soldiers, sailors, and other people at risk of moral turpitude far from home; the poor; and non-Christian citizens of western nations' empires. The United Bible Societies was formed in 1946 as an umbrella organisation for many of the national Bible societies. Pope Gregory XVI got huffy about Bible Societies in his 1844 encyclical Inter Praecipuas, which discouraged Roman Catholics from involvement, but Protestants kept at it and in the 1960s Vatican II reversed the Vatican's opposition to Bible reading.[2][1]

From the mid-19th century many Bible societies employed Bible pedlars who sold cheap Bibles from house to house, but unlike missionaries they worked in their own country or community rather than being transplants from distant lands.[2]

Today there are still many well-known organisations spreading the word of God whoever wrote the damn thing. Most still adhere to the principle of trying to distribute the Bible without interpreting it or imposing doctrine, but some have strayed a long way from the original goals.

Famous examples[edit]

Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge[edit]

SPCK logo

A British charity founded in 1698 by Thomas Bray and his friends, who were upset by the vice and immorality in London. The organisation was originally Anglican but is now more ecumenical, although it still provides support to Anglican lay members and clergy. It initially focused on the UK and British colonies in the Americas, funding schools and libraries, but it has expanded worldwide. In the mid-20th century it had a chain of Christian bookshops with 40 in the UK and 20 overseas. It also publishes books under various imprints including SPCK, Marylebone House (Christian-themed fiction such as Christian detectives investigating Christian crimes), Diffusion (aimed at adults learning to read, and widely used in prisons), and the African Theological Network Press.[3]

In Scotland, it has an independent sister organisation, the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, founded by royal charter in 1709. This was controversial for its early attempts to repress the Gaelic language and force teaching in English even to native Gaelic speakers, although in the late-18th century it published a New Testament with Gaelic and English text. As well as Scotland, it was active in the eastern US in the 18th century.[3][4]

British and Foreign Bible Society[edit]

BFBS logo

Otherwise known simply as the Bible Society, this was founded in 1804 by a group including William Wilberforce (better known as an anti-slavery campaigner) and the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Thomas Charles. Its goal was to "translate, print and distribute the Bible, without any notes or commentary, throughout the British Isles and the whole world".[2] Although its founders were non-conformists it tried to include Church of England members from the beginning.

In World War One it distributed nine million copies of the scriptures in 80 languages to soldiers, prisoners, and refugees on all sides of the war, in a major achievement of logistics if nothing else.[5] As early as the 1820s there was controversy over whether it should be ecumenical and distribute the Apocrypha or follow strict Protestant teaching and omit the contested books. As a result the Bible Society split, with those opposed to the Apocrypha leaving: most of the Scottish branches eventually formed the Scottish Bible Society, while the Trinitarian Bible Society was formed in England to oppose the heretical deuterocanon.[6]

Bible Society of Australia[edit]

The Bible Society of Australia was founded early 19th century.


Biblica logo

Biblica was founded in 1809 as the New York Bible Society by a group including soap baron William Colgate, and from 1810 sponsored the missionary William CareyWikipedia in India. It went through many name changes before becoming the International Bible Society in 1988 (when it moved from godless New York City to Colorado Springs), and Biblica in 2009.[7]

Trinitarian Bible Society[edit]

Founded in 1831, split from the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Trinitarian Bible Society was opposed to the distribution of the Apocrypha. It claims to be "for the circulation of Protestant or uncorrupted versions of the Word of God".[8] It distributes materials including the King James Version (KJV) in English, translations into other languages, and tracts and materials for children; it is strongly associated with the King James Only movement although they only go so far as saying that the KJV is the best, not that it is perfect.[9]

American Bible Society[edit]

Founded in 1816 in New York, and known for its Good News translation.[10] Recently there has been controversy over it taking an evangelical bent. In 2001 it dropped its goal of distributing the Bible "without doctrinal note or comment", and increased its involvement with evangelical groups. As of 2018 it requires staff to sign a statement of principles that includes opposition to gay marriage.[11]

United Bible Societies[edit]

A confederation of several Bible societies around the world, including the British and Foreign Bible Society and American Bible Society. Headquartered in Swindon, Wiltshire, England. It also publishes a refereed journal, The Bible Translator.[12] Reportedly in one year (2003) they distributed 430 million texts (Bibles, New Testaments, and Scripture portions), including 21.4 million Bibles and 14.4 million New Testaments, and as of 2001 produced texts in 672 languages.[13]

Gideons International[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Gideons

Famous for leaving Bibles in hotel rooms, the Gideons don't translate but do distribute. A lot.

World Bible Society[edit]

An evangelical organisation rather than a conventional ecumenical Bible society. In 2012, then-president F. Kenton Beshore predicted the Rapture by 2021 and the Second Coming by 2028, and has repeated this claim numerous times since then. Beshore claimed to be a "father of the modern Bible prophecy movement".[14][15]

SIL International[edit]

SIL logo

SIL International was founded in 1934 by American missionary William Cameron Townsend as the Summer Institute of Linguistics.[16] Townsend began a relationship with the Mexican Ministry of Education to translate Bible into indigenous languages. Since that time, Bibles have been translated into many languages throughout the world. The society has also created dictionaries and grammars for many indigenous languages. It has also created Ethnologue,Wikipedia which provides statistics and bibliographic information on languages throughout the world. Notable branches have existed in Mexico, South America, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines.

SIL was accused of being a front for the CIA in several countries,[17] and was evicted from several countries in Latin America for this.

Townsend also founded Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1942, now known as Wycliffe Global Alliance.


From fundamentalist Christians[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Fundamentalist Christianity

To fundies, Bible societies are dangerously heretical and ecumenical, letting in Roman Catholics, Unitarians, and God knows who else. Example diatribe:

Today the United Bible Societies are fully committed to an unholy ecumenism. Hundreds of examples could be given to illustrate this. The UBS is "in effect the Bible society wing of the World Council of Churches" (Andrew Brown, The Word of God Among All Nations, p. 124). It matters not that the major Protestant denominations today are filled with theological modernism. It matters not that the Roman Catholic Church preaches a false gospel that leads multitudes to Hell. It matters not that Roman Catholicism is filled with all sorts of doctrinal error. The UBS intends to "serve all churches" no matter what they believe and no matter what the Word of God says about separation from error![13]

From Jews[edit]

Christian Bible societies have distributed cheap editions of Hebrew texts to Jews, undercutting the overpriced Jewish texts. This could be seen as an attempt to convert Jews to Christianity.[18]

From Roman Catholics[edit]

The Vatican objects to the idea that the Bible is the most important part of Christianity, and because it believes itself to be the only way to Jesus and God, it opposes missionary work that does not involve lots of Roman Catholic doctrinal teaching.[19] It may be accurate in its claims that distributing the Bible is a poor way of making Christian converts (and people may use Bibles for other purposes ranging from reading as literature to use as toilet paper), but that doesn't mean that alternatives are more moral.

From linguists and anthropologists[edit]

Bible translators that engage in missionary work, and SIL International in particular, have been accused of exacerbating language and cultural extinction.[20][21][22]


  1. 1.0 1.1 See the Wikipedia article on Bible society.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 The beginning of the Bible Societies, Musée virtuel Protestant, French Bible Society
  3. 3.0 3.1 See the Wikipedia article on Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
  4. Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, Occom Circle Project, Dartmouth
  5. See the Wikipedia article on British and Foreign Bible Society.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Apocrypha Controversy.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Biblica.
  8. Trinitarian Bible Society website
  9. See the Wikipedia article on British and Foreign Bible Society.
  10. See the Wikipedia article on American Bible Society.
  11. How the American Bible Society became evangelical, The Conversation<, June 4, 2018
  12. See the Wikipedia article on United Bible Societies.
  13. 13.0 13.1 The United Bible Societies and Rome, Way of Life Literature
  14. World Bible Society President Says 'Rapture' Likely to Occur by 2021, World Bible Society press release, 2012
  15. The world will end within seven years, Christian group predicts Metro (UK), 28 Nov 2014
  16. Our History SIL International.
  17. Misperceptions, Missionaries And The CIA Colby & Dennett's letter to the Los Angeles Times regarding a review of their book Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil
  18. Bible societies, Encyclopedia Judaica
  19. Bible societies, Catholic Encyclopedia
  20. "Language endangerment Amazonia: The role of missionaries" by Patience Epps (2005). In: Bedrohte Vielfalt: Aspekte des Sprach(en)tods — Aspects of Language Death, edited by Jan Wolgemuth & Tyko Dirksmeyer. Weißensee-Verlag. ISBN 3899980417. pp. 311-328.
  21. Is God an American? An Anthropological Perspective on the Missionary Work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, edited by Søren Hvalkof and Peter Aaby (1981) Survival International. ISBN 8798071726.
  22. Linguistics in a Colonial World: A Story of Language, Meaning, and Power by James Joseph Errington (2007) Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1405105704.