The Bible is a complex book and MBS is a complex organization. From the days when the colporteur conducted the Religious Census of Massachusetts in a horse-drawn wagon to the creation of Exploring the Bible: The Dickinson Series in 2014, MBS has been able to adapt the fulfillment of its core mission of making the Word of God both accessible and comprehensible to everyone across a landscape of ever-changing religious conventions and sensibilities. From 1809 until today our commitment to the Bible has never wavered. But we have upgraded our vehicle.
The story of our beginnings is detailed below and you can read biographies of our 107 founders here. During the 20th century we were known primarily through the presence of physical bookstores, the oldest of which opened in 1895 and also housed our offices on Bromfield Street in Boston.
Unfortunately, even the venerable bookstores of historic institutions are not immune from cultural paradigm shifts, and just as 20th century methods of distribution put the colporteur out of business, the technological revolution of the 21st century dictated that we find new ways to distribute biblical resources. The Bromfield Street store closed its doors on December 31, 2006 and the Massachusetts Bible Society moved its offices to the Congregational House at 14 Beacon Street and then to the campus of the Andover Newton Theological School. Many of our historic Bibles, tracts and archives were given to the Boston University School of Theology library.
The Origins of the Massachusetts Bible Society by James D. Smith III
The Massachusetts Bible Society, celebrating more than two centuries of service to the communities of faith, is a survival story – reminding one of the voluntary associations and Bible-centered culture of an earlier America. Even more, it’s a survivor – through successive seasons demonstrating the resilience and sense of mission present in its founders. Most of all, entering the twenty-first century, it is a servant – recognizing that in “one book, many voices” there is the timeless call to continuing education and spiritual renewal through our love of God and neighbor.
On Saturday, June 17, 1809, William Ellery Channing, William Phillips and Thomas Dawes petitioned the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for the use of the Representatives chamber on July 6. The meeting was to invite “many persons of all denominations” to gather and organize a Bible society in the Commonwealth. Channing was the “liberal Christian” minister of Federal Street Church, Phillips a wealthy Boston merchant and “orthodox Christian” who was representative to the legislature, and Dawes a “liberal” who served as a respected judge at several levels. The petition was swiftly granted.
The publicity offered through “An Address to the Christian Public” authored by Joseph Buckminster (young, progressive pastor of Brattle Street Church), and printed in the Panoplist of Jedediah Morse (veteran conservative crusader of Charlestown), was effective. At the appointed hour, a group of between one and two hundred persons, both clergy and laity, gathered on Beacon Hill. With 107 formally recorded as present, thereafter known as “original founders,” the Bible Society of Massachusetts was formally organized. Theophilus Parsons, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, headed the committee that drafted the constitution presented on July 13. The mission was clear:
“The Bible Society is instituted for the purpose of raising funds by voluntary contribution, to be appropriated in procuring Bibles and Testaments to be distributed among all persons inhabiting within the State or elsewhere, who are destitute of the sacred Scriptures, and who cannot be conveniently supplied without the aid of others.”
Within the month, Buckminster had again shouldered the task of publicity, and his fifteen-page “Circular Address from the Bible Society…” offered a compelling invitation:
“We too in New England ought never to forget, that to preserve the authority of this book unimpaired, and to enjoy the privilege of a free conscience enlightened and emboldened by its truth, our forefathers crossed the ocean with little more than this volume in their hands, and its spirit in their heart; and if there is now in the character and circumstances of their posterity any thing worth preserving, to this book are we to trace the good which remains, and look also for the improvement which is to come.”
The Massachusetts Bible Society may be seen as the child of four impulses or movements vitally intertwined in the public life of New England in the early nineteenth century: Christian mission to European settlers and native peoples alike, inspiration from the British and Foreign Bible Society (founded 1804), the democratic appeal of voluntary associations, and a warm ecumenical Christian hope. Given the theological and congregational stress points in the communities of faith, the Bible Society was from its beginnings a miracle: a dynamic company of strange bedfellows united in their reverence for the Word of God. Conflicts became secondary to the pursuit of the common good, a common grace.
Distribution of Scriptures commenced in the autumn of 1809, and by Trustees meeting of June 7, 1810, some 812 Bibles and Testaments had already been given out. By the 1811 meeting, over 1200 more were dispersed, and by the June 1812 report almost 1700 additional. The pattern of faithful mission had been set for future generations. It remained for Channing, in his 1816 Executive Committee Report, to articulate for the Society a timeless hope: that all ”united under the peaceful standard of the cross, and laboring and triumphing together in the cause of their common Lord, will drink more largely into his spirit, will exchange their animosities for love, and will shrink with horror from the thought of devoting each other to slaughter and desolation.” Amen.
James D. Smith III (Th.D. Harvard, church history) is a Professor at Bethel Seminary San Diego, and Lecturer at the University of San Diego. This reflection is drawn from his essay honoring the MBS 175th anniversary: “The Beginnings of the Bible Society of Massachusetts,” Bulletin of the Congregational Library 35 (Spring/Summer 1984, 4-14).
MassBible is able to sustain its ministries of Bible Grants, promoting Biblical literacy and nurturing open spiritual/theological dialogue through financial contributions from people and organizations such as you.