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Bible Society

Bible Society, any society which has for its specific object to circulate copies of the Bible. In the genesis and growth of Bible societies three distinct stages of evolution may be traced. In the first, commencing with the earliest Christian century, zealous individuals lent or gave away portions of Scripture to those in whose spiritual welfare they felt special interest. The prominence given to the Bible by the Reformers of the 16th century lent an impulse to private effort of this nature, and it could now be carried on to a greater extent than in the early Christian ages, as the invention of printing in the fifteenth century had greatly reduced the price of the sacred volume. The second stage of evolution was reached when the circulation of the Bible had begun to be effected not so much by individuals as by societies, which had this for one of their objects. It commenced about the middle of the seventeenth century, when the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, incorporated in 1649 and 1661, issued in 1663 a translation of the Bible into one of the North American Indian tongues. The society which did most for Bible circulation was that for Promoting Christian Knowledge, incorporated in 1698. Among other services in this direction it issued four editions of the Bible in the Welsh tongue. The third stage of evolution was reached in 1870, when a society was formed in London for the circulation of the Bible not as one of its aims, but as its sole object. It was called the Naval and Military Bible Society. But its scope was limited, for its beneficiaries were but a small fraction of the population. When the progress of the first French Revolution, to which at first many had looked hopefully, began to be accompanied by sanguinary excesses, a feeling arose among religious men in England that a humanising and tranquilisiug influence would be exerted if the Gallic nation could be brought back to the Scriptures, and a French Bible Society was formed in London in 1792, but the breaking out of war between France and England in 1793 prevented it from even commencing its operations.

There was then much spiritual life in Wales, but there was a dearth of Bibles in the Welsh tongue, though the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge had printed and sold four editions of the Welsh Bible. In 1787, and again in 1791, efforts were made to induce the Society to issue another edition. They were not, however, successful till 1799, when 10,000 Bibles, 2,000 New Testaments, with Prayer Books and metrical Psalms were printed in Welsh. The supply of Bibles was still inadequate, and the Society was afraid to incur the risk of printing more. On December 7, 1802, a few Christian friends were in conversation in London when Mr. Joseph Tarn complained that a great deficiency of Bibles still existed in Wales. He was supported by an eminent Welsh divine, the Rev. Thomas Charles of Bala, who had been much affected on finding that a Welsh girl was accustomed to walk seven miles to consult the Bible, that being the only copy to which she had access. He proposed that funds should be raised by voluntary subscription, independently of the Christian Knowledge Society, for the circulation of the Bible in Wales. The Rev. Joseph Hughes, a Baptist minister, suggested that the sphere of operations should not be simply Wales but the world, the enlarged idea meeting with universal concurrence. Mr. Hughes was requested to issue an explanation and appeal, which he did. Samuel Mills, Esq., filled in the details of a scheme for the new society, which was to have been called the Society for Promoting a more Extensive Circulation of the Scriptures both at Home and Abroad. It was inaugurated at a public meeting held at the London Tavern, Bishopsgate, on March 12th, 1804, its name being changed to the British and Foreign Bible Society. At the very outset the sectarian difficulty threatened to arise, but was wisely met and surmounted by the establishment of a rule which has worked beautifully and is still in force: -

Rule IX. - A Committee shall be appointed to conduct the business of the Society, consisting of 30 laymen, six of whom shall be foreigners, resident in London or its vicinity; half the remainder shall be members of the Church of England, and the other half members of other denominations of Christians . . .

By its second rule it was to circulate the Scriptures not only through the British dominions, but "other countries, whether Christian, Mohammedan, or Pagan"; in short, its field was to be the world. Year by year its revenues and its operations had increased in magnitude, when a second great difficulty arose. On the Continent Bibles sold better if they had the Apocrypha bound up between the Testaments. This might be understood or misunderstood to mean that the Apocrypha was considered to be a portion of the inspired Scriptures. Controversy arose on the subject, and continued for about five years - between 1821 and 1826. The Society at last yielded the point in dispute by adopting four new rules at its general meetings held in 1826 and 1827, excluding the Apocrypha from the Bibles which it circulated. From the first its growth has been continuous. Auxiliaries, branches, and associations of the Society have been formed in large numbers. Besides these, independent, though not hostile, societies have been formed in Scotland, in America, in Germany, and elsewhere. In its report for 1890 it is mentioned that there were then connected with the Bible Society in Great Britain and Ireland 1,100 auxiliaries, 471 branches, and 3,730 associations; total, 5,301. In Europe and the Colonies its auxiliaries were 136, and its branches 1,516; total, 1,652. Up to March 31st, 1808, when the first summary was made, it had circulated from London 16,544 Bibles, 63,113 New Testaments, and 1,500 portions; total, 81,157. Up to March 31st, 1890, it had circulated from London 29,614,856 Bibles, 32,521,067 New Testaments, and 12,099,772 portions; and on the Continent, etc., 7,345,379 Bibles, 25,100,876 New Testaments, and 17,247,096 portions; total, 123,929,046. These numbers do not include the circulation by kindred societies, amounting to 81,497,526 copies. When the Society began, there were many languages into which the Scriptures either in whole or in part had never been translated. There are fewer now, and in a little tractate, entitled The Gospel in many Tongues, of which a new edition was issued by the Society in 1890, specimens are given of Scripture passages in 296 languages or dialects in which the Society has circulated the Bible or Scripture portions. During the first year of its existence (1804) the Society spent on the work it had undertaken £691 10s. 2d.; during its eighty-sixth year (1890) it expended £227,566 0s. 8d. The British and Foreign Bible Society has been like a seed of the banyan tree dropped into Indian soil; it has sent forth overarching branches, which have rooted themselves without detachment from the original stem. Seeds from it carried to other places are also growing up, and manifesting the same capacity for extension as characterised the parent tree from which they sprang.