Much has been said about the Bible’s influence on the nation’s founders, but let’s pick up the story a generation later. In 1816, the year of American Bible Society’s founding, what formative role did Scripture play as the United States of America grew?
Two hundred years ago, the young nation was still recovering from its second war with England. Many on both sides of the Atlantic thought the War of 1812 would undo the American Revolution. It nearly did. The nation’s capital was captured and the White House burned, but the U.S. held onto its independence — and got a national anthem out of it, too.
In 1816, while the White House was being rebuilt, the nation elected its fifth president (James Monroe) and welcomed its 19th state (Indiana). The American West was still being explored and settled, far from being won.
This era saw several new challenges for Bible-believing Christians, issues that needed to be faced with creativity, diligence and love.
The First Challenge: Reading the Bible
As the country pushed westward, people left their old communities — and their churches — far behind. The religious institutions at the center of society in the Eastern states had to be recreated in the new Western settlements. There was a dire need for Bibles as people sought to rebuild the foundation for religious life around Bible preaching and Bible-centered churches.
Many of the nation’s founders and emerging leaders of that day such as Elias Boudinot, John Quincy Adams and Francis Scott Key worked together to establish American Bible Society in 1816 in order to address the needs of a growing nation. Bible salesmen were dispatched, especially in the Western U.S. Throughout the 19th century, efforts were made to ensure that every home had a copy of the Scriptures.
Schooling was often a major issue in these new communities. While there were many organized schools in the Eastern states, the frontier territories were still building their society. Education was mostly handled at home or in one-room schoolhouses, where children of different ages would learn together. Bible education was routinely part of the curriculum in the early 1800s, and some of the most popular reading primers were Bible-based.
But having Bibles and knowing the Bible were only part of the challenge. People still needed to connect with God by reading it. “Camp meetings” sprang up around 1800. In Kentucky, Tennessee and other frontier regions, settlers would gather outdoors for worship services that lasted all day and sometimes for several days. Preachers would travel on horseback from one such meeting to another, expounding the Scriptures in three or four locations a day. New songs offered praise, exhortation and biblical content, often based on folk songs from various cultures. Camp-meeting revivals continued into the 1820s, paving the way for the powerful revival preaching of Charles Finney in western New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Historians talk about several “Great Awakenings” in American history — first in the 1730s and ’40s with Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield; the “Second Great Awakening” (about 1800 to 1840), including camp meetings and Finney; and a “Third Great Awakening” centered in New York City 1857 to 1859. All of these revivals involved a rediscovery of Bible reading and prayer. American culture easily settled into complacent religious observance, but these awakenings inspired personal re-evaluation and renewed discipleship. This pattern has continued throughout American history, with Dwight Moody in the late 1800s, Billy Sunday in the 1920s, Billy Graham in the last half of the 20th century and many others preaching a powerful biblical message.
The Second Challenge: Living the Bible
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22). The Bible itself urges us to put its teaching into practice. That has been a regular part of biblical preaching through the past two centuries, but when it comes to applying the Bible to our behavior, we’ve had hits and misses.
The Bible played a critical role in shaping the American character, although there have been other influences. The circumstances of our founding and settlement inspired rugged individualism, thrift and perseverance. But at times these qualities drifted from their biblical roots and looked like selfishness, greed and inflexibility. Rightly applied, the Bible has helped to instill a sense of honesty, fairness, diligence, philanthropy and altruism into the character of this nation.
The Bible has also led believers to take courageous stands on various social issues. In the 1800s, biblical arguments were made for and against slavery — also Manifest Destiny, women’s suffrage, war, alcohol use and immigration issues. Whatever your political stand, chances were you could find a Bible verse to support you. The challenge was to get past proof-texts and dig for the “whole counsel of God” on such issues. That remains a challenge today.
Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). In the last two centuries, Bible-inspired Christians have been doing just that. Since its arrival in America in 1880, The Salvation Army has merged biblical preaching with Christian love shown to the needy. Thousands of other churches, denominations and Para church ministries have also done this through the years.
The Third Challenge: Sharing the Bible
The modern missionary movement got its start in England with William Carey in the 1790s and was just taking root in America two centuries ago. The U.S. eventually took the lead in foreign missions, which usually involved Bible translation.
In 1816, Adoniram and Ann Judson were in Burma (modern Myanmar), studying the local language. Generally considered the first American missionaries to a foreign land, they eventually translated the Bible into that language.
This too has been a bumpy road. While American missionaries have helped communities around the world flourish with new levels of literacy and gospel evangelism, we have also been accused of advancing colonialism and disregarding local culture. But the last half-century has seen a substantial redefinition of the missionary role, especially regarding translation. Translators today can use technology to be more connected, efficient and accountable, taking care to empower local Christian leaders to translate the Bible and facilitate Scripture engagement.
In the last 50 years, we’ve also found that America itself is increasingly a mission field. Today we are translating God’s Word for new generations of Americans — not only into modern language, but also within the context of modern media. The newest challenge for those who promote the Bible is sharing the Scriptures in new formats that will change the lives of those who encounter them.
At the Crossroads of History
Today is an unbelievably exciting time to be called to Bible ministry. The Bible stands ready to change the world as we know it.
Our nation is at a crossroads with an incredible opportunity for us to choose a path of growing Bible engagement or growing Bible skepticism. The human heart is at a crossroads. We see more and more people longing for the healing words of Scripture in the midst of extreme violence, poverty, oppression and trauma worldwide. And humanity itself is at a crossroads; for the first time since the tower of Babel, we have the incredible opportunity to see God’s Word proclaimed in every language on the planet. While there are nearly 1,800 languages that still do not have a Bible translation underway, we believe that by 2025 that number can be down to zero.
We at American Bible Society are grateful to God for the tremendous ways he has used this organization, its partners and its supporters over the last two centuries. My prayer today is — just as those who came before us over these last 200 years have done — that each of us can do our part in God’s mission to get his Word into the hands, heads and hearts of everyone on the planet.
Dr. Roy Peterson joined American Bible Society as president and CEO in 2014. Previously, he spent ten years as CEO of The Seed Company. He also held several leadership positions at Wycliffe Bible Translators, including president and CEO. The post first appeared in the 2016 Summer edition of Outcomes magazine.
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