Bible Societies

  • Religion
  • 1809

Early American Christian philanthropists placed great importance on sharing the Bible through various associations—preeminent among them the New York Bible Society and the American Bible Society. The founders of the NYBS in 1809 included Henry Rutgers (namesake of Rutgers University), William Colgate (founder of what became Colgate-Palmolive), and Thomas Eddy (the first commissioner of the Erie Canal). Their ambitions quickly grew beyond New York—they funded a translation of the Bible into Bengali by missionary William Carey. By 1815, the NYBS had distributed 10,000 Bibles; by 1909, 4.9 million; and by 1990, 300 million in over 400 languages. Today known as Biblica, the society also holds the copyright on the New International Version, today’s bestselling English translation of the Bible.

With help from the NYBS, another group of Christian donors launched the American Bible Society in 1816. This second collaborative undertook four national surveys to ascertain where Bibles were most in need. It also created translations—its first being a Delaware Indian version of the epistles of John, another being the first Bible in braille. The ABS began the country’s long and continuing tradition of distributing Scripture to members of the armed services when it supplied Bibles to the crew of the USS John Adams. Almost 450,000 Bibles were distributed by the American Bible Society in its first decade, a remarkable figure given the difficulties of manufacturing and the state of roads and trade in the early 1800s.

Generations of American philanthropists have supported both of these organizations. Sometimes they have done so on a very large scale, like the Russell Sage Foundation’s $500,000 gift to the ABS in 1908.