The Language of the ABS

Yesterday Elesha Coffman reviewed John Fea's recent book, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016). Today the symposium continues with a review by Candy Gunther Brown, author of (among many other works), The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880 (UNC Press, 2004) . —Lincoln Mullen

by Candy Gunther Brown

John Fea’s The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society provides a full chronological account of the American Bible Society (ABS) from events leading up to its founding in 1816 through the twenty-first century. Fea organized the story into twenty-seven chapters, each of which is titled thematically and moves the narrative forward in time, contextualizing the ABS within a larger historical framework. The book emphasizes the vision of ABS leaders not only to promote Bible distribution, but also to shape American identity. Thus, it is “the story of the American Bible Society and the American Bible Society” (3).

Other books, notably Paul Gutjahr’s An American Bible (1999) and David Nord’s Faith in Reading (2004), have ably examined the rise and influence of the ABS in the nineteenth century; additional accounts, such as Edwin Robertson’s Taking the Word to the World (1996), survey twentieth-century developments. The Bible Cause builds upon these earlier studies, but stands out for the comprehensiveness of its chronological purview. The volume draws extensively on primary, including archival, sources. Brief, illuminating quotations from letters and narratives pepper the account of institution-building, bringing to life individual stories.

The Bible Cause presents a largely affirmative portrayal of the ABS and its agents. Fea reports that “the American Bible Society has never lost touch with its cultural mandate: to build a Christian civilization in the United States and, eventually, around the world” (3), concluding that “as the Bible Cause in America enters its third century, the future looks bright, but the challenges ahead are great” (316). Although noting examples of “nationalism” (96) and “imperialism” (117), the book does not offer sustained analysis of the ABS’s cultural agenda. It relies primarily on ABS sources and makes relatively scant use of secondary scholarship, for instance post-colonial theory and critical renderings of U.S. nationalism, exceptionalism, and policies aimed at the assimilation of Native Americans and non-Protestant immigrants, and of institutions like the ABS as agents of cultural imperialism abroad and social control of the working classes and people of color domestically.

The book foregrounds ABS perspectives and seems to accept the claims of ABS agents and authors at face value. Citing ABS publications as the only source of evidence, Fea reports that seamen were “notorious for vice, irreligion, and congregating together in urban areas where they gambled, visited prostitutes, and drank their fair share of alcohol,” but they “found comfort in the Bible,” and “it was common for sailors to return to port desperate to replace a Bible lost at sea” (38). Similarly, “the urban poor . . . spent their Sundays roaming city streets looking for trouble” until rescued by Sunday Schools (55). Bible sales reportedly “brought an intense spiritual interest among the Cherokee . . . . One Cherokee woman was so overwhelmed upon receiving an ABS Bible that she wrapped it in silk and carried it close to her chest at religious meetings” (55). As to the ABS’s positive impact on soldiers, “the evidence is overwhelming. Stories abound of soldiers reading the Bible in their tents before bedtime.” The “overwhelming” evidence cited consists exclusively of ABS reports that “filled the pages of the Bible Society Record,” such as the claim of one ABS agent that “ ‘I have not seen one New Testament thrown away or otherwise misused’ ” (81–82). The analysis could have been enriched by considering how ABS agents might have heard or seen what they wanted or expected to encounter and how their portrayals functioned as rhetorical strategies that served ABS purposes such as fundraising. Similarly, the text could have contemplated editorial decisions about what kinds of reactions to ABS overtures to publish, which parts to include and which to exclude, and how to frame them, and devoted more attention to negative responses.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish Fea’s choice of language and interpretations from those of his ABS sources. This is particularly jarring in the Bible Cause’s discussion of African Americans. One paragraph begins with the topic sentence: “Bringing the Bible to the black population involved certain challenges” (144). As supporting textual evidence, Fea quotes a Reconstruction-era ABS evaluation that “‘the negro is often sadly deficient in moral stamina.’” The text adds, paraphrasing rather than quoting, that “blacks relied too heavily on their preachers to explain the Word of God to them.” Although the text frames the expression of such sentiments as what ABS agents “believed,” it does not directly challenge such beliefs and seems to accept their reasoning, concluding in this instance that “the ABS recognized that they could only be effective in bringing Bibles to the black population of the South if they bypassed auxiliaries altogether” by establishing an Agency Among the Colored People of the South to supply African Americans with Bibles. In discussing the 1950s and 1960s, Fea acknowledges that “what is lacking in much of the ABS literature and records” is “sustained interaction with the Civil Rights Movement,” and that ABS Bible distribution remained a “segregated enterprise” (238–39). It might have been useful, however, to offer a more explicit critique of ABS assumptions, language, and impacts.

The text similarly appears uncritical of ABS attitudes toward Catholic immigrants and peoples outside the United States. Fea repeats an ABS story of a young female Irish immigrant who accepted a Bible with “ ‘tears of gratitude’ ” as an “uplifting account of another soul saved from tyrannical Catholicism” (62). Other ABS publications describe “ ‘the rapid influx of foreigners’ bringing with them ‘the prevalence of infidelity, of Papacy, Mormonism, and other soul-destorying delusions’ ” (67). Similarly, ABS agents expressed conviction that “those outside of Western Civilization . . . needed to be civilized into a Western, even American, way of life” (108). The text places in quotation marks phrases such as “the ‘heathen people’ of China” (133), but does not analyze these linguistic choices.

Women play a minimal role in the ABS story as Fea narrates it and do not receive the same type of treatment as men. The book devotes five pages (126–30) to discussing ABS agent Frances Snow Hamilton, wife of Hiram Hamilton. Fea refers to Hiram Hamilton as “Hamilton,” but to Frances Hamilton as “Frances,” even after Hiram’s death has removed potential confusion about which Hamilton the text is referencing. The section concludes by stating that “her work in Mexico is best captured” by a biography printed in the Bible Society Record for 1912, eulogizing the “power of this Christian woman, a model of gentleness and modesty” (130). Rather than unpack this characterization, the text seems to affirm it.

Despite its limitations, The Bible Cause offers fresh insight into the activities and legacies of an influential institution. It should be of use to scholars of American religion and culture.


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