In 2004 the Bible society movement became 200 years old. The British and Foreign Bible Society was founded in London in 1804, and from it a global movement has arisen. Today its best-known expression is the United Bible Societies (UBS), a fellowship of more than 140 national Bible societies around the globe. The UBS has played a significant role in the changes Christianity has undergone in the past two centuries. Studies about the expansion of Christianity make reference to the distinctive contribution of Bible societies to that process. Bible societies have had an influential presence in the practice of mission as an expression of the missionary thrust of the church. They have also made a decisive contribution to the theory of Christian mission, especially through the reflection of UBS agents and translators. (1)
Contribution to Christian Mission
The beginning of the Bible society movement had a definite British imprint when the British and Foreign Bible Society was founded on March 7, 1804. But its initial vision also included a global awareness and vocation, as is evident from the following anecdote. Rev. Thomas Charles of Bala, Wales, related a story to Joseph Hughes, then secretary of the Religious Tract Society, about a little girl named Mary Jones who courageously searched for a copy of the Bible. Hughes was struck by the story and recognized the need for an organization that would put the Bible within the reach of ordinary people. He commented, "Surely a Society might be formed for the purpose and if for Wales, why not also for the Empire and the world?" (2) Two centuries later and far beyond the old British Empire, Hughes's dream has become an amazing reality, as there is now a large and vigorous global family of Bible societies.
During its bicentennial celebration in August 2004--in Wales, of course--delegates reviewed the road covered thus far and committed themselves to pursue the Bible society vision throughout the twenty-first century. The motto chosen for this assembly was "God's Unchanging Word for a Changing World." The leaders of the movement today believe that the initial global mission of the founding generation was shaped by the same global thrust we find in the Lord's command to take his message "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), and in the apostolic vision of Paul "that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified everywhere, just as it is among you" (2 Thess. 3:1).
In this article I explore the missiological significance of the Bible society movement by reviewing four distinctive marks of its historical development, namely, the participation of volunteers mobilized for mission, the belief in the translatability of the Bible, the practice of a true ecumenism beyond denominational barriers, and the search for excellence in service. In each area the Bible societies have made a significant contribution.
A Popular Movement
A key to understanding the enduring impact of the Bible society movement on Christian mission during the last two centuries is that it has been a popular movement. Although one could say that the pioneers of the Bible societies were members of an Evangelical elite with a profound sense of mission, the movement also mobilized the rank and file of churches for mission. The question of its composition has been carefully analyzed by Andrew Walls, who considers that a key for the advancement of the Christian missionary cause was "a development initiated by the British and Foreign Bible Society and copied by missionary societies, including the CMS, of establishing local auxiliaries." (3)
Those "local auxiliaries" became the core of a mobilizing movement both at home and abroad. As Walls remarks, "The local Bible societies had a dual function: they distributed the Bible in their own localities by arranging easy-payment subscriptions, and enrolled those who already possessed a Bible to contribute to making it available elsewhere in the world, both at home and overseas. …