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A Goodly Heritage (51): The Power of the Printed Page - Bible Societies

James Brown, Peterhead, Scotland

The most powerful of all printed pages are those of the “scripture of truth” (Dan 10.21). This was never more clearly demonstrated than when, during the Reformation period, the Bible was translated into various European languages, to be printed and distributed for the first time in large numbers.

Origin of Scripture

We perhaps take for granted the privilege of reading our Bibles. Imagine the world without the Bible: how strange a notion! Yet, in that long period of human history “from Adam to Moses” (Rom 5.14), there was no written revelation from God. That began upon Mount Sinai, where Moses was given “two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” (Ex 31.18). To that great man we attribute the writing of the Pentateuch; the first five books of the Bible.¹ Throughout the succeeding centuries, the “prophecy of the scripture” was communicated to “holy men of God”, who wrote “as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1.20-21). Before concluding his second epistle, Peter revealed his understanding that the Pauline epistles were indeed Scripture (3.16), so that God has furnished men with His Word in both the Old and New Testaments. Revelation, inspiration and translation have delivered to mankind an inestimable privilege.

Translations of Scripture

The first translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek was made in Alexandria around 277 BC. It became known as The Septuagint, from the Latin word for 70, as it was said to have been the work of 70 scholars. The purpose of the translation was probably to enable Jews of the Dispersion, who did not understand Hebrew, to read the Old Testament in their own language. Similarly, as the Gospel was preached to people whose native language was not Greek, the need to further translate Scripture became apparent and pressing. By the second century AD, Latin was beginning to supersede Greek in many parts of the Roman Empire, notably in North Africa, where the Gospel had flourished. This led to the translation of the Bible into Latin by Jerome; a version later called The Vulgate. In the Middle Ages, parts of the Bible were translated into vernacular languages, for example Anglo Saxon or Old English, and yet the Bible became increasingly hidden from ordinary folk. All this changed with the revival of Greek and Hebrew scholarship, the publication of a New Testament Greek text, and translations into modern European languages. The quality of the 16th century Bibles in English was outstanding; in scholarship, use of language, and in the number of fine translations made (ten from Tyndale’s first in 1523, to the Authorised Version in 1611²). The profound and lasting influence of these translations can hardly be measured.

At Home and Abroad

Outstanding achievements in translating the Scriptures were also accomplished by two pioneer missionaries: William Carey in India and Robert Morrison in China, whose stories have already been told in this series.³  The provision of Bengali and Chinese Bibles laid a firm foundation for Christian work in India and China. Fourteen years before William Carey arrived in India, the first Bible Society had been founded by two Methodist laymen; George Cussons and John Davies. Initially it was simply named The Bible Society but, in 1804, it became The Naval and Military Bible Society. On the front page of the first Minute Book, the Society’s aim was stated: “For purchasing Bibles to be distributed among British Soldiers and Seamen of the Navy, to spread abroad (by the blessing of God) Christian knowledge and the reformation of manners.”4 Such famous names as William Wilberforce, Rowland Hill and Lord Palmerston (a future Prime Minister) appear in the list of early Vice-Presidents. The Duke of Wellington served as President in 1816 (no more battles to fight!), and continued as a Council member for 36 years.

By the 1860s, over one million Bibles and Scripture portions had been distributed and, throughout the 19th century, sterling work was done in India, the Crimea and for the men who fought in Britain’s many colonial conflicts. In 1910 the work of the Society was entrusted to the Scripture Gift Mission, and this arrangement continued until 2004. SGM, to use the familiar letters, was begun by William Walters, a printer, in 1888. His aim was to publish portions of Scripture in a magazine format suited to the poor of London’s East End. SGM records were transferred to the London Metropolitan Archives in 2003. The 100th anniversary of the First World War prompted research of these records, revealing a wonderful story, from letters and reports, of the blessing that so many had found from reading Testaments and Bibles. During that awful conflict, an astonishing 43 million items of Scripture had been distributed. Similar good work was carried out during the Second World War.

The British and Foreign Bible Society

The story of Mary Jones, the young Welsh girl from Bala in Gwynedd who worked so hard to earn enough money to buy a Welsh Bible, and walked so far to do so, is well known. It inspired Joseph Hughes to pose the question to the Committee of the Religious Tract Society, when discussing the supply of Bibles: “If for Wales, why not for the kingdom? And if for the kingdom, why not for the world?” The urgent want of Bibles in Wales, and the difficulty in procuring an adequate supply, led to the formation of The British and Foreign Bible Society on 7th March 1804. Its sole object was “to encourage a wider circulation of the Holy Scriptures without note or comment.” The Prospectus had more fully described this object: “to diffuse the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures by circulating them in the different languages spoken throughout Great Britain and Ireland; and also, according to the extent of its funds, by promoting the printing of them in foreign languages, and the distribution of them in foreign countries.” These noble aims were energetically pursued, and supported by the rapid establishment of auxiliary societies in major cities and towns throughout the country.

Procurement of large supplies of English and Welsh Bibles was followed by printing 20,000 copies of a new edition of the Bible in Gaelic. The Secretary to The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge had estimated that “out of 335,000 persons in the Highlands, 300,000 were considered not to understand any other language than Gaelic so far at least as to comprehend a book written or a continued discourse.”⁵ In 1806 it was resolved to supply the want of Testaments in prisons, workhouses and hospitals, firstly in London and then elsewhere. During the Napoleonic wars, large numbers of French and Spanish prisoners of war were held in prison hulks and ashore, and Testaments in both languages were purchased for distribution. These were well received by the majority of prisoners. The work progressed to the printing and distribution of Scripture in foreign languages, especially after peace came in 1815.

The Trinitarian Bible Society

The British and Foreign Bible Society had been formed by men from various Christian denominations. Perhaps inevitably, difficulties arose. Some had serious concerns relating to the membership of persons who held Socinian and Unitarian views. This led to the formation of The Trinitarian Bible Society in 1831. Its object was, and remains, “To promote the Glory of God and the salvation of men, by circulating, both at home and abroad, in dependence on the Divine Blessing, the Holy Scriptures, which are given by inspiration of God, and are able to make men wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”⁶ Bibles circulated in the English language use the Authorised Version, and the consistent aim of the Society is to produce authentic and reliable editions of Scripture in many languages.


Bible Societies in Britain and abroad have played a major role in the last two centuries. In the 150 years from 1816, 2,458 million Bibles were printed. It is thought that over 60 million have been distributed in China since 1987. There have been more translations of the Bible than of any other book, and the complete Bible has been published in over 450 languages. And all this in the face of sometimes fierce opposition! It is an amazing story, and we can rejoice that so many are now able to read this wonderful Book in their native tongue. 

¹ Stephen declared that Moses “received the lively oracles to give unto us” (Acts 7.38).

² David Daniell, The Bible in English, p 11.

³ ‘A Goodly Heritage (4)’ and ‘A Goodly Heritage (7)’, Believer’s Magazine, May and August 2013.

Naval, Military & Air Force Bible Society website (http://www.nmafbs.org/).

⁵ This, and earlier quotations, from History of the British and Foreign Bible Society, (Bagster and Sons, 1859).

⁶ ‘Beginnings of the Trinitarian Bible Society Part 2’, from Quarterly Record 557, October 2001.


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