If you are a consumer who truly loves books (and libraries, and news magazines, etc.), that recent A1 Washington Post news feature on the death dive of the Borders bookstore chain was a real eyeopener. Grab a box of tissues and read it, including this shot of reality:
Borders was a major force in redefining Americans’ reading habits, selling millions of books in places where they had once been scarce and helping scores of novels to become movies and subjects of national conversation. Now, Borders faces a pool of potential customers who quickly spread culture themselves, one viral video or status update at a time.
Once, Borders was, with rival Barnes & Noble, the long tail of reading, with supermarket-size stores offering thousands of obscure titles alongside bestsellers. Now, Borders confronts the limitless, more efficient supply chain of Amazon’s online emporium. Borders, which helped a generation of readers learn the pleasure of diving into a book for hours at a stretch, now competes for the attention of readers who dip into a few pages on an iPad, open Facebook, read some more, then tweet random thoughts. Printed books don’t need a power outlet or a data plan, yet for some people, their utility seems to be fading.
Now I know people who literally worship books — especially old, elite ones — but that is not the GetReligion angle that I want to share with you. In fact, there is no major religion angle or mistake in the Border’s story at all. In fact, the reason I brought that story up was to frame the importance of a smaller news story on a highly symbolic religious topic that ran the other day in the Baltimore Sun.
On one level, this is simply another business story from our digital age. Here’s the top of the report:
The Maryland Bible Society has operated in Baltimore for more than 200 years, selling Bibles to city residents, 19th-century immigrants from Germany, and both Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War. Its past presidents have been among the most notable members of local society, including the men for whom Fort McHenry and Goucher College are named.
Now, after selling more than 200 million pieces of religious literature, the society has completed a digital transition, closing its landmark Baltimore store and moving its operations exclusively online. Its Bible store at 9 E. Franklin St. downtown shut down last month in an effort to cut costs and improve efficiency by limiting sales to the Internet and telephone. The arched entrances of the Gothic-style, four-story Indiana limestone building remain shuttered. Carved into the stone above are the words, “The Bible House.”
The story manages to cover some of the key book-publishing bases that are covered in greater detail in that Post report. However, as you would expect, a local-angle story of this kind also requires more than a mere soundbite of local history. The whole point, after all, is that a historic Baltimore and Maryland institution is about to undergo a major, symbolic transition. Thus, we need to know a bit about it and the challenges it has faced through the decades.
The Sun report provides a bite or two of background information, such as:
Before becoming the Maryland Bible Society, the Baltimore Bible Society celebrated 100 years in 1910. The Baltimore society was founded six years after the British and Foreign Society — the first Bible society — and two years after the first American society was started in Philadelphia.
During the Civil War, the Maryland society supplied both Union and Confederate soldiers with Bibles, “with 9,000 Testaments sent across the Potomac,” in 1863, according to a 1933 Sun article. Later, “as the tide of immigration into the Baltimore rose, the Maryland Society was increasingly active in supplying Bibles to arrivals on the North German Lloyd line,” and a second Bible house was built on Charles Street in 1874 but burned down in the Great Fire.
Now that’s interesting. Sort of.
The question that lept into my head, however, was this one: What kind of Christians founded this organization and ran it through the years?
Why do I ask that? One of the crucial questions about Maryland is whether it is a northern or southern state. At the same time, Maryland is historically linked to the larger subject of Catholics find a safe haven in the new world. Anyone who knows anything about the history of Bibles also knows that, generally speaking, their have been Protestant editions and then editions approved by the Catholic Church hierarchy.
So was this a Protestant organization or a Catholic one? That’s important. If the Baltimore Bible Society — from it’s founding — managed to reach out to all believers, then that is downright miraculous. It certainly needs to be addressed. I mean, will this enlarged digital store reach out to a wide range of readers? Will the Chinese translations be approved by Protestants, Catholics or state-ordained “Catholics”?
As it turns out, the history page on the society’s own website gently alludes to these issues, noting that the organization was founded by:
… a butcher, a teacher, a dry goods merchant, a milliner, a stationer, a surveyor, a silk dyer, the collector of the port of Baltimore, the President of the Athenian Society, a businessman from Bowley’s Wharf and clergymen from the Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Swedenborgian Churches. The report of 1810 states their objectives as follows: “to encourage the circulation, distribution and printing of the Bible in all languages without note or comment.”
The Athenian Society? Is that the Greeks? However, did you notice anything missing in that lineup? At the same time, notice that the founders promised to publish Bibles “without note or comment.”
Important words. Did they pull that off? In Maryland? If so, that’s amazing and that’s part of the story. If there were tensions and schisms along the way, that’s part of the story too. Did Catholics and Protestants work together in this effort or not?
At the very least, a story about the Maryland Bible Society needs to tell us who — in religious terms — is supporting and/or running the Maryland Bible Society? Who is who?