The American Bible Society and Its Good News for Modern Man

The American Bible Society and Its Good News for Modern Man February 13, 2024

The only answer to modern man’s problems is the good news. At least that’s how the American Bible Society saw it when it published its New Testament Bible in 1966. If you examine the cover of one of these bibles, you’ll see what appears to be four columns of newsprint with various global newspaper names, in their branded typography, superimposed over the newsprint. As if exploding threw the modern news is a red-letter, bold, block-type caption in the top-left: “GOOD NEWS FOR MODERN MAN.” Throughout the Today’s English Version text of this New Testament are minimalist, stick-figure illustrations depicting memorable moments from gospel stories. This inexpensive New Testament experienced a welcome reception when it first published. By its fifth anniversary, it had undergone a third printing.

The American Bible Society, Good News for Modern Man, The New Testament in Today's English Version
The American Bible Society, Good News for Modern Man, The New Testament in Today’s English Version

John Fea, chronicler of the American Bible Society’s (ABS) history, provided an outstanding survey of the organizations long history of making the Bible available to people “without note or comment” in his commissioned history, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).

This text was required reading for my fall, 2016 Advanced Studies in American Christianity seminar at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The professor on record was Doug Sweeney, my doctoral advisor. Sweeney had invited Professor John Fea of Messiah University to lead our discussion on his recent publication. Unbeknownst to Dr. Fea, I had been commissioned by Bradley Gundlach to write a book review on The Bible Cause, for The Conference on Faith and History’s journal, Fides et Historia. I had prepared my draft of the review for class that day, and I had the pleasure of reading it to Dr. Fea. Upon completing the reading, Dr. Fea exploded with appreciation for the level of care, detail, and artistry I put into the review. I, of course, had been anxious all along about how one of the finest U. S. historians would respond to a doctoral student’s inklings about his scholarship, so I sputtered some uncertain and self-deprecating thanks.

What I failed to do that day was convey why this humble book review had become such a labor of scholarly care for me. Was it because it was going to be the first scholarly review I published? No. That hardly mattered to me. It was because of the personal meaning that I discovered in my reading of Fea’s history of the American Bible Society.

The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society by John Fea
The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society by John Fea

You see, I had slogged through this book with the same care that I have for every monograph. With my needle-tip, .5 mm ball, Pentel EnerGel pen in hand, I had filled Fea’s tome with underlines and marginalia. However, I became quite startled as I read his description of ABS’s Good News for Modern Man New Testament Bible. If you were to pick up my copy of the book today and thumb through it, you might notice tear-stains on the pages of that bible’s description.

I remember it as clear as yesterday. As soon as I read that description, I looked across my study to the shelf of neat, leatherbound bibles of various translations. Resting across the top of a few of them was a ragged, inexpensive paperback bible; its binding split. This Bible looked completely out of place in comparison to its company. I plucked it off the shelf and looked at its cover. Then I thumbed to the copyright page and on into the Gospel of Matthew, taking in the stick-figure illustrations afresh. A flood of memories returned from an eighth-grade morning of despair that turned into gladness.

Not once had I ever given thought to who published this Bible, how it found its way into my parent’s home, or why the only Bible in our Roman Catholic home happened to have been an ABS New Testament Bible. But now, with the help of Dr. Fea, I had discovered a whole history of everything that led to my conversion.

In that moment, I gained a whole new appreciation for the history of the American Bible Society and the careful scholarship of Dr. Fea. Before I read that description, The Bible Cause was just a monograph of an esoteric institution that printed and published bibles. Now it was the pre-history of my conversion.

The history of the ABS took on a whole new meaning for me, and I’m profoundly grateful that Dr. Fea facilitated that new knowledge, by writing this history. I admire the hours of labor and care he put into crafting that monograph. It’s a testimony to how God’s Word accomplishes the work that modern men cannot. I cannot disentangle my personal story from that reality, nor would I wish to.

If anything, evangelicals have seen, in recent years, how modern men fall short of being the answer to America’s problems. Just today I learned of another evangelical behaving badly, Aaron Ivey, Worship Pastor at Austin Stone, one of the many conservative and reformed churches that blew up, during the Reformed Resurgence, from 2008–15. If left to these stories alone, the future of Christianity would stand on shaky ground.

If we wish, we can let these kinds of stories, of evangelicals behaving badly, shape the entirety of our understanding and discourse on Christianity in the States. Or, if we are prudent, we will embrace a more complex understanding, one that sees layers and textures, that a flat view of history will not portray. A flat history will either ignore the good or the bad. A thick history will document the whole story and convey it faithfully. I’m grateful to many historians who have demonstrated to me how to produce thick histories. If you haven’t read Dr. Fea’s history of the American Bible Society, then I commend it to you as one such thick history. You will not be disappointed.

For those interested, here’s a link to my book review of The Bible Cause by John Fea.

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