The ABS and the Art of History Writing

In April we began a series of reviews on John Fea's recent book, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society
(Oxford University Press, 2016). The series contained two reviews, one review by Elesha Coffman and the other by Candy Gunther Brown. I'd also like to draw our reader's attention to a review of The Bible Cause by Paul Harvey (our own blogmeister emeritus) at Religion Dispatches. Harvey's thoughtful review responds to the reviews by Coffman and Brown, and is well worth reading alongside them.
In this concluding post, John Fea offers a response to his reviewers. I am glad that John agreed to this forum in the first place and has taken the time to offer us his thoughts. Now that you've read these three posts (four if you count Harvey's review) I encourage you to read The Bible Cause for yourself. —Lincoln Mullen

John Fea

I am extremely grateful to Lincoln Mullen and the Religion in American History blog for holding a symposium on The Bible Cause. I also want to thank two scholars whose work I admire—Elesha Coffman and Candy Gunther Brown—for taking the time to review the book.

I have seen the Bible Cause as an experiment of sorts. As many of the readers of the Religion in American History blog know, I wrote 120 blog posts tracking my progress on the book. This was also the first book (and it will probably be the last) I have written to commemorate an important anniversary in the life of an institution. Since The Bible Cause required that I build a relationship with the ABS, I had a unique set of challenges to deal with. How would I maintain my scholarly integrity and academic freedom while at the same time providing the ABS with a book worthy of its bicentennial? Though I never talked to George Marsden about this project, I tried to use his book Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism as a model for writing this kind of institutional history. Finally, I wanted to write a narrative history of this important American institution. While I had scholars in mind as I wrote, and I hoped that this book would contribute to our knowledge of American history and find its way into academic libraries, I also had in mind the thousands of Christian laypersons who were affiliated with the ABS as donors and participants in the Bible Cause.

CFP: American Friends Service Commitee at 100

Lauren Turek

The American Friends Service Committee is celebrating its 100th anniversary next April. They are hosting a symposium to mark the occasion and have an issued the following call for papers. Given the AFSC's long history of social justice work in the United States and abroad, this symposium presents an excellent opportunity for readers of this blog to share their related scholarship or to learn about new directions in this field of study:

"100 Years of Peace with Justice: looking back, moving forward"

What's Your Favorite Primary Source to Teach? Part 2!

Emily Suzanne Clark

Just what you always wanted—another post from me about teaching and primary sources. This is a follow-up my post last month about my favorite primary sources to teach. Again, add your favorites in the comments! The question today is: What is your favorite media-based primary source (image, song, video) to teach?

Last month I focused on written primary sources (though hopefully you noticed that the post's images were visual complements to two of the selections). This is typical way I organize class: homework is reading, class is full of discussion with images and other media. We dissect images, we note what strikes us in them, we use those readings to help us see things in the images we wouldn't otherwise see. I also add in as much music and video as I can too. In fact, I begin class everyday with what I call "mood music." I play a song as the students file into the classroom and get settled in. I can't claim originality here; I stole the idea from my M.A. advisor Chip Callahan. The mood music sets the tone, and, as some students have figured out and remark on, the music gets at the topic in another way. There's so much about The O'Jays' "Ship Ahoy" that sets the right atmosphere for a discussion of religion and the Atlantic slave trade. And Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" is just a fun way to begin a class on the Second Great Awakening.

The Journal of Southern Religion: A New Volume and a Peek at the Future


Charles McCrary

As you may have seen, the Journal of Southern Religion recently released its 18th volume. Go check it out now! It includes a forum on southern religion in the Atlantic World, edited by JSR associate editor and RiAH’s own Emily Clark. The forum features three pieces—from Alexis Wells, Thomas Little, and Christopher Jones, respectively—with a response from Jon Sensbach. As Sensbach asks, “how did religions cross the Atlantic from Europe and Africa and take root in the South? How did religion transform the geographic region we call the South while connecting it to distant points around the Atlantic littoral?” If you want some answers, read the forum! Volume 18 also includes sixteen book reviews, some of which are among the first reviews for these books. Last year the JSR adopted a “rolling release” model. Rather than releasing the entire volume at one time, the journal is published a few times throughout the year. This allows us to have book reviews out earlier than many print publications.

What’s on the horizon for the JSR? Thank you for asking. We’ll have more book reviews, of course, as well as articles later this year. And, this fall we will publish another forum, this one a roundtable on “southern religion” through its dissenters, outsiders, and critics. We have five great contributors lined up, and it’s going to be awesome.

What else is in the JSR’s future? Maybe you are! The journal accepts submissions at any time. (See submission guidelines here.) The journal traditionally has published mostly history pieces, but we remain very interested in other disciplinary and methodological approaches, including political theory, critical theory, ethnography, and literary studies. If your work has something to do with “religion” and “the South” (both broadly construed, of course!), then the JSR just might be for you. Send something in and stay tuned for more releases.

Religion at the Common Ground Summit

Mark Edwards

Last weekend, the Hauentstein Center at Grand Valley State University in Michigan convened a symposium on potential "Common Ground" between progressives and conservatives.  Here was their statement of purpose:

Americans have ample reason to think deeply and critically about the roots of progressivism, conservatism, and the various ways the two have interacted in history. Today, the widening gap between the left and right, as well as the fractures inside the Democratic and Republican parties, have caused widespread political confusion and upheaval. Ideological gridlock dominates the headlines, while reasoned and substantive political discussion often devolves into talking-head reparteeand triumphalist chest thumping.
In this age of crippling ideological polarization, the time is ripe for a reexamination, and even redefinition, of what it means to be progressive, and what it means to be conservative, in the 21st century. Our summit will provide a rigorous setting for political thought leaders, humanities scholars, and engaged citizens to discuss the ways in which progressives and conservatives might share common ground and common cause—historically, culturally, philosophically. 

Cheers to Hauenstein for assembling an amazing team of scholars, including several persons well known to this blog like David Hollinger (who presented in conversation with E. J. Dionne), Ray Haberski, Kevin Schultz, and Andrew Hartman (who defended his book on the culture wars against Chris Shannon).  You can check out the presentations here.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Monica C. Reed

A number of years ago a friend asked me what I knew about Nat Turner. We had been talking about my interest in American history, specifically the history of race and racism, and he was using Turner as a litmus test. If I knew about the nineteenth-century preacher and his rebellion, then the discussion could continue. If I didn’t, then my knowledge was too limited and the discussion was over. A few months ago I had to inform this friend that he was going to have to find a new test, and I was reminded of that earlier this week when I saw the trailer for the 2016 film, The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation, written and directed by Nate Parker, is the story of Nat Turner, and it made news back in January when it premiered and won big at the Sundance Film Festival. In addition to winning the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, Fox Searchlight Pictures also bought the film for $17.5 million in the largest deal in festival history. Back in January it seemed clear that scores of moviegoers would soon learn about Nat Turner. In a few months, he will no longer be a relatively unknown figure in American history, and so it seems  my friend is going to have to find a new way to gauge whether or not he wants to continue talking to you. What struck me while watching the trailer this week, however, is that that in addition to learning about Nat Turner, audiences might also learn quite a bit about American Christianity and slavery.

Digitizing Four Decades of Conversations


Msgr. John Egan preaches at the dedication mass for the Cushwa Center in 1981. Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, the celebrant for the mass, is at right.
[In this month’s Cushwa Center post, assistant director Shane Ulbrich shares some news about a few digital projects underway at the Center. Some of these are fully up and running—see below for links—while others are still in progress as we deal with copyright or content management questions. Back in December on this blog, Heather Gary recalled the myriad lectures, seminars, symposia, research projects, and conferences that Cushwa has sponsored in the 40 years since its inception. The overall aim of our digitization efforts is to give scholars means for revisiting those many activities, by making the relevant materials readily discoverable and searchable on the web.]  

Shane Ulbrich

New Books in American Religious History: 2016 Year in Preview, Part Two (May-August)

Paul Putz

It's time for part two of the 2016 book preview list. This one will cover books published in May through August. If you missed part one (books published January-April), you can check it out here. Part three will be posted in late August, and will feature books published in September-December.

The usual preface: I've listed the books in roughly chronological order based on the month of their tentative release date. Although I've tried to include as many relevant and interesting titles as I could find, I'm sure that I left out some deserving books. Sometimes this is because publishers don't have updated information on their websites, and sometimes it's because I just missed it. Please feel free to use the comments to add to this list and I can update the post as needed.

As for how I define what is "American" in American religion (to say nothing of what is "religion" in American religion), for the purposes of these lists I mostly follow Kathryn Gin Lum's response in this IUPUI RAAC forum. There, she articulated an understanding of "America" as the region that eventually became known as the United States. That definition does have problems, of course, which is why your contributions to this list -- contributions which envision "America" differently -- are more than welcome.

Now, on to the books! (after this collage to add some color to any social media links)

Race, Class, and America's Pastor: An Interview with Phillip Sinitiere

Karen Johnson

I recently read Phil Sinitiere's new book Salvation witha Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church & American Christianity.  (Arlene Sanchez and Phil did an interview about the book on this blog here, which you can check out if you want to read more.)  Phil suggests that to comprehend recent American evangelicalism, we need to understand Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church.  I had an opportunity to talk with Phil further about how Lakewood and the Osteen family illuminate themes of race, working for structural change, and gender in American Christianity.  Phil is well-poised to speak about these subjects based not only on this current book, but also his earlier Holy Mavericks:Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace, and Christians and the Color Line: Religion and Race after Divided by Faith, which he co-edited with Rusty Hawkins, and which you can read more about here. I'm happy to post some of the results of our conversation today, and look forward to sharing more with you in June.

KJ: American Christianity is marked by the history of race in America.  When racial change and (mostly white) suburbanization happened in American cities in the postwar era, most white Protestants moved out of the city and their old neighborhoods.  Their church may have remained in the old neighborhood longer, but, particularly if the church did not have a strong denominational polity, the congregants moved the church building to the new neighborhood.  Lakewood Church, however, stayed in its neighborhood for years past when the neighborhood changed, before it moved into the Compaq Center (former Houston Rockets arena) in 2005.  Could you speak more to those dynamics?

PS: Karen, Let me first say thanks for the interview about my research on Lakewood Church and American Christianity. The working-class and racially diverse area of northeast Houston in which Lakewood was once situated experienced demographic shifts over the four decades it was there. John Osteen, Lakewood’s founder, commented in sermons that wealthy Houstonians criticized him for not re-locating Lakewood to another part of town (interested readers might also refer to the Woodrow Seals story in chapter 2 for another example of class-based criticism)—presumably more white, and bourgeois. My research suggested that John’s working-class origins oriented him to consider the plight of the poor in Houston even though the prosperity gospel he preached netted millions of dollars that propelled him into a new tax bracket. 

I should also note that while John exhibited a preferential option for the poor in and around Lakewood Church, starting in the 1970s he moved his family out to suburban Houston. At the same time, congregants seemed to find John’s decision not to move Lakewood Church meaningful. Many commented on his charitable spirit and monetary redistribution, while thousands continued to show up such that by the time of John’s death in 1999, Lakewood had tens of thousands of members. 

Jerusalem YMCA: Relics of Mainline Missions

 Michael Limberg

Jerusalem YMCA, photographed from the front.
Photograph by author.

Wandering down a shady section of King David Street in Jerusalem, the weary traveler first sees a soaring tower. Walking closer, a large complex opens up, built with Jerusalem’s ubiquitous honey-colored stone in a blend of 1920s modernism and Oriental domes and arches. The sound of children calling in Arabic and Hebrew while they play on courtyard playgrounds echoes from a large sign at the entrance, where multiracial men and women in sports clothes contorting their body to spell out “YMCA.” The Jerusalem YMCA is a relic of the high tide of mainline American missions in the 1930s, but it is also a reminder of the long continuing history of mainline missions even as their work was eclipsed by newer evangelical organizations. The Jerusalem Y also remains deeply entangled in the national and international politics of the Middle East. And for me as a historian, exploring the history of the Jerusalem Y was a chance to understand some of the opportunities and challenges of missionary history.

In 1919, Archibald Harte, an employee of the U.S. Young Men’s Christian Association, arrived in Jerusalem determined to “do everything possible for the people and the land, in order to bring to the people righteous prosperity and to make the land again a land of milk and honey.” After securing a million-dollar gift from a wealthy American donor, Harte oversaw the construction of a huge YMCA complex in Jerusalem. The facility boasted a gymnasium, pool, sports field, library, an American-style soda fountain, and space for lectures, religious services, and vocational classes. The impressive building showcased modern technology and architecture and symbolized the commitment of U.S. missionaries to help the Holy Land. The Jerusalem YMCA has survived many changes and challenges over the decades since its construction. Arab, Jewish, British, and American members fought over racial and religious tests for admittance in the 1930s. Its façade still bears scars from the 1946 Irgun bomb attack on the King David Hotel across the street. Amos Gil, the current CEO, remembers growing up nearby in what was, until 1967, a poor Jewish neighborhood exposed to Jordanian sniper fire from the Old City walls. During the intifadas or more recent fighting in Lebanon and Gaza, Arab members coming from the Old City braved checkpoints to reach what Gil describes as an “oasis” of peace.

“Jesus, Don’t Let Me Die Before I’ve Had Sex”: A New Documentary

Today's guest post comes from Suzanna Krivulskaya. Suzanna is a Ph.D. student in U.S. History at the University of Notre Dame. She studies U.S. religion, gender, sexuality, and scandal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Suzanna can be found on Twitter via @suzzzanna.

Suzanna Krivulskaya

Coming out to family is stressful for anyone, especially if the patriarch happens to be Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. Bright’s grandson, Chris Bright had to be especially creative in how he delivered the message. Convinced that flawed theology was at the heart of his parents’ rejection of homosexuality, Chris tried to change their minds by having them sit through “For The Bible Tells Me So,” a 2007 documentary about gay Christians. As Chris’s mom quietly sobbed on the couch anticipating the announcement of her son’s deviant sexuality, his dad loudly denounced the pro-gay theology that the documentary espoused. The coming out did not go as planned.

Fast-forward a few years, and Chris is now the subject of another provocative documentary. “Give Me Sex Jesus” takes an enlightening look at the evangelical abstinence campaign that swept the nation in the mid-1990s. (By the early 2000s, it gained international momentum, reaching yours truly all the way in Belarus, where Chris Bright’s grandfather had sent Campus Crusade missionaries to spread the gospel among the ex-Soviet atheists.)

Evangelical teens made virginity pledges, donned “True Love Waits” promise rings, and held each other accountable for staying away from temptations like pornography, masturbation, and--God forbid--homosexuality.

Bernie and Black Southerners

The following post comes from Adele Oltman. Adele is the author of Sacred Mission, Worldly Ambition: Black Christian Nationalism in the Age of Jim Crow (University of Georgia Press). 

Adele Oltman 

The most significant thing about Bernie Sanders is that without a billion-dollar war chest, a Super PAC, or the support of the Democratic Party establishment he has become a formidable political adversary to Hillary Clinton, who expected to waltz into the White House with all of the above. The second most significant thing about Bernie is that he’s accomplished this even as he unapologetically identifies as a democratic socialist. In every stump speech and debate he points to the fundamental unfairness of the top one-percent owning as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Not only does he support breaking up the big banks by reinstating the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, he would increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for universal health care and free public education through graduate school. And the massive public works program that Sanders proposes would put people to work while at the same time fix this country’s crumbling infrastructure.

So what is it about Sanders’ redistributive agenda that black southerners don’t like?  Why did they vote for the candidate who has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in speakers’ fees from Wall Street (and refuses to release transcripts so that voters would know exactly what she’s promised), and supported international trade agreements that have led inexorably to the loss of American jobs and devastated communities all over the country, including the South?  Why do they continue to vote for the candidate that has promised to make her husband a key advisor in a Clinton 2.0 White House, even though as Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, reminds us, he capitulated entirely to Ronald Reagan’s backlash against the civil rights movement when he pushed through his punitive agenda on crime, welfare, and taxes – which hurt black communities even more than Reagan himself?

The most obvious explanation, and one that progressives ought not to dismiss too quickly, was her central role in President Obama’s administration during his first term. For many black Americans, our first black president Obama is a (prophetic) symbol of racial equality and they see Clinton as an affirmation of that. But there may be another reason that Sanders hasn’t done well among black voters, especially in the South. It has to do with the history of southern black Christianity long after the end of slavery.

Conference: Early American Material Texts

Sonia Hazard
All are invited to participate in “Early American Material Texts,” a three-day interdisciplinary conference in Philadelphia, May 25-27. The conference will showcase new theoretical, methodological, and historiographical developments in scholarship on the history of the book and its allied material cultures in North America and the Atlantic world before 1850. Information about the schedule and locations may be found on the conference website here. Registration, which is free and required in order to access the pre-circulated papers, will be available later in April.

“Material Texts” is an interdisciplinary formation that connects the study of texts to their material conditions of production, circulation, and reception. Particularly of interest to readers of this blog is the panel on Thursday afternoon at 3:00 PM, “Lived Religion and Material Texts,” chaired by Matthew Brown.
  1. “What the Hymnbook Says: On Reading a Print Artifact as Statement and Event,” Christopher Phillips (Lafayette College)
  2. “Books Buried in the Earth: The Book of Mormon and the Humic Foundations of the National Romance,” Jillian Sayre (Rutgers University, Camden)
  3. “Breaking the Good Book: The Bible as an Immoral Material Text in Nineteenth-Century America,” Jamie Brummitt (Duke University)
The conference is funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, and supported by the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and Penn's Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts. 

The images are of religious material texts from the Library Company's collections. The first image shows an American Tract Society book on which its former owner installed a daguerreotype to memorialize an unknown young man, himself holding a book. In the second, a reader inserted black butterfly wings in a bespoke-bound volume of tracts, corresponding to the tract An Appeal on the Subject of Cholera, on the page containing the passage, “The dark wing of the destroying angel…”

Winking Scofflaws and Christian Strongmen

Adam Park

Perceptually indistinguishable, Clifford Geertz famously reminds us, is the difference between a 
wink and a twitch. But, oh, how very vast the difference between a conspiratorial signal and an involuntary eye closure! And as it so happens, the wink-twitch interpretational problem can be quite useful when it comes to navigating First Amendment obstacles.

Christian strongmen teams--The Power Team, Team Impact, John Jacobs Next Generation Power Force, Omega Force Strength Team, et al.--with their public feats of strength, are particularly savvy in this regard. Breaking bricks, hoisting logs, bending iron, and exploding hot water bottles for Jesus ... or is it breaking, hoisting, bending, and exploding for the world? I forget.

Nevertheless, many witness. Team Impact has a weekly television show and performs at nearly 1,000 schools a year (which amounts to an annual audience of over 700,000 students). Since its founding in 1976, The Power Team has performed in every state and in over 40 countries; and in the past 20 years alone, they have put on over 26,000 school assemblies. Big numbers. Big men.

6 Questions with Daniel K. Williams

Jonathan Den Hartog

Daniel K. Williams (University of West Georgia) has produced some outstanding scholarship on the connection of religion with modern American politics. His first book, God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (2010), provided a clear narrative of the institutional formation of the "religious right," while showing that it had much deeper roots than Jerry Falwell in the late-1970s.

Williams has just published a new book: Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (reviewed well, we should note, in the New York  Times). In addition to tracing a political movement in opposition to abortion, Williams observes the significant role religion played in debating a profound moral issue. Daniel graciously allowed me to pose 6 questions for this blog.

And, after reading this interview, if you would like more, you can listen to Daniel's podcast with John Fea and Drew Dyrli Hermeling.

Question 1: I very much enjoyed your first book, God’s Own Party, about the place of religious conservatives in the Republican Party. What led you to follow up that book with a project about the pro-life movement before Roe vs. Wade?

As a result of studying conservative Christian politics, I realized that abortion was a different sort of issue than the other causes that had attracted the Christian Right’s attention, because ideological divisions on this issue did not correspond to the conventional left-right divide.  Although most pro-lifers after the 1980s aligned themselves with the political right, the language that they used to describe their cause was reminiscent of the human rights campaigns of the left. 

After I began researching the early history of the pro-life movement, I discovered that its origins were even more intriguing than I had suspected.  The conventional view among most historians is that the pro-life movement developed as a backlash against Roe v. Wade and the feminist movement, and that it originated as a conservative movement opposed to women’s rights.  These notions are false.  Not only was there a vibrant pro-life movement before Roe v. Wade but that movement was winning political victories precisely because it was a liberal human rights movement that foregrounded women’s activism and allied itself with other rights-conscious movements.  The pro-life movement’s leaders included opponents of the Vietnam War, supporters of the Great Society, and even some African American civil rights activists, along with numerous women.  In fact, women were more likely than men to oppose abortion in the 1970s, and women were often the executive leaders of state and national pro-life organizations.    The movement received plaudits from liberal acolytes such as Jesse Jackson and Ted Kennedy, and its grassroots organizers included many loyal Democrats, such as Eunice Kennedy Shriver.       

I wrote this book partly because I wanted to tell the surprising story of a liberal human rights movement that became a conservative cause – a story that challenges our assumptions not only about the abortion debate but about the history of modern American politics.

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.

Inside Baseball and The Bible Cause


Oxford University Press has just recently released John Fea's The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (2016). The American Bible Society was a central institution of American religious life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its significance extended to such topics as evangelism, print culture, benevolence, global missions, and capitalism. This blog will feature a series of reviews of The Bible Cause by historians whose work also touches on those topics. The first review is by Elesha Coffman, author of The Christian Century and the Rise of the Protestant Mainline. —Lincoln Mullen

by Elesha Coffman

Institutional histories are tricky to write. I know this because I wrote one, and also because John Fea admits as much in his new book The Bible Cause: A History of American Bible Society. Institutions are not people, about whom page-turning biographies can be written, or ideas, with which a writer can wrestle. The sheer mass of them, and of their archives, limits the writer’s mobility. “It is extremely difficult to write popular reading material about the ABS,” noted ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor, who commissioned a one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary history of the society that was slated for 1966 but never completed. Fifty years later, having hit the deadline for the society’s two-hundredth anniversary, Fea concurs, observing that “institutions do not usually make for the most thrilling reading” (5).

This is not to say that The Bible Cause lacks drama. Weaving the tale of a venerable benevolent institution with two hundred years of American and, in several chapters, overseas history means covering many conflicts big (e.g., war) and small (e.g., divided responses to the line drawings in Good News for Modern Man). Fea also highlights personalities as much as possible. In the latter task, Fea is aided by the zest for adventure exhibited by ABS colporteurs and published in ABS periodicals. John Thorne, for example, recalled being pelted by peanuts and assailed by chickens while distributing Bibles in China in the 1870s and 1880s. When Chinese opposition to Western imperialism produced the Boxer Rebellion a few years later, white ABS officials managed to flee the country, but many Chinese colporteurs died, some crucified on trees (140). Fea’s is by no means a bloodless story.

A line drawing from Good News for Modern Man

newer post older post