The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society by historian John Fea recounts the two hundred year history of the American Bible Society. As such, one might expect it to be rather bland. In my Ph.D. research, I have read a couple of “institutional” histories, and they tend to be dull accounts of buildings and donors. However, Fea is an excellent writer. He most well-known work is Was America Founded as A Fea manages to write a book a compelling account of the ABS story and its commitment to distribute the Bible in the United States and around the world. The book should be of interest to anyone who wishes to understand the influence of Christianity on American society. It should also interest to missiologists and church historians.
What keeps this history from being dry is the narrative framework of the book. The narrative nature should keep the ABS story attractive to the average reader. At the same time, the story reveals key points mentioned in the introduction that Fea wants to get across. First, the Bible is the word of God with a salvation message. As such, it must be distributed widely in the common language of the people. (p. 3) Second, the ABS held to a cultural mandate of building a Christian society in the United States and around the world. (p. 3) Fea reiterates these points as they arise in the narrative. For those who see evangelical activism as something new and foreign to the American story (or only present during election years), these points may surprise.
Another key strength is the refreshing honesty of the history. In one sense, this book is an “authorized” biography of the ABS. The ABS asked Fea to write the book because wanted a scholarly history. As a historian, Fea was committed to academic freedom. The ABS allowed for that freedom. Therefore, the book contains the good, the bad, and the ugly of the ABS. Thankfully the story is mostly good.
My interest in ABS history comes from research into the expansion of Christianity in the American Midwest in the early 1800s, particularly in the work of John Mason Peck, whom Fea mentions in the book. Several individual stories from the ABS history can serve as missiological case studies. Though the ABS did not see itself as a missionary agency, its workers often faced similar struggles to those of missionaries. The work of Frances Hamilton in Mexico is particularly noteworthy for her cultural adaptation and commitment to reach the Mexican people.
As someone who loves history, particularly related to Christian expansion and evangelical influence on American culture, it saddens me that this book will not have broad appeal beyond people like me. Despite the narrative nature, it is unlikely that a casual reader could pick this book up and stay with it for its 360 plus pages. Sections will come across as dry if one is not already interested in the subject.
Still, this book should be a valuable reference. The story of the ABS intersects with the whole of United States history including slavery and freedmen, Native Americans, mainline denominations, evangelicalism, fundamentalism (both small and capital “f”), politics, wars, and military excursions. As such, researchers could use it as a starting point to dig deeper in new areas. Missiologists should also take a look. Missiologists have noted the tie between Scripture distribution as extensive seed sowing of the gospel and church planting movement. Researchers could investigate correlations and causations between ABS campaigns and church planting and church growth.
(Full Disclosure: Oxford University Press gave me access to a non-corrected electronic copy of this book in exchange for review purposes. I was under no obligation to write a positive review.)