Good news for the world

Good news for the world: 200 years of making the Bible heard: the story of the Bible Society

Roger Steer
Monarch Books and the Bible Society; 2004; £8.95; Pbk.; 462p.;
ISBN 1854246631 (Monarch, paperback)
ISBN 0564042862 (Bible Society paperback)
ISBN 0564042765 (Bible Society hardback)

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In the hot, dry summer of 1800 a fifteen year old Welsh girl, Mary Jones, walked twenty-eight miles from the Welsh village of Tyn’y-ddol to the town of Bala in order to buy a Welsh Bible, for which she had saved for six years, from a Methodist minister, Thomas Charles. Tremendously impressed by her enthusiasm, Charles formed a society to provide affordable Welsh Bibles. The group, which included William Wilberforce and Joseph Hughes (a Baptist minister who had been accepted into the Anglican Evangelical Clapham Sect) quickly appreciated the greater need – the provision of Bibles in the language of the people throughout the world – and in 1804 the British and Foreign Bible Society was formed.

This book tells the fascinating story of what is now known simply as the Bible Society. The inclusion of the Methodist Charles, the Anglican Wilberforce and the Baptist Hughes in the original committee was a clear indication of the ecumenical nature of the Society, which was developed as the society grew although there was suspicion by some Anglican bishops (like John Henry Hobart) and some popes (like Pius VII and Leo XII). However the Society was welcomed by other bishops including George Bell, Geoffrey Fisher, Donald Coggan, and more recently, Tom Wright and Rowan Williams, and also by Pope John Paul II, who in 2002 invited and welcomed representatives of thirty-seven Bible Societies throughout the world, telling them that their work is above all a service of Christ.

Well known names which played their part in the development of Bible Societies throughout the world include George Borrow, William Carey, the Earl of Shaftesbury, John Shore (Lord Teignmouth), Nicholas Vansittart (later 1st Baron Bexley) and William Wilberforce.

I am impressed by the tremendous amount of research that has gone into the development of this very important book, but I am less impressed by the literary style. I found the frequent change of tenses – from present to future to past and back to present – offputting and was not impressed by the inclusion of some conversations which the author could only have guessed at, making the work seem at times more like a work of fiction than the history of a society. The index is inadequate, with some omissions and some strange headings like ‘War, First World’ and ‘War, Second World’. The physical production leaves something to be desired, the very small margins making it difficult to read without damaging the book.

The final, summarising chapter (or ‘Act’ as the author prefers to call it) on ‘Good News for the World’ is impressive, particularly the following quotation from Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham and Vice-President of Bible Society:

Whatever view of the Bible you take, if you are to be in any way obedient to the Bible you cannot make the Bible itself the centre or focus of your attention. It points away from itself. From the Christian point of view, the centre of attention can never be merely the Bible: it must always be Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Lord of the World’.“

Contributed by Ken Bakewell who is a Life Vice-President of CLIS and Emeritus Professor of Information and Library Management at the Liverpool John Moores University.

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