History From its founding in 1816, the American Bible Society has grappled with the task of making the Word of God available to Christians and churches in America. From its earliest days, it has worked to provide scriptures to the men, and later women of the military, to local and international bible societies, and to translate the Holy Bible to other languages used by peoples in the United States so that they could not only possess scripture, but could understand its importance in their own lives.
Leaders Starting with a leader of the American Revolution, Elias Boudinot, John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and going right down to the most recent president Lamar Vest, The American Bible Society has always been led by “true believers” in the Bible cause.
In the dusty vaults of the old Bible House on Astor Place there was recently found a collection of letters that made the lengthening years of history roll backward. Probably not long after the building was built a hundred years ago, someone placed them there; but most of the letters go back still earlier, to the period from 1800 to 1820, and one even to 1778. That is a date to thrill Americans and the letter might well, too; for it was written by Mrs. Hannah Boudinot in “Baskinridge,” New Jersey, to her anxious husband Elias Boudinot in Philadelphia.
Elias was properly anxious. The Revolutionary War was on. He had moved his family for safety from Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth) to a farm behind the ramparts of the Watchung Mountains. He himself was in Philadelphia in a dual capacity – as General Washington's Commissioner for Prisoners of War and as a delegate from New Jersey to the Continental Congress. For two weeks he had not heard from his beloved Hannah. Why is she silent? Her reply to his complaint, which came to light after 175 years, is a wifely response that she had done all she could to send letters off, but that no one could be found who would carry his letters through Philadelphia! (The U.S. Post Office was still five years away.) Such were the strains upon family life in Revolutionary America.
The discovery of this correspondence may well be the occasion of a reminder of the kind of man the founder of the American Bible Society was. Happily, we are helped in this by a most interesting biography recently published – “Elias Boudinot–Patriot and Statesman,” by George Adams Boyd (Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey). With skill and humor Mr. Boyd traces for us the varied experiences of one of the central figures in the founding of our country.
Elias Boudinot, the son of a Huguenot silversmith, was born in 1740 a few doors from Benjamin Franklin's house in Philadelphia, then a town of 13,000. Twenty years later, after moving to Princeton he was licensed as a lawyer, having for a time considered the ministry. The next decade and more were spent in building up a practice in Elizabethtown, giving shelter to the lad Alexander Hamilton, serving as a trustee of the young college in Princeton and as a rising leader in local public affairs. As the tension heightened between the colonies and Great Britain, he entered on a long career of public service in which, throughout his long life, one responsibility after another was loaded on his capable shoulders, though never by his seeking public office. He was on the first New Jersey Committee of Correspondence concerning forming a Continental Congress. In August 1775 he secretly rounded up and sent to General Washington desperately needed supplies of gunpowder. In 1777 he became, at Washington's request, the Commissioner for Prisoners of War, likewise responsible for securing information about the enemy's location and plans. In the former position he had to dispose of British and Hessian prisoners in American hands and provide clothing and sustenance for Americans in British hands by negotiation with the enemy. In the hazardous financial state of Congress, this took courage. He actually risked nearly $40,000 of his own cash and credit to see that the prisoners were supplied.
In 1778, and again in 1781 and 1782, he was a member from New Jersey of the Continental Congress. In the latter year he was elected the President of the Congress, and in the year following, on April; 15, he signed as President the ratification of the treaty, whereby “His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States ... to be free, sovereign, and independent states.” He was thus the chief officer of the United States at the moment its independence was first acknowledged!
After several years endeavoring to restore his personal affairs, badly shattered by most devoted attention to public duties, he was elected a member of the Congress of 1789 in New York, the first Congress under the new Constitution. The regard in which he was held is indicated by his having been made chairman of the committee to conduct the new first President, George Washington, to Congress and his inauguration. For six years more he served his country – faithful, not as brilliant as some others, but often wise; moderating the hot-heads, holding confidence because of his integrity and fairness and often, with skill and sincerity, furnishing guidance for Congressional action. It speaks highly for him that almost constantly he was in the chair when the House met in the Committee of the Whole, which it did much of the time. His last important government service was as Director of the Mint in Philadelphia from 1795 to 1805, an assignment terminating when he was sixty-five years old.
Yet, for all this extensive service in the founding of our country, he counted his election as the first President of the American Bible Society in his, seventy-sixth year as the highest honor possible this side of the grave. It was largely due to his wisdom and persistence at this advanced age that the Society was brought into being. Yet this was but one of his many private services to religion and the common weal. In Congress he assailed the slave trade and at seventy-nine wrote against it: He was a trustee of what is now Princeton University and one of the founders of Princeton Theological Seminary. He was concerned to help educate Indians. He wrote books in defense of religion. In 1783 he signed a Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, and in 1789 moved a resolution in Congress that was the start of our long tradition of national Thanksgiving Days. One judges rightly that a man of such interests was most devoted to his wife, his daughter and his friends; and so his correspondence proves.
As we look back over these several generations at Elias Boudinot, brought so close to us by a bundle of correspondence and an excellent new biography, we who serve the Bible Society are struck by the degree to which he, the founder, was animated by the very spirit and principle which has been all these years, and is now, the spirit of the Society. Let us express it in two passages from his own pen.
At the age of thirty-eight he wrote to his daughter Charity:
As you advance in life you will find the Christian world unhappily split into a Multitude of Denominations, Professions, and Names. Each will tell you that his is the only right Way, as those mentioned in Scripture who tell you, lo! here is Christ, or, there is Christ; but believe them not. The true Catholicism of the Scriptures will tell you to take them all into the Arms of your Love, Charity, and to look upon all as the servants of the same Master, as far as they follow His Example.
And on being elected President of the Congress, to his wife he wrote:
God has ever been the director of our Paths and the Guide of our Ways. It is not the first Time that He has led us in the way which we knew not – and set our Feet in a Strong Place. We have embarked in His Service, and it is our part to see that we do His will and act with a single Eye to His Glory, and all will be well.