Monday, March 5, 2018

A Forgotten President

By Lori Lockhart

Can you identify all the presidents of the United States? You might start your list with George Washington. But, what about names like John Hanson, Elias Boudinot or Thomas Mifflin? They are often left off any presidential roll. Yet, all of them (among others) were selected to be presidents of the United States Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Take Elias Boudinot (May 2, 1740-Oct. 24, 1821) for example, he was elected to be the president of the Confederation Congress Nov. 4, 1782. This made him the presiding officer of the first formal national government in the United States when the Treaty of Paris was signed with England that effectively ended the American Revolution.

J. W. Paradise engraving of Elias Boudinot (1740-1821).
THS Picture Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives

Functioning as the head of the United States Congress wasn’t Boudinot’s only claim to fame. He also served on the board of directors of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), was a lawyer, a U. S. Representative, an author and a supporter of Native American rights. But, perhaps his greatest achievement was founding the American Bible Society (ABS) in 1816.

American Bible Society Lifetime Member Certificate for Rev. R. C. (Robert Clopton) Hatton, 1841.
Peyton Family Papers, Tennessee State Library and Archives

The British and Foreign Bible Society was formed in 1804. Four years later, the first Bible society in the United States was established in Philadelphia. Soon, similar Bible groups were being organized all over the Northeast. By June 1816, a published list would show the existence of 128 similar groups spread out over 21 U.S. states and territories. Tennessee was even home to several Bible societies.

Franklin County Bible Society membership list, ca. 1830s.
Carrick Academy Board of Trustees Minutes, Tennessee State Library and Archives

A plan for a national Bible society was suggested in 1815 by Boudinot, who was the head of the New Jersey Bible Society at the time. He thought a national society would unify the efforts of smaller local organizations and also be more effective at getting the Bible into unsettled areas of the U.S. that were still little more than wilderness.

According to “The Manual of the American Bible Society,” a convention was held May 8, 1816, in the “Consistory Room of the Reformed Dutch Church, in Garden Street, in New York” with 60 people from many different denominations in attendance. The meeting’s mission was established with harmony: “Resolved, That it is expedient to establish, without delay, a general Bible Institution for the circulation of the Holy Scriptures without note or comment.” The gathering was a success with a constitution being adopted and “Executive Officers” as well as a “Board of Managers” being selected for the new national group. (Boudinot would serve as the first President of the society.) With this illustrious start, “the American Bible Society entered at once upon its career of benevolence and Christian usefulness.”

The constitution of the ABS stated that “the sole object of the Institution is to encourage a wider circulation of the Holy Scriptures without note or comment.” It was unsectarian and did not want remarks included in the Bibles it published to contain denominational bias. The ABS prided itself on being made up of members from many different denominations and also strove to “circulate the Scriptures among all classes impartially,” giving away Bibles to those who could not afford them and charging only what the Bible cost to manufacture to those who were more affluent.

Excerpts from the William Driver Family Bible. Driver (March 17, 1803-March 3, 1886) was a sea captain and longtime Nashville resident who coined the moniker “Old Glory” for the U.S. flag. He is buried in Nashville City Cemetery.
William Driver Family Bible, Tennessee State Library and Archives

The society worked with many different organizations to distribute scriptures, including the United States military. The ABS gave Bibles to sailors on the USS John Adams in 1817 and has supplied Bibles to soldiers in every American war since the Mexican-American War in 1846. In fact, many Civil War (both Union and Confederate) and WWI soldiers carried pocket testaments published by the ABS.

Title page of pocket New Testament (1861) given to Jasper B. Griffith, Co. E, 3rd Wisc. Inf. Regt., USA. He was from Font du Lac, Wisconsin and moved to Lawrence County, Tenn. after the war. He died at the National Soldiers Home in East Tenn. in 1915. This New Testament edition also went to World War I with one of Jasper Griffith's descendants, Pvt. Samuel F. Clifton.
Looking Back at the Civil War Digital Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives

Inside front cover of New Testament (1917) printed by the American Bible Society and given to Pvt. Euliss Grant Hallowell, 63rd Art. Brig., Coastal Art. Brig. He was assigned to Ft. Pickens and later Ft. Barrancas near Pensacola, Florida. Hallowell ultimately served in France beginning in September 1918. He remained overseas until March 1919. Hallowell farmed in Carroll County after the war and died in 1984.
Over Here, Over There WWI Digital Collection, Tennessee State Library and Archives

Through the years, the American Bible Society has been a leading innovator in the publishing world. According to John Fea (author of “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society”), the ABS was the “first publisher in the United States to use steam-powered presses.” The ABS also published the first braille Bible.

While the ABS’s mission/vision has changed slightly in recent years and their headquarters has moved from New York to Philadelphia, they continue to “make the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford.” This continues the legacy started long ago by a largely forgotten president.

To explore items in the Library and Archives holdings related to the American Bible Society, browse through materials here.

To view more military memorabilia from the Civil War and World War I, please visit the Looking Back: The Civil War In Tennessee and the Over Here, Over There: Tennesseans in the First World War digital collections.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

1 comment: