A Bible society is an organization dedicated to translating, printing, and distributing copies of God’s Word. Often given free or at low cost, these Bibles are also placed in hospitals, prisons, shelters, and military installations. In the United States, the largest Bible-distribution organizations are the American Bible Society and the International Bible Society (or Biblica). Other organizations, such as the Gideons International, also distribute Bibles but are not involved in translation work.
It could be said that the idea of Bible societies was born in AD 331 when Emperor Constantine purportedly ordered 50 copies of the Old and New Testaments to be created and distributed to the churches in Constantinople. But the modern Bible society movement began in 1804 with the British and Foreign Bible Society. A group of Christians in Europe grew concerned at the lack of affordable Bibles available for Welsh speakers, and they commissioned the translation and printing of Welsh Bibles. Similar efforts spread to England, India, and beyond, printing and distributing Bibles in many languages.
Most Bible societies are Protestant and interdenominational. Originally, Bible societies printed editions of the Bible that included the Apocrypha. However, in 1808 Pope Gregory XVI denounced all efforts by any Bible distribution organization and withdrew Catholic support, so Bible societies dropped the apocryphal books from their publications. Today, Bible societies exist in almost every region of the world, and Bibles are printed according to the canons of each country.
Bible societies have provided some widely used versions of the Bible. The American Bible Society produces the Good News Translation (formerly Today’s English Version), the Contemporary English Version, and the Reina-Valera 1960 (a Spanish-language Bible). Biblica holds the copyright to the New International Version and its various offshoots.
Bible societies are a natural extension of believers’ love for God’s Word. Christians through the centuries have always worked to share the Bible with others. The Wycliffe Bible, the Tyndale Bible, the Coverdale Bible, and other editions represent the commitment of men of God to distribute the gospel. The Reformers were all involved in translating the Bible into the vernacular and making sure God’s Word was available for the people in their countries. Like the sower of the seed in Jesus’ parable, Bible societies work to share God’s life-giving message to the world.
Due to the efforts of Bible societies, God’s Word has been made readily available to millions of people who may not otherwise purchase a Bible. The impact of those efforts will not be fully known until we get to heaven and hear the stories of thousands that may begin like this: “I was in a dark place in my life—and then someone handed me a Bible.”