Isn’t This Like a Constitutional Amendment in Favor of Fast Food?

John Fea objects to the American Bible Society’s “Affirmation of Biblical Community” as a break with the institution’s past and an attempt to signal an evangelical brand (yuck):

There is nothing unusual with a religious organization making employees sign a statement of faith or requiring them to practice certain behavior that fits with the teachings of historic Christianity. Christian ministries and colleges, for example, do this as a matter of course.

But the fact that the ABS has decided to adopt such a statement after functioning for 202 years without one does make this development noteworthy. As the author of perhaps the only scholarly history of this storied Christian organization, I can attest that the “Affirmation of Biblical Community” represents a definitive break with the vision of its founders.

It also represents the culmination of a roughly 20-year transformation of the Society from a diverse Christian organization to a ministry with strong ties to American evangelicalism.

Fea is gaining a following, even to the point that Ruth McCambridge calls this a “hi-jacking”:

Here are some of the potentially break-worthy aspects of the Affirmation as reported at Christianity Today:

“I believe the Bible is inspired by God, an open invitation to all people, and, for me, provides authoritative guidance for my faith and conduct.”

“I will seek spiritual maturity through regular Bible engagement…”

“I will seek to refrain from sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant prescribed and exemplified in the Bible.”

If Fea’s point is that ABS never codified its doctrines or morals, he has a technical point. But do technicalities add up to a “break” or “hi-jacking?” Americans love fast-food but don’t have a national affirmation in favor of double-cheeseburgers. If someone in Congress proposed an amendment to affirm McDonalds and Whataburger, would it constitute a break with American norms, or an unusual step in merging the nation’s politics and tastebuds?

Still, the way Fea and others comment on the Affirmation is to suggest the folks at ABS were indifferent to morality and doctrine, or that the Bible Society was never truly in the evangelical camp. I don’t like to do this but I did learn from John Fea that ABS was part of a 19th-century push by evangelical Protestants to form voluntary parachurch agencies and change the world. In his history of ABS, he writes:

At the start of the Civil War, close to half of the population of the United States were evangelical Christians, and most of these evangelicals were sympathetic to the work of benevolent societies. . . . Between 1789 and 1829 the nation’s thirteen largest benevolent socieites — most of them unaffiliated with a specific denomination — spent more than $2.8 million to promote a more Christian and moral nation. . . . Lyman Beecher, perhaps the most vocal champion of a Christian nation and a founder of the ABS, believed that such interdenominational society should supplement the churches as a “sort of disciplined moral militia.” (51-52)

Is it just I or does that sound like Beecher could well affirm the ABS’s recent Affirmation (and might even add a few more items like drinking, smoking, movies, novels, Sabbath desecration)?

Indeed, one of Beecher’s colleagues in founding ABS, Elias Boudinot, was according to Tommie Kidd “the most evangelical founding father” and no slouch in the moralizing business. Here is how Kidd described Boudinot:

Boudinot was a member and president of the Continental Congress, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the director of the U.S. Mint from 1795 to 1805. Boudinot became increasingly alarmed about the rise of Deism and the attacks on traditional Christianity by Thomas Paine and others. He helped found the American Bible Society in 1816, and became the president of the American Society for Evangelizing the Jews in 1820 (John Quincy Adams was a vice president of this organization). Boudinot wrote Christian treatises such as The Age of Revelation and The Second Advent, which used prophecies from the Bible to argue that America risked losing the blessings of God if it continued to pursue faithlessness and worldliness.

Kidd then included an excerpt from Boudinot’s book, The Second Advent:

But has not America greatly departed from her original principles, and left her first love? Has she not also many amongst her chief citizens, of every party, who have forsaken the God of their fathers, and to whom the spirit may justly be supposed to say, “ye hold doctrines which I hate, repent, or else I will come unto you quickly, and will fight against you with the sword of my mouth.”

America has been greatly favoured by God, in all her concerns, both civil and religious, and she has much to hope, and much to fear, according as she shall attentively improve her relative situation among the nations of the earth, for the glory of God, and the protection of his people—She has been raised up in the course of divine Providence, at a very important crisis, and for no very inconsiderable purposes. She stands on a pinnacle—She cannot act a trifling or undecided part—She must determine whom she will serve, God or mammon—She stands by faith, and has great reason to take heed lest she should fall, from a vain confidence in her own internal strength, forgetting “the rock from whence she has been hewed, and the hole of the pit, from whence she has been digged.” …

Hearken then, ye who are happily delivered from many of the evils and temptations to which the European nations are exposed. Your fathers fled from persecution: a glorious country was opened to them by the liberal hand of a kind Providence;—a land, literally, flowing with milk and honey;—they were miraculously delivered from the savages of the desert;—they were fed and nourished in a way they scarcely knew how. Alas! what have been the returns, their descendants, of late years, have made for the exuberant goodness of God to them? The eastern states, however greatly fallen from their former Christian professions, were settled by a people really fearing God. “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do thy first works, or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent,” that is, will deprive thee of those Gospel privileges with which thou hast been so greatly favoured.

Again, Boudinot sounds like the sort of fellow who would likely add to ABS’ recent enumeration of biblical convictions. Kidd adds, “Whatever you might think of Christians today who say we need to bring America ‘back to God,’ it is a concern that evangelicals like Boudinot were expressing from the beginning of the nation.”

So just how much is Affirmation of Biblical Community a “definitive break” with the founders of ABS? Fea could well be right that compared to later developments in the Society’s history, when it became more mainline and even “liberal” Protestant, the current statement is a “hi-jacking.” But not with ABS founders who may not have supported Donald Trump but would be as obnoxious now about marriage, sex, family life, and public morality as they were then.

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4 thoughts on “Isn’t This Like a Constitutional Amendment in Favor of Fast Food?

  1. I don’t “object” to the ABS statement. I am writing here as a historian of the movement and as a historian there has been a lot of change since the Habecker days. I wrote about that today: https://thewayofimprovement.com/2018/06/07/was-the-american-bible-societys-move-toward-evangelicalism-a-mission-hijacking/

    And yes, Boudinot and the founders were evangelical Christian nationalists. But they also defended the “no note or comment” aspect of the society in a way that the current ABS does not. Boudinot, of course, lived in a more homogeneous evangelical culture, but the rejection of “no note or comment” is still a significant change. I would even argue that the “no note or comment” commitment by Boudinot and others eventually led to a lack of doctrinal clarity and allowed so-called “modernists,” non-evangelicals, and even skeptics from working for the organization. What happened at the ABS in recent years is something akin to the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence in the 1980s. It was an organized and planned move.

    Here is what Peter Wosh, the author of a great book on the ABS, recently wrote on my FB page:

    “Sorry to see my old employer go this route. When I worked there in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a very diverse organization. We had employees who were gay, straight, single, married, mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and skeptical of organized religion. But the mission and core values were broad enough to make all feel welcome, and there was considerable ethnic and gender diversity among the senior leadership. People worked hard to support the goal of circulating the Scriptures “without note or comment” and staff remained mindful to avoid doctrinal controversies. Sadly, the political and religious mission has narrowed considerably in the past quarter century, significantly diminishing both the organization and the scope of its work, as John Fea points out in this analysis. I valued my time there, but apparently it is quite a different atmosphere today.”

    Indeed, something has changed. “Hijack” is probably too strong a word, but a premeditated shift in the direction of the organization certainly took place.

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  2. “Pre-meditated shift” towards the morality it always assumed? If you say so. The shift, pre-meditated and otherwise, took place in the larger culture. 40 years ago the my mainline church worked n tandem with the ABS. No one, and I mean *n one*, there would have thought gay sex as Christian in any sense of the word, liberal or conservative.

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  3. “Pre-meditated shift” towards the morality it always assumed? If you say so. The shift, pre-meditated and otherwise, took place in the larger culture. 40 years ago the my mainline church worked n tandem with the ABS. No one, and I mean *n one*, there would have thought gay sex as Christian, liberal or conservative. in any sense of the word. That os not a “doctrinal” controversy, but a moral one.

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