British and Foreign Bible Society

Reference code(s): GB 0374 British and Foreign Bible Society
Held at: British and Foreign Bible Society's Library, Cambridge University Library
Domain: archival
Title: British and Foreign Bible Society
Date(s) of contents: 1804-
Level of description: Fonds
Extent and medium: c 1130 vols, 1170 boxes, 240 files.


Name of creator(s): British and Foreign Bible Society

Administrative/Biographical history: The British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) was one of the many voluntary societies that grew up in the wake of the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century. It was founded on 7th March 1804, with a non-denominational constitution and a declared aim "to encourage a wider circulation of the Holy Scriptures" at home and abroad. It succeeded in gaining wide support from the Church of England and the Free Churches, mainly, but not exclusively, from the Evangelical wing of each denomination.

The Society set out to publish, or to help others to publish, editions of the Bible in any language for which there was a readership. In 1965 it reckoned its total issues over 160 years as some 723,000,000 volumes in 829 languages. The Society was publisher and distributor only: translators were sometimes given financial assistance but were not on the permanent staff, and the printing was done by commercial firms. Since Bibles were often sold at less than cost price, the Society depended on donations from its supporters as well as income from sales. The maintenance of a large supporting constituency was therefore a necessary part of the Society's activity.

The Society always relied on individual supporters to distribute its Bibles, and consignments were taken by clergymen, travellers, merchants, solders and sailors "for sale or gratuitous distribution". Missionaries all over the world looked to the Society to publish their translations, and received generous discounts when purchasing Bibles for distribution.

In the United Kingdom supporters soon organised themselves into local "Auxiliary Bible Societies", which provided a large part of the Society's income, and were also a channel for home distribution. In 1825-6 a controversy about the publication of the Apocrypha cause the secession of most of the Auxiliaries in Scotland. These continued to function independently, and in 1861 joined together to form the National Bible Society of Scotland (now the Scottish Bible Society). In Ireland the Hibernian Bible Society was independent from its formation in 1806, though it always maintained close links with the Society in London.

From 1804 onwards Bible Societies were formed in many parts of the world in imitation of the BFBS, and often with its active encouragement and financial assistance. In the British Dominions such societies were usually constituted as "Auxiliaries"; in other countries they were independent. The largest of these was the American Bible Society, founded in 1816, which not only tackled the enormous task of supplying the United States with Bibles, but from the first had a strong missionary interest. The European Bible Societies broke their links with the BFBS when it decided not to publish the Apocrypha in 1826. As a consequence, the Society continued its operations in Europe by employing its own "Foreign Agents".

In the early years the BFBS employed Agents who travelled extensively, founding Bible Societies and making arrangements for Bible production and distribution. From about 1830 a pattern of territorial "Agencies" began to emerge, with the establishment of permanent depots and the employment of travelling salesman, called "colporteurs". At its centenary in 1904 the Society employed 30 Foreign Agents, whose territories often covered several countries, each with his staff of sub-agents, depot-keepers and colporteurs. Approximately 1,000 staff were emplyed in the overseas Agencies; in the British Dominions there were about 2,000 affiliated Bible Societies, and there were a further 5,000 local Auxiliaries in England and Wales.

The Agency system was still the norm for BFBS operations in 1940, but several factors were beginning to undermine it. One was the expansion of the work of other Bible Societies, notably the American, Netherlands and Scottish, thus causing unnecessary overlapping and friction. Attempts to avoid competition were made by the establishment of Joint Agencies from 1932, administered by one Society but supported financially by two or more. Another major trend was the growth of nationalism, leading to demands for autonomous national Bible Societies instead of direction from abroad. In 1946 the United Bible Societies organisation was founded to co-ordinate Bible Society work around the world. The post-war years saw a steady increase in the powers of the United Bible Societies, and in consequence the BFBS gradually relinquished its overseas responsibilities, and came to see itself as one national Bible Society among many.

Published histories of the BFBS include:
George Browne, The history of the British and Foreign Bible Society, from its institution in 1804, to the close of its Jubilee in 1854, 2 vols (London: British & Foreign Bible Society, 1859).
William Canton, A history of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 5 vols (London: John Murray, 1904-1910).
John Owen, The history of the origin and first ten years of the British and Foreign Bible Society, 3 vols (London: 1816-20).
James Moulton Roe, A history of the British and Foreign Bible Society 1905-1954 (London: British & Foreign Bible Society, 1965).

Custodial history: The archives remained at the Society's London headquarters until 1985. In 1850 eleven volumes of early commitee minutes were stolen from the muniment room, and during the late 19th and early 20th centuries periodic efforts were made to weed out redundant material accumulating in the basement. The most serious loss is that of all the incoming correspondence 1857-1900, which perhaps occurred around the time of the Second World War.

Immediate source of acquisition: The library and archives were transferred to Cambridge University Library on permanent loan in 1984-5.


Scope and content/abstract: The archives of the BFBS focus primarily on Bible translation, printing, and distribution. In 1804 some portion of the Bible had been published in 67 languages; by the end of the 20th century that figure had risen to over 2000. Records relating to successive translations and revisions of the Bible in any language chart the development of the language itself, and of an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the translation process. Pioneer translators had to grapple with questions of orthography and the transfer of ideas from one culture to another. The Society had to assess the viability of publishing versions for small numbers of readers, as well as confronting basic questions relating to the text and canon of the Bible, and the admissibility or otherwise of explanatory notes.

As the Society tried to involve all the local churches and missionary societies in the translation process, the records also show the co-operation, or lack of it, that was possible on the mission field.

As a publisher, the Society negotiated with printers, papermakers and binders to secure good quality and economical editions. English Bibles were published in the United Kingdom by the Privileged Presses, whose capacity was soon stretched to meet the Society's large orders. The Society was always ready to take advantage of technological innovation, from the introduction of stereotype printing in the early 19th century to computer typesetting in the middle of the 20th. The constant search for cheaper editions had to be weighed against the demands of the labour force for fair wages, and this led to some tensions and conflicts during the 19th century.

The Bible Society contributed not only to the worldwide missionary movement, but to the growth of education and nationalism. By providing cheap texts in the vernacular, the Society helped to foster literacy and education and a sense of national identity, e.g. in countries emerging into independence. As a non-denominational organisation it tried, not always successfully, to work with a wide variety of churches. Its archives show its success in gaining the financial support and personal involvement of a wide range of lay men and women with an interest in evangelistic work at home and abroad.

System of arrangement: The Society's governing body was the Committee, which soon delegated to sub-committees specialized sections of the work, such as finance, translation, printing, home support and publicity. The core series of records are therefore the minutes of the the Committee and sub-committees, which record letters received and decisions made.

The Committee's decisions were carried out by the Secretaries, and letters to and from them form the main correspondence series. It is important to note that throughout the 19th century letters were filed in four main series: Home Inwards, Foreign Inwards, Home Outwards, and Foreign Outwards. There was no geographical or subject sub-division of the correspondence, but a good deal of it was indexed by name of writer or addressee. Incoming Home and Foreign letters are lost 1856-1900; copies of some missing letters are preserved in a series of Agents' Books 1867-77, which contain letters from the Society's representatives overseas.

There were subordinate departments, corresponding to the Sub-committees. The Translations Department kept records better than most, including a series of volumes 1858-1897 which preserve the texts of missing incoming letters.

The Society published a great deal of information about its work in its annual Reports and its monthly magazine, and these are an indispensable starting-point for any research, especially as they are arranged on a geographical basis.


Language: Chiefly English, German and French, but with references to, and samples of, hundreds of other languages.

Conditions governing access: There is a 75-year closure period.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Finding aids: There are detailed typescript descriptions covering a large part of the archive, together with card-indexes of correspondents relating to the 19th century incoming letters.
Refer also to the University of Cambridge's online archival catalogue, Janus.


Related material: Records of some local branches ("Auxiliary Bible Societies") are to be found in local Record Offices; refer to the online indexes of the National Register of Archives.

Records of other national Bible Societies may be kept by those societies, for example, the American Bible Society in New York has an extensive Library and archive.

The University of Wales Bangor, Department of Manuscripts and Archives holds the papers of the Reverend W.H. Williams who was the Wales area secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Edinburgh University New College Library holds the James Christie collection which includes work carried out for the British and Foreign Bible Society.


Date(s) of descriptions: April 2002

Bible women
Book industry
Devotional texts
Education and culture
Educational missionary work
Educational policy
Indigenous lay workers
Intercultural education
Liturgical texts
Missionary societies
Missionary support organizations
Missionary work
Nondenominational missionary societies
Protestant missionary societies
Publishing industry
Religious activities
Religious groups
Religious organizations
Religious texts
Sacred texts
Teaching materials

Personal names

Corporate names
British and Foreign Bible Society

Caucasian States
Central Africa
Central America
Central Asia
East Africa
Eastern Europe
Middle East
North Africa
North America
South America
South Asia
South East Asia
Southern Africa
West Africa
Western Europe