Church history: Mary Jones and the First Major Worldwide Bible Society

Mary Jones was born Dec. 16, 1784 in the Welsh village of Llanfihangely Pennant. From an early age, Mary longed to have a Bible in her own language that she could read. Mary’s dilemma was that it was well-nigh impossible for a Welsh child from a poor family to afford a Bible. Bibles were expensive in 18th century Wales. Nevertheless, over the years Mary scrimped and saved enough money from doing odd chores for neighbors to buy a Bible. Mary was now around 16 years old.

Mary’s odyssey

She heard that a minister named Thomas Charles in the town of Bala had some Welsh Bibles for sale. Bala was some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from her home. She gathered her savings and trudged across the hills to Bala to find the minister. He gave Mary some bad news. Every copy of the Bible he had was already sold. He was moved by the diligence she had shown in seeking a Bible and handed her his last copy, which he had put away for another buyer.

Mary’s goal of obtaining her own Bible and her meeting with Charles set in motion the creation of a truly international Bible society.Charles presented the need for more copies of the Scriptures in Welsh at a meeting of the Religious Tract Society in December 1802. Though the Tract Society was sympathetic about the need, they were not in a position to meet the demand. But one member, Joseph Hughes, suggested that “a society might be formed for the purpose [of distributing Bibles]—and if for Wales, why not for the [United] Kingdom; why not for the whole world?”

On March 7, 1804, a meeting was conducted at the London Tavern in Bishopsgate, at which the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) was formed. Some 300 citizens from several denominations formed the society.2

The Society’s work

The BFBS would be non-sectarian, and its governing committee was interdenominational. The members set as their goal “the wider distribution of the Scriptures, without note or comment.” The Society had no interest in fostering any particular interpretation of the Bible. Its sole purpose was to provide people with easier and less expensive (or free) access to the Scriptures.

The BFBS was concerned with translating and distributing Bibles in all languages throughout the world. One of its first international achievements was the production of the Gospel of John in the Mohawk language. The society provided missionaries with Bibles for people being evangelized. William Carey (1761-1834), missionary to India, was funded by the society in his translation work. The society helped Robert Morris, the first Protestant missionary to China, with a translation of the Bible into Chinese, and aided Henry Martyn, who was working on a Persian translation.

Satellites of the main society sprang up. In just 10 years, 60 other Bible organizations had formed. By 1907, the BFBS had distributed 204 million Bibles, New Testaments and portions of Scripture throughout the world. An international organization providing Bibles to people around the world had been inspired by the needs of one girl in Wales, Mary Jones.

The British and Foreign Bible Society is now more commonly known as The Bible Society. Its slogan is “Making the Bible heard.” Its website is The BFBS marked its 200th anniversary in 2004 as it launched its Revised New Welsh Bible, harking back to Charles offering his last Welsh Bible to Mary Jones. The Bible Society distributed 256,548 Bibles, 68,985 New Testaments and 43,029 portions of Scripture in that anniversary year.

The BFBS today works through a global alliance of more than 137 Bible Societies. These national Bible Societies are part of a worldwide fellowship called the United Bible Societies, formed in 1946.

1. Mary Jones died in 1864, in her 80s. The story of Mary Jones and her Bible is a traditional one. Mary did not write down her own account, so over the past two centuries the story has been recounted with some variations.

2. Various kinds of Christian organizations and societies made efforts to disseminate Bibles long before the British and Foreign Bible Society was organized, but these did not achieve the international scope and lasting impact of BFBS.

Author: Paul Kroll

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