Let Us Talk of Fear
Redacted excerpts used with permission from An American Bible
Indiana University, Dept. of English
Let us talk of fear: fear born of despair, disgust, and a deep sense of urgency. In 1816 at the age of 75, the long officially retired Elias Boudinot -- a man baptized by George Whitefield, one-time neighbor of Benjamin Franklin, fellow patriot with Washington at Valley Forge, mentor of Alexander Hamilton, first president of the Continental Congress, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and decade-long director of the United States Mint -- accepted the position of President of the American Bible Society. An appointment he considered to be “the greatest honor that could have been conferred on me this side of the grave.” No small statement considering his pedigree, but heartfelt words for a man with intense reservations about the future of the country he had given the better part of his life to birthing and nurturing.
When Boudinot retired from the directing the Mint in 1805, he left his last government post deeply disillusioned. Demoralized by how he and like-minded Federalist friends were increasingly marginalized in the United States’ nascent government, Boudinot was particularly depressed by the election of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency in 1800. There could be no clearer sign that his dreams of an elite-centered government comprising “men who possess most wisdom . . . and most virtue” might lead the young republic was quickly dying. Jefferson was doubly a devil. He was a proponent of dangerous democratic leanings -- the results of which could be seen in the bloodletting and chaos of the French Revolution -- and he was an open skeptic of many traditional Christian beliefs. Boudinot believed that the rise of Jefferson with his heretical religious views and ill-advised optimism in the abilities of the common man could only mean the decline of the United States.
As Boudinot and his fellow Federalists found themselves excluded from official government posts, many turned to voluntary organizations or other civic-minded, humanitarian institutions as a means of countering the Jeffersonian menace. Boudinot decided to pour his energy and resources into the area of print, first publishing his own writing and then working to establish a voluntary organization based on publishing.
What is fascinating in this strategy is Boudinot chose the same weapon that “Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen & other infidels in America” had chosen to so insidiously influence the American people. In choosing to pursue publishing as a means of influence, Boudinot betrayed one of his central beliefs, namely that if people would not defer to those in the society who enjoyed greater privilege due to talent, birth, and education, the masses would have to be educated to supply the deficiency. Boudinot had decided to appeal directly to the American people through the medium of print in a desperate attempt to save his country by seeking to mold the inner character of Americans to achieve the responsible, educated citizenry necessary for the Republic to survive.
Michael Warner, Bernard Bailyn and others have convincingly shown that by the time of the Revolution, printed material had become an essential medium of mass persuasion in the colonies. Perhaps there is no more vibrant example of this than the writings of Thomas Paine. Paine’s Common Sense burst like a lightning bolt upon the publishing horizon in April 1776. In an era where the common press run for books was often less than two thousand copies and pamphlet press runs half of that, Common Sense sold 120,000 copies in its first year, a figure made all the more astounding when one considers that it is estimated that five times as many people actually read the pamphlet. No pamphlet in the Colonies had ever experienced such popularity. Paine would follow up the success of Common Sense with Rights of Man (1791) and The Age of Reason (1794), both books sold so well in the United States and Europe that they broke every existing publishing record.
Boudinot was not so much bothered by Paine’s popularity, but by his radical political and religious beliefs. In his The Age of Reason Paine proclaims that the Bible is more “the word of a demon, than the word of God” being “a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.” So, when Boudinot heard in the late 1790s that “thousands of copies of the Age of Reason, had been sold at public auction, in . . . [Philadelphia], at a cent and an half each” making “so unworthy an object” accessible to children, servants, and the lowest people, Boudinot decided to write his own rebuttal to the Paine’s work.
He published his extended answer to Paine in 1801 under the title The Age of Revelation: The Age of Reason Shewn to Be an Age of Infidelity. Whereas The Age of Reason sold 100,000 copies in 1797 alone, Boudinot’s The Age of Revelation sold so poorly that it never went beyond an initial press run (probably less then 2000 copies), further convincing Boudinot that his beloved country was in a severe state of spiritual and moral decay.
Even with the failure of The Age of Revelation, Boudinot did not abandon print as a medium through which saving action might be achieved. Instead of using his own words to defeat the infidels, Boudinot turned his energy to attempting to organize a national organization to produce and distribute the Bible. His rebuttal to Paine may have been a failure, but after all, it was a work wrought by human hands. The best way to counteract evil in print was with the most powerful piece of printed material, the Bible. Having confidence in the ability of the Word to speak for itself, Boudinot spent his remaining years occasionally taking up the pen himself, but predominantly using his considerable energies, finances and personal connections to bind together disparate local Bible Societies into one powerful, centralized group. He realized this dream in the spring of 1816, when sixty delegates from thirty-four local societies met in New York and decided to incorporate into one central organization. The American Bible Society was born.
For Boudinot, none of this was happening any too soon. Moved by more than feelings of disillusionment and disgust, Boudinot was also propelled by a deep sense of urgency. Repeatedly, Boudinot stressed that it was “the eleventh hour;” Christ’s second coming was imminent. It is one of the ironies of history that Paine’s famous line “these are the times that try men’s souls,” best characterizes Boudinot’s feelings as he frantically worked to establish a national Bible Society. Boudinot passionately believed that if he and others did not act quickly it would be God, not the times, that tried men’s’ souls, and that was not blood Boudinot wanted on his doorstep.
The Society Boudinot helped create pioneered many aspects of American publishing, including innovations in the areas of centralized production, power printing, in-house binding, and national distribution. Its fervor to make the Bible the chief text in the United States through sheer numbers led, however, to some unforeseen consequences. The Society’s ability to produce and distribute hundreds of thousands of bibles and New Testaments by the 1830s radically reoriented the bible market in the United States, making both that market and the Bible itself more complex, diverse and fragmented entities.