Speech Delivered at the Anniversary of the
Birmingham Bible Society, April 24th, 1812


By John Angell James
 

When I recollect that the Bible Society, like the Bible itself, has no more to fear from the weakness of its friends, than it has from the power of its foes, I am emboldened to give utterance to feelings which it would be impossible to resist, and difficult to conceal. The Bible is on its march to the seat of universal empire, led in triumphal pomp by this most excellent society; and I esteem it one of the greatest honors, as well as one of the highest felicities of my life, to join the splendid procession, if it be only with the surrounding throng to cry 'Hosanna!'

If we would befriend our species by exercising towards them the most enlarged and efficient benevolence, we must bestow upon them that volume, which, while it soothes the sorrows and removes the imperfections of the present world, opens to the eager and exploring eye of instinctive expectation, the bright visions of immortal bliss! This blessed book, while it pours a flood of heavenly radiance on every subject that views man in his connection with eternity, recognizes his relation to time, and prescribes its necessary duties—its absence therefore must be a cause of misery to man. Who without a weeping eye can survey the various forms of wretchedness which infect this valley of tears, in which man for a season is destined to dwell? The body of human society lies prostrate in the dust, bleeding at every vein, convulsed in every limb, through the wounds inflicted by its own hand during the phrenzy of its depravity; and general philanthropy may do much to staunch its blood, and bind up its wounds. It is Christianity alone which can restore that moral sanity without which man must be still the suicide of his own peace. Wretchedness is but the shadow of wickedness; and to dispel the shadow, we must remove the substance with which he intercepts the rays of infinite benignity.

Imagine what would be the results, if the Bible were circulated through the whole earth, its dictates everywhere obeyed, and its spirit generally imbibed. There would neither be tyranny in the prince, nor rebellion in the subject; there would be neither fraud nor violence, neither injustice nor oppression, neither war nor bloodshed; nation would no longer rise against nation; and the art of war being no longer practiced, the dreadful artillery of human destruction would be no more seen except among the antiquities of a museum; or rather men, ashamed of these memorials of their violence, would convert their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Human legislation would universally proceed on the principles of Scriptural revelation, and whatever were the size or the shape of any legislature, equity tempered with mercy would be its living soul—for to what can it be attributed, that the British jurisprudence is on the whole so richly impregnated with justice and wisdom, but because it has flowed over the bed of inspired truth? Then also would the fetters of bondage, melted by the warmth of Christian piety, dissolve from the limbs of the wretched slave; and the captive, lifted from his degraded prostration, would be taught that he carries in his bosom a soul that is human in this world, and may be angelic in the world that is to come. In short, if the Bible were universally circulated, believed and obeyed, every ill that renders man a foe to others and himself would be removed, and the whole family upon earth harmonized into order and happiness.

Such is the benevolent object of the British and Foreign Bible Society. It desires and attempts to transplant to every climate that tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. To accomplish this godlike object, it has associated the love and zeal of all denominations of professed Christians, that by such a union of their strength a mightier shock might be given to the throne of darkness; and that their scattered rays of light and love, converging in this focus, might be dispersed with greater energy over the thick gloom of the benighted world. It is wisely determined, when the object of their exertions is to bestow upon mankind that book, whose design it is to unite men to each other and to God, to enforce the acceptance of the gift by exhibiting one of the grandest instances of its harmonizing tendency that men or angels have ever witnessed. We all know that there is a method of conferring a benefit, which will draw towards it a greater degree of attention and regard than it would otherwise receive—and in my humble judgment, if anything can procure for the Bible a readier reception, or insure to it a more serious attention from those on whom it is bestowed, it is the circumstance of all denominations uniting to confer the precious blessing. Our diversities of opinion, in such a case, so far from obstructing our desire to draw the eyes of the human race to revealed truth, will tend rather to promote its success; by teaching, that however we may differ in opinion concerning the meaning of particular parts, we are united in the great importance which we attach to the general whole.

It is time for me now to glance at what the society has accomplished. Although it has existed but eight years, it has done what, for extent must excite the surprise of every reflecting mind, and for utility the gratitude of every pious heart. Its operations and their success can be compared only to the events which transpired in the first ages of Christianity, when so mightily grew the word of God and prevailed, that the most formidable opposition served but to form a cataract in its course, after which the torrent, impeded for a moment, dashed with greater violence, and rolled forward with more resistless impetuosity.

This institution has already produced nearly one hundred auxiliary societies, and has communicated to each of them its own features of unity, energy, and philanthropy. It has furnished from its altars a living coal to kindle in Calcutta, and in many parts of Europe and America its own pure vital flame. Its love began at home, but did not end there. It has already expended, including the present year's disbursements, very nearly one hundred thousand pounds, and issued from its repository 500,000 copies of the word of God. In innumerable cottages, whose poor and wretched inhabitants have little else to comfort them, may be seen the effects of its exertions in conferring an inheritance which beggars a Croesus; knowledge which by comparison renders Plato a child, and felicity; for which the monarch, if he had nothing else to delight him, might forego the pleasures of his crown. The hospital, the workhouse, the penitentiary, and the jail, will all emit a thousand voices to testify of its industrious compassion. Nor has it forgotten that refined morality of our great Redeemer, which some have thought could be practiced only by himself, "Love your enemies; bless those who curse you; and pray for those who despitefully use you;" for it has distributed thousands of Testaments among those unhappy men whom the chances of war have sent to our prisons; for some of whom it has softened the rigors of captivity, and taught them to sing the songs of Zion in a strange land, while others have been sent home to proclaim the praises of Britain in the very heart of France.

I have already hinted, that to the continent of Europe the Society has stretched forth a most liberal hand; encouraging there the formation of similar institutions, and aiding them from its funds. 'Tis true, that the continental nations are professedly Christians; but alas! how justly may it be said, that possessing the form, they deny the power, of real godliness! How much more than the name of Christianity can those kingdoms possess, in some provinces of which there are 200,000 families who never read the blessed volume? Not merely the Catholic, but the Protestant states of Europe, are exceedingly deficient in the possession of the Scriptures. It may be assumed as an axiom, that the degree of real religion, in any age or country, may be fairly estimated by the facility with which its inhabitants may procure Bibles, their ability to read them, and their liberty to consult them at their leisure. Is it any matter of surprise, that religion almost disappeared from the earth when the word of God was locked up in libraries, and imprisoned in monasteries, covered with dust, and consumed by vermin; when few could purchase, and still fewer read it; when the privilege of procuring a copy in the vernacular tongue had to gain the permission of a jealous and superstitious clergy, and when even the very request excited a suspicion dangerous to liberty and life?

Perhaps there cannot be a more striking proof of the low state of religion upon the continent before the Reformation, than the circumstance, mentioned by Stillingfleet, that there was scarcely another copy of the Greek Testament to be found in all Germany, except that in the possession of Erasmus; that his utmost diligence to procure a complete copy from which to make his translation was unavailing; and that when his translation appeared, it was seriously accused by many ecclesiastics with being a forgery, intended to ruin their order. After the Reformation, religion rose upon the wings of revelation, and increased, as it ever will do, in a ratio proportionate to the multiplication of Bibles. These remarks, Sir, will teach us the vast importance of the Society's efforts in Europe, where Christianity, in many parts languishing almost to dissolution, revives by the aid of this ministering angel, and smiles with the hope of better days.

The grandest effort of this noble institution is, however, to be seen in those vast regions of Pagan idolatry, where, overwhelmed with the blackness of moral darkness, are more millions of immortal beings than there are individuals in this large assembly. Over those frightful scenes, shocking alike to humanity for their cruelty, to reason for their absurdity, and to religion for their impiety, the Bible Society, this chariot of the moral sun, is directing its bright and benevolent career. That man's heart must have certainly been petrified to stone, under the perpetual droppings of selfishness and irreligion, who can hear without rapture, that this institution is promoting the translation of the Scriptures into twenty-five languages, which never yet contained the glorious gospel of the blessed God—and let it be remembered, that these are the exertions of its comparative infancy. What then may not be expected from the maturer age to which it is advancing, with the mighty purpose of never considering its object entirely accomplished, while one language of all that prevail on the globe shall not be the vehicle of inspired truth, or one individual of all the countless millions that inhabit the earth shall be unblessed with a smooth access to the water of life issuing from the fountain of revelation. Noble resolution! whether or not it is ultimately followed by failure or success. Failure did I say? The very mention of the word, in connection with the British and Foreign Bible Society, is a species even of impiety; compounded of such a disbelief in Divine prophecy, such a misrepresentation of providential smiles, combined with such a miscalculation of the tendencies of human events, as seldom occurs in the annals of scepticism itself. If religion desponds of its success, infidelity does of its failure, and must be ready, in the madness inspired by desperation, to flee from the only refuge she has long enjoyed, a miserable ruin of demolished argument.

It must not be omitted, that the exertions of this society derive an additional degree of interest and importance from the general circumstances of the age in which they are carried forward. We must be possessed of minds in no common measure beclouded by ignorance, or benumbed by stupidity, not to discern that we live in one of the most astonishing eras which has ever yet transpired. Providence seems to be disclosing some of the grandest scenes of its sublime and universal drama. Jehovah, arrayed in the garments of vengeance, has come forth to shake the nations, and punish the inhabitants of the earth. The storm which had been long collecting its forces in the dark clouds of corrupted Christianity and the most daring infidelity, has discharged its yet unexhausted stores of fury upon the continent of Europe; nor has the tempest rolled at such a distance that we could but just discover upon our political horizon the faint reflection of its destructive flashes. No! We stand at this moment amidst the wrecks of nations shattered at our side. We ourselves have entered the cloud, and though we are yet spared, who will pretend that we have been without the most appalling apprehension?

One specter of national calamity has scarcely vanished from the public eye, before another has risen from the terrifying gloom. At such a period, when the safety of our much-loved country seemed to place under just and necessary requisition the whole stock of public feeling and property, the British and Foreign Bible Society was born. It appeared an inauspicious moment for it to commence its existence; for if not blasted by the lightnings that played around its infant head, one should have thought it must soon have perished through neglect; for where shall be found the leisure, the property, the concern necessary to nourish its life, and promote its growth? But amidst the loudest thunders of war, its infant cries were heard. British liberality and British piety flew to its assistance; adopted the babe; increasing in generosity as they have increased in poverty. The child grew in wisdom and in stature; and has been seen sitting among the doctors in the temple, asking them questions, refuting their objections, and confounding their most ingenious arguments.

What can be inferred from this singular conjunction of national calamity and national benevolence? May we not hope, that while the offended Governor of the world is passing through the kingdoms, pouring out from one hand the vials of his wrath, he is preparing in the other, for their consolation, the cup of salvation; and that this shaking of the nations is but preparatory to His coming in whom the desire of all nations shall ultimately center? Of that spiritual and glorious event, I think we behold in this institution the forerunner, who already begins to exclaim, "Prepare the way of the Lord, that his glory may be revealed, and all flesh see it together." May we not also hope that Jehovah, by making Britain the almoner of his bounty, intends to make her the object of his care? Far be it from me to minister fuel for national vanity, or to prefer claims of merit upon the goodness of God; yet, arguing both from the testimony of revelation and the analogy of the Divine government, I think it may be regarded as an encouraging sign for any people, when, according to the declarations in the Apocalypse, they carry their glory and their honor within the walls of the holy city, and consecrate upon its altar the fruits of their bravery, their commerce, and their learning. If Pagan Babylon, under the reign of the proud and impious Nebuchadnezzar, was rewarded with the spoil of Egypt for service unintentionally done for the cause of God (being the instrument of his vengeance in the destruction of Tyre,) we may humbly hope, that when he marks the nations for ruin, and gives to the destroying angel his commission, he will mercifully regard this and similar institutions as our national passover.

I cannot conclude, without congratulating my respected fellow-townsmen on the illustrious share which they have borne in this great work. Far as their fame has extended in ministering to the comforts and necessities of this life, still further may it reach in supplying the spiritual needs of their fellow-creatures. Gentlemen, of all your partnerships, this partnership of love and zeal is the best; and of all your manufactures, this great and growing manufacture of human happiness is the most enriching, both to others and yourselves. You have not the honor of being the richest auxiliary society; but this is not your fault—you have, I trust, Mary's memorial, who 'did what she could'. May you never, by a lack of energetic and zealous support of the Parent Society, forfeit the honor due to a first-born!

And you, Britannia, whose real glory we delight to uphold, go on to transmit, from your rocky seat of majesty in the middle of the ocean, that sound to the kingdoms of the earth, "Behold your God," until every nation shall respond, "Lo! this is our God; we have waited for him; we will rejoice and be glad in his salvation." Then shall the grand hallelujah chorus of all kindreds, people, and tongues; when the multitude of islands shall unite with the continents; when the Nile and the Ganges, the Niger and the Euphrates, shall join in concert with the Thames, the Rhine, the Danube, and the Mississippi; when the Pacific, the Indian, and the Arctic Oceans shall swell the thunder of the Atlantic; and Heaven, resounding the strains of earth, shall exclaim, "Hallelujah! Salvation! The Lord God Omnipotent reigns! King of kings, and Lord of lords; and he must reign forever and ever!"