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From door-to-door to point-and-click, a new Bible society

(From left) the Rev. Thomas Wintle, the Rev. Dudley Rose, and the Rev. Quinn Caldwell took part in the Massachusetts Bible Society’s reenactment ceremony at the State House yesterday to mark its 200th anniversary of its founding. (From left) the Rev. Thomas Wintle, the Rev. Dudley Rose, and the Rev. Quinn Caldwell took part in the Massachusetts Bible Society’s reenactment ceremony at the State House yesterday to mark its 200th anniversary of its founding. (Yoon S. Byon/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / July 7, 2009
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The Massachusetts Bible Society, marking 200 years yesterday of handing out millions of Bibles to the poor and the imprisoned, staged a small-scale reenactment of its founding in the warm embrace of the round, blue state Senate chamber.

A few dozen supporters of the organization, some dressed in breeches, top hats, bowties, or bonnets, read from the founding documents, now tinged with irony, about the aspirations and arguments of Protestant denominations that once wielded considerable power and influence in the Bay State.

The event featured readings from early writings of the Bible Society’s white male Protestant founders, most of them Harvard-educated, who could hardly have imagined the organization’s leadership of today: the society’s current president is a Catholic priest, the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, and its executive director is a woman, the Rev. Anne Robertson, who is a Methodist minister. But two centuries of modernization has not changed all atop Beacon Hill: As the clergy and lay people of today held their reenactment, a small gray mouse darted out from beneath the golden drapes behind the podium and scurried unimpeded across the Senate carpet.

The Bible Society is one of the lesser-known relics of Massachusetts’ rich religious past. It has undergone considerable downsizing in recent years, selling its longtime headquarters on Bromfield Street, closing its bookstores, and moving its staff to the campus of Andover Newton Theological School in Newton. The organization’s rare Bibles collection now resides at Boston University, and its newsletter is now online only. Its endowment, which was $6.4 million a year ago, is now about $3.3 million.

The organization, which once employed 18 colporteurs who traveled around distributing Bibles door-to-door, still distributes Bibles in prisons, hospitals, on campuses, and through programs for the homeless and the poor. It also hosts lectures.

But the organization is also trying to reinvent itself for the Internet Age, increasingly emphasizing its website and offering a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and a Twitter feed. It spent $500,000 to construct a media center at Andover Newton to help train clergy and congregations on the use of technology.

“At one time, everybody who was anybody had not only heard of the Mass. Bible Society, but was part of it,’’ Robertson said in an interview. “We still have a message, but today we are focusing more on biblical literacy, understanding, and dialogue.’’

In an address to the society’s members before a ceremonial re-signing of the founding charter, Robertson outlined the argument for the future of the organization, which in recent years has emphasized its place as home for a liberal alternative to more evangelical readings of the Bible. The organization has encouraged an interpretive, rather than literal, reading of the Bible.

“Is it a tough road to convince people that the Bible is relevant to our age? Yes, it is,’’ Robertson said. “Is it tougher still to reach out and take the Bible back from those who have ground its contents to such a sharp point that more people seem to feel wounded by it than helped? Yes, it is.’’

Cuenin, the Catholic chaplain at Brandeis and the first Catholic priest to serve as president, said he wanted to be involved with the organization in part because of its history and in part to make sure Catholics were visible in the organization. “What we’ve been trying to do is figure out where we go for the future, and figure out the electronic means of spreading the Bible,’’ he said. “Two hundred years ago, the purpose was to give out Bibles, but today people have Bibles, so that’s not a big deal. The question is, how do we make it usable?’’

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.