Good News for the World

Posted in Reviews

By Ian Randall
Deputy Principal of Spurgeons College

In Good News for the World: The Story of the Bible Society, Roger Steer has produced a readable and informative account of one of the great stories in the history of the church. In this volume we have fifty Acts (rather than chapters) detailing the two hundred years of the Bible Society’s outstanding work. The story begins with Mary Jones, a young Welsh girl at the end of the eighteenth century who longed for her own Bible but had little hope of buying one quickly because money was so scarce. She started saving money for this purpose and after six years, at the age of fifteen, she finally had enough to buy a Bible. She needed to walk to Bala, over twenty-five miles away, to buy it, which she did, and reached the home of Thomas Charles, the person who received and distributed supplies of Bibles. At this point he had none. However, Bibles soon arrived from London, and Mary was able to buy three for the price of one. The episode made Thomas Charles think further what could be done about the supply of Bibles and he helped to inspire a vision which led to the foundation of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804. Roger Steer not only describes the initial impetus connected with Mary Jones, but refers in a creative way to her on-going story at points throughout his narrative.

Roger Steer also demonstrates the way in which the Bible Society drew in many prominent evangelicals as committed supporters. These included William Wilberforce, the leading campaigner in Britain against the slave trade, and Lord Teignmouth, the former Governor General of India, who became the first President of the Bible Society. He thought of the post as more important than any other office he held, including being Governor General and being a Privy Councillor. The high profile of the Bible Society in nineteenth-century Britain is indicated by the fact that Lord Teignmouth was followed as President by Lord Bexley and then by the Earl of Shaftesbury. From its inception the Society’s promoters had an international outlook and its work spread across Europe and in many other parts of the world. Steer includes many fascinating insights into this dramatic story, including the remarkable way in which the Bible Society work took root in places such as Russia and Korea. Leading Bible Society characters such as the ebullient George Borrow, who was well known in Europe, are vividly brought to life. Accounts are given here of the crucial work of colporteurs – the word originally meant pedlar, or street hawker – who sold the scriptures on the behalf of the Bible Society: by the end of the nineteenth century there were several hundred colporteurs employed by the Society. This book also outlines some of the theological, denominational and other tensions that arose as the Bible Society’s activities spread.

There is much more that could be mentioned. The changing nature of the Society in the twentieth century is carefully delineated and the many gifted and committed people who have served it up to the present time are described. The internationalism which has been embodied in the formation and growth of the United Bible Societies is included. Although it is packed with well-researched facts, this book is never dull. The style that Steer employs is fairly racy. Perhaps for some readers the deliberate se of the present tense in the narrative may not always work, and for me the constant repetition of ‘Enter so-and-so’ (in line with the use of Acts of a drama rather than chapters of a book) became a little grating, but these are minor issues. I warmly commend this volume as an imaginative and compelling account which does full justice to what is a truly staggering story.