The Bible in America

History From its founding in 1816, the American Bible Society has grappled with the task of making the Word of God available to Christians and churches in America. From its earliest days, it has worked to provide scriptures to the men, and later women of the military, to local and international bible societies, and to translate the Holy Bible to other languages used by peoples in the United States so that they could not only possess scripture, but could understand its importance in their own lives.

LeadersStarting with a leader of the American Revolution, Elias Boudinot, John Jay, first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and going right down to the most recent president Lamar Vest, The American Bible Society has always been led by “true believers” in the Bible cause.

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Samuel Wells Williams

President of the American Bible Society, 1881-1884

Church Affiliation: Presbyterian

Black and White Portrait of Samuel Wells Williams

Samuel Wells Williams was born in Utica, New York on September 22, 1812 to William Williams and Sophia (Wells) Williams. He attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York 1831-1832. In 1833 he set sail for China, after a crash course in printing, to take charge of the press of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions at Canton (Guangdong). There he learned not only Cantonese, but Japanese as well. In 1837 he sailed to Japan, ostensibly to repatriate some stranded Japanese sailors, but in fact his prime purpose was to open Japan to trade. This mission was not successful. The Japanese refused to allow his ship to land, cannonaded it, and drove it back from their shore. S. Wells Williams then took some of the sailors into his home, and from them he learned Japanese.

From 1848 to 1851 he was the editor of the Chinese Repository, a leading western journal. He was attached to Commodore Perry's 1853 mission to Japan, and in 1860 was appointed charge d'affaires in Peking (Beijing). After years of opposition from the Chinese government, Williams was instrumental in the negotiation of the Treaty of Tientsin, which provided for the toleration of both Chinese and foreign Christians. Williams reported, “In 1874, as Secretary of the American Embassy in Peking, I accompanied the ambassador to the presence of the Emperor, Tuch-chi, when the Minister of the United States presented his letters of credence on a footing of perfect equality with the Son of Heaven.” 1874 also saw the publication of his monumental dictionary of the Chinese language. Shortly thereafter, he returned to the United States in 1877 and became the first professor of Chinese in the United States, teaching at Yale. He died on February 16, 1884.

S. Wells Williams was nominated as president of the American Bible Society on February 3, 1881, and was installed on April 3 of the same year. He wrote on March 7, 1881 in his diary, “The official notice of my election to the post of President of the Bible Society came to me this morning...I receive it as an honor done to the mission work of the American churches of every denomination.” He regarded himself as representative of “the close connection between teaching, translating and distributing the Scriptures in pagan lands.”

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