Changemaker: John Erickson
Discover how one man’s faithful vision helped bring Bibles to unlikely places
The Changemakers Series is designed to inform and inspire you with stories of ordinary people who dedicated their lives to spreading God’s Word around the world. Today, meet John Erickson, who served American Bible Society and United Bible Societies with the bold vision of reaching people in even the most difficult places with God’s Word.
Since 1816, thousands of men and women have championed American Bible Society’s mission to help all people experience the life-changing message of God’s Word. Thanks to these Changemakers, countless lives around the world have been transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
One of these Changemakers was John Erickson, who served the Bible cause for 36 years. Through his leadership, vision, and commitment, Erickson helped bring God’s Word to waiting people in China, Eastern Europe, and beyond.
Called to Bible Ministry
Rev. Dr. John Erickson was born April 28, 1933, in Wesleyville, Pennsylvania. As a young man, he attended Augustana College in Illinois and continued his education at Augustana Theological College, graduating in 1959. He would later be awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree by Virginia Theological Seminary in 1973.
In 1956, Erickson married Nancy Ann Olson, who was a teacher, artist, advertising copywriter, and account executive. She would remain Erickson’s faithful partner in life and ministry for the next 66 years as they raised their four children together and made an eternal impact on the Bible cause.
From 1960 to 1962, the Ericksons served as missionaries in Japan. When they returned to the United States, Erickson became the assistant pastor of Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. He served there for three years, while still having a strong desire to reach people in Asia with God’s Word.
In 1965, Erickson joined American Bible Society as secretary for Asia in the Overseas Department. A gifted administrator and strategic fundraiser, he soon became the executive secretary of the Ways and Means Department. For the next seven years, he stewarded the generous gifts of American Bible Society’s donors and built key relationships with churches, denominations, foundations, and ministry partners. He also helped donors give to the Bible cause in exciting new ways, including the popular Bible-a-Month Club.
In 1976, Erickson was appointed as the United Bible Societies world service officer for the Asia Pacific and Americas regions. This role in the global fellowship of Bible Societies put Erickson in the position to collaborate with other Bible ministry leaders on a global scale. In 1978, he became general secretary and recording secretary of American Bible Society, managing the International Division. That same year, a historic change on the other side of the world created an unexpected opportunity for the Bible cause in China.
Bibles for China
In 1978, the People’s Republic of China experienced a massive shift in policy. For an entire generation, Christians in China lived with the realities of closed churches and banned Bibles. Few Christians had access to Scripture. New reforms brought increased economic opportunities and religious freedom after years of severe persecution. Now, suddenly, churches were allowed to reopen. But there were still no Bibles—and millions of people were hungry for God’s Word.
As these changes came into effect, a friendship was forming between Dr. Eugene Nida, a renowned American Bible Society translation consultant, and Bishop K. H. Ting, president of the China Christian Council. Nida taught in Nanjing, China, during the 1970s and introduced Ting to the work of United Bible Societies. As Chinese leaders met with United Bible Societies representatives—including Erickson—they began to develop what seemed like an impossible idea: What if they could create a printing company that printed Chinese Bibles, in China, for Chinese Christians?
Erickson attended talks between United Bible Societies, Chinese church leaders, and the Amity Foundation, a Chinese charity that became their major partner. Even though the future of a Bible printing press in China seemed uncertain, Erickson and his colleagues pressed ahead. He negotiated with Chinese church leaders and stakeholders, slowly developing their unlikely idea into an actionable plan. In 1987, the Amity Press printed its first Bibles in Nanjing, China. In 1988, United Bible Societies and the Amity Foundation founded Amity Printing Company. That same year, just a decade after the church reopened in China, 500,000 Bibles were printed and distributed throughout the country.
Today, Amity Printing Company is one of the largest producers of Bibles in the world. It has printed more than 200 million Bibles in more than 190 languages, with more than 90 million Bibles going to the Chinese people.
Beyond the Iron Curtain
In 1990, Erickson was recruited to take on a new role: general secretary of United Bible Societies. With 25 years of experience at American Bible Society and a continued passion for sharing the gospel, Erickson led the fellowship to the end of the 20th century.
The following year, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the nearly impenetrable Iron Curtain came crashing down. While this was undeniably one of the most important moments of the century, it also marked a watershed moment for the Bible cause.
For decades, Erickson and other ministry leaders had watched Eastern Europe with concern for the millions of souls cut off from Scripture. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, getting God’s Word into Eastern Europe was an unpredictable and dangerous enterprise. Sometimes, the Soviet government would allow United States organizations to send a large number of Bibles into Communist countries. More often, Bibles had to be smuggled past the Iron Curtain.
Once the Soviet Union dissolved, Erickson saw an opportunity unlike any other. By focusing on Scripture provision in Eastern Europe, United Bible Societies could flood the Bible-starved region with God’s Word. For Erickson, providing God’s Word where needed most had to be the priority of their global fellowship, despite the obvious challenges.
“While the task ahead appears daunting, there is such a great thirst for Scriptures in Eastern Europe,” he said. The responsibility of United Bible Societies was to “bring the Word of God to those people who have been starved of the Scriptures for so long.”
Erickson mobilized United Bible Societies to take advantage of the moment. By focusing on investing in Scripture supply, he ensured that God’s Word would be made available in the languages of Eastern Europe. And by focusing on establishing new Bible Societies in the region, he helped connect Eastern European nations to the support and resources of United Bible Societies. By the end of Erickson’s time as general secretary, 23 Bible Societies were serving the former Soviet Union, compared to only five Bible Societies in 1989.
A Legacy of Changed Lives
Erickson retired from United Bible Societies in 1998. By that time, he had seen Bibles printed by Amity Printing Company in China be shipped to Russia. It was something no one would have imagined possible a decade earlier.
Rev. Dr. John Erickson passed away on August 3, 2022, at the age of 89. His wife, Nancy, passed away 10 days later.
Throughout his ministry, Erickson maintained that “the Bible Cause is about people.” Today, God is still using Erickson’s legacy to change lives. In China, people like Ma Wen—who received her first Bible at age 90—are rejoicing in the gift of Scripture after years of bans. And in Eastern Europe, Bible Societies like Ukrainian Bible Society are providing the hope and comfort of Scripture in times of suffering and uncertainty. Thanks to one life dedicated to sharing God’s Word where needed most, an untold number of people can experience God’s love through his eternal Word.
As we look back on the life of Rev. Dr. John Erickson and other Changemakers who have guided our history, we thank God for the people who champion the Bible cause around the world. Today, ask yourself how you can share the transformative message of God’s Word with friends, loved ones, neighbors, coworkers, and others near and far, becoming a Changemaker for our own time!
“Remembering the life and service of John Erickson.” Andy Wallace. Bible Society News. United Bible Societies Community. 2022.
“Millions of Bibles for China.” Andy Wallace. United Bible Societies China Partnership. 2021.
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