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American Bible Society celebrates Founder Elias Boudinot’s legacy of unity on his 281st birthday

Today, American Bible Society celebrates the birthday of one of our Founders: Elias Boudinot. A patriot, lawyer, and congressman, Boudinot had a far-reaching influence that has impacted millions of Americans over the past two centuries. However, one of his greatest passions—and what he considered to be his most important mission—was spreading God’s Word around the world.

On his 281st birthday, we reflect on Boudinot’s role in uniting the many independent Bible societies across the United States around the common goal of helping all people experience God through his Word.

Prepared for a Purpose

Born in Philadelphia in 1740, Elias Boudinot was the descendant of French Huguenot refugees who fled persecution in France. In his youth, Boudinot planned to become a minister. While he eventually changed paths to become a lawyer instead, Bible ministry remained a key focus throughout his life.

Boudinot grew up with Benjamin Franklin as a neighbor and befriended people like John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. During the American Revolution, he served as an intelligence officer for Washington and financed supplies for American troops. He was elected president of the Second Continental Congress in 1782 and served in various roles during the administrations of Washington and John Adams, including as director of the United States Mint.

Boudinot was a vocal supporter of faith and prayer in the young nation. He helped institute the Thanksgiving holiday, which was first celebrated in 1789, and used God’s Word to advocate for the rights of Native Americans and enslaved Africans. In his personal time, Boudinot contributed to educational and religious causes in his local community. He served as a trustee at Princeton University, where he also founded the natural history department and sponsored students at a boarding school for Native Americans in Connecticut. His influence famously prompted a young man from the Cherokee Nation named Gallegina Uwati to change his name to Elias Boudinot in honor of his friend and mentor.

Throughout his life, Boudinot championed God’s Word. But his opportunity to help catalyze a global Bible movement came when he was 75 years old.

Founding American Bible Society

In 1815, two young men named Samuel J. Mills and John Schermerhorn completed an expedition throughout the United States. Their goal had been to gather data on the spiritual state of the young nation, and their findings were concerning. In most states, Americans lacked access to the Bible. The efforts of independent Bible societies were not enough to meet the spiritual need Mills and Schermerhorn observed. Upon hearing their report, Boudinot “seized upon the moment and earnestly began his push for a society that would oversee the distribution of Bibles throughout the entire nation.”

In Boudinot’s mind, it was “highly desirable to obtain . . . a co-operation of the efforts of the Christian community throughout the United States, for the efficient distribution of the Holy Scriptures.” He wrote an address to the Bible societies in January of 1816, calling on them to unify their efforts around the common cause of reaching all Americans with God’s Word. Four months later, American Bible Society was founded in New York City, and Boudinot was named its first president. In response, he said, “I am not ashamed to confess that I accept of the appointment as the greatest honor that could have been conferred on me this side of the grave.”

For the next five years, Boudinot met the challenges of a quickly growing nation by organizing 301 auxiliary Bible societies, which worked in tandem to meet the spiritual needs of cities, counties, and towns across the United States. In addition, he oversaw several milestones in innovation and ministry during his time as president. Six months after its founding, American Bible Society became one of the earliest American publishers to use stereotype plates and steam-powered presses to print its first English Bible. In 1817, the organization presented 65 Bibles to the crew of the USS John Adams, inaugurating its ministry to the United States Military. That same year, Boudinot donated a 1595 Bible to American Bible Society’s new Scripture library, which has since become one of the largest collections in the world. In 1818, American Bible Society released the first issue of Quarterly Extracts, which is now known as Record magazine and is the second oldest continuously running periodical in the United States. And in 1819, American Bible Society published its first translation, making the three Epistles of John available in the language of the Delaware Indians.

Although he served for just five years as American Bible Society’s president, Boudinot’s legacy of Bible ministry continues. We praise God for his life and echo his prayer that American Bible Society would be “a society, which, with the blessing of God, . . . will in time . . . shed an unfading lustre on our Christian community, and prove a blessing to our country and the world.”

Blog Sources

  • Boudinot, Elias. “To the Several Bible Societies in the United States of America.” 1816. American Bible Society Archives.
  • Cordato, Mary. “Elias Boudinot (1740-1821).” 2014. American Bible Society Archives.

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Elisabeth Trefsgar
Elisabeth Trefsgar

Elisabeth Trefsgar is a content specialist for American Bible Society. She has made a home in New Jersey and Sofia, Bulgaria, and is always on the lookout for the next adventure. She is passionate about seeing communities around the world flourish through the power of God's Word and the efforts of the local church. When she isn't writing, you can find her reading good stories, photographing local sights, and spending time with friends.

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