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The movement can be traced back to the Pietist movement in Germany with the founding of the Van Canstein Bible Society in 1710. The modern movement began in 1804 with the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society in London by a group of evangelicals, mostly Anglicans. Its stated aim was “to encourage the wider circulation of the Holy Scriptures, without note or comment.” The movement spread quickly to Europe and the British colonies; 1816 saw the origin of the American Bible Society, and by 1819 a Russian Bible Society had produced the NT in a new translation.
A major division occurred in 1825-26 over the question of the Deuterocanonical books (the Apocrypha) which a number of the European societies wished to publish, but which the BFBS felt it should not handle. This led to duplication of organization in a number of European countries. In more recent times this division has been overcome.
By the end of the nineteenth century the BFBS was the center of a worldwide network of agencies and offices. The rapid growth of the American Bible Society resulted in the establishment of rival agencies in many countries, in addition to agencies of the National Bible Society of Scotland and the Netherlands Bible Society.
Then followed the era of constructive reorganization, with the setting up of “joint agencies” primarily responsible to one or other of the major societies. Europe still remained outside the mainstream of development. Following conversations in the late thirties, interrupted by World War II, plans for a closer partnership were discussed; in 1946 at Haywards Heath a conference of the major societies led to the establishment of theorganization. In 1947 Olivier Beguin was appointed general secretary. National societies or offices either are autonomous or are being encouraged to move toward that state; each center aims to draw the widest possible representation of the total Christian community into the Bible cause.
The UBS structure consists of four regional centers (Nairobi, Africa; Mexico City, the Americas; Singapore, Asia; Bassersdorf in Switzerland, Europe). Each of these has a secretariat, including regional consultants on such matters as Bible translation, production, distribution, and office management. Translations consultants serve within each region under a world UBS translations coordinator. Currently over fifty are involved globally in some 800 projects. Similarly, there is a group to coordinate worldwide production of Scriptures. The UBS produced the generally accepted agreed text of the Greek NT and is currently working on OT textual variants.
The UBS Council meets every six years; its general committee meets every three years and takes overall responsibility through an executive committee which meets at least once a year. Financial resources are pooled and shared through a World Service Budget; in 1971 this amounted to almost $7.5 million (of which just over half came from the USA, and close to $1 million from the BFBS). Each society prepares a budget early in the year; it is then considered by the regional secretaries, and finally passed by the executive committee.
Following the launching of the “God's Word for a New Age” campaign in 1963, and the further development, “The Book for New Readers,” annual distribution of Scriptures by the Bible societies increased from 54.1 million in 1963 to about 173.4 million (comprised of Bibles, New Testaments, portionsi.e., complete books of the Bible-and selections-short extracts on particular themes). Scriptures are now available in 1,526 languages. Bible society work is conducted on a noncommercial basis, and many Scriptures are heavily subsidized. Normally the selling price of a Bible or NT meets only the bare production cost of a book, leaving nothing for translation, revision, storage, transport, free distribution, and so on.
The UBS publishes The Bible Translator and The Bulletin quarterly, together with a French equivalent to the Bulletin, and a general information document for member societies, with occasional press releases. There is also an annual UBS prayer booklet.