1940s: United Bible Societies is founded to strengthen Bible Society work around the world

1940s: United Bible Societies is founded to strengthen Bible Society work around the world

This article is an instalment in a series exploring the pivotal moments in each decade of United Bible Societies’ 75-year history. As a United Bible Societies Fellowship, recalling this history is both an important way to celebrate how God has guided and sustained us in the past, as well as a reminder of the mission that we steward today and into the futur


Delegates to the meeting in Elfinsward, England, in May 1946, when United Bible Societies was founded.


In May 1946, less than a year after the most destructive global conflict in human history, representatives from Bible Societies in 13 countries gathered at the Elfinsward Conference Centre in Haywards Heath, England. Convinced more than ever of the “need of the world for the Word of God”, the delegates set in motion the formation of a truly global Bible fellowship—the United Bible Societies.

The attendees—each with their own traumas from war—were determined to work together, “so that at this time of need, the fullest effort may be made in co-operation with other Bible Societies to meet the need and seize the opportunity to supply to the stricken world the Word of Life and Strength.”

The start of global collaboration

From the establishment of the first Bible Society in 1804, activities flourished and, by the end of the 19th century, a network of agencies and associations were endeavouring to put the Bible into people’s hands and hearts around the world. However, this work was often conducted and directed by individual Bible Societies.

The 1930s saw the greatest move towards collaboration. The Netherlands Bible Society, using the occasion of its 125th anniversary, invited several Bible Societies to discuss global cooperation at a conference in July 1939.

“The hour has struck for co-operation”, exhorted John Mott of the American Bible Society. “We should only impoverish ourselves by standing alone.”

Global events, however, meant that this fresh spirit of collaboration would go no further. Five days after the conclusion of the conference, 1.5 million German troops marched into Poland and the Second World War became inevitable.

Throughout the war, news came of determined distribution and production. Bible Societies encountered huge challenges as conflict impacted printing and distribution, as well as the funding that made this possible, but some Bible Societies were able to supply Bibles and portions even amidst the chaos of war.

Rev. Dr. Hanns Lilje, who later represented Germany at Elfinsward, was imprisoned in Nuremberg. Kept in solitary confinement, even his Bible was taken from him, but he knew the Scriptures well enough to find comfort in God’s Word. “We were strengthened by the thought that the Word of God is not bound”, he reflected. “We know that there is one light and one hope—the Word of God which will continue to lead us through the future.”


The Rt Rev Bishop Eivind Berggrav (left), Primate of Norway and President of the Norwegian Bible Society talks with the Rev Dr.John R. Temple (centre), General Secretary of the British andForeign Bible Society, and another representative at the conference at Elfinsward


A new beginning, together

Bible Societies’ war-time experiences had only strengthened the resolve to work together. Following the cessation of hostilities, Bible Societies gathered together at Elfinsward. From the global ruins and a world in transition, there was hope about what could be achieved in faithful service to God, but a realism of the scale of the challenges that lay ahead. Challenges that would be best faced by working together.

“There is not much hope in the world”, noted Bishop Eivind Berggrav from Norway, who spent much of the war in solitary confinement, “but there is very much hope in the Bible.”

Looking forward

75 years later, people around the world’s need for the Bible continues to be served by the shared pursuit of a shared mission—a mission built on the legacy of faithfulness, sacrifice and collaboration. From the initial 13 countries gathered at Elfinsward, now around 150 Bible Societies work in more than 240 countries and territories to make the life-giving words of the Bible available to everyone.

“Our point of view is global and that is the point of view of the Bible”, remarked Bishop Eivvind Berggrav at the meeting at Elfinsward. “We stand before an open door.”

It is that global open door that has guided the mission and vision of Bible Societies working together as a United Bible Societies Fellowship for the last 75 years.

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