Bible Societies — associations created for the sole purpose of translating and circulating the Holy Scripture — date back to 331 A.D. when emperor Constantine requested fifty copies of the Old and New Testaments be used in the major churches of Constantinople. Historical leaders, including ones commissioned by Charlemagne in 797 and tsar Alexander I in the seventeenth century, also established noteworthy Bible Societies.

By the nineteenth century Bible Societies were non-denominational Christian networks, printing bibles according to religious affiliation, such as Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox. The Bible Society most relevant to Carlyle's criticisms was the British and Foreign Bible Society, which was founded in 1804. The society originated from a conglomeration of Christians who recognized the need for a Welch translations of scripture. The association aimed for "a wider circulation of the Holy scriptures, without note or comment" (1911 Encyclopædia Britannica). The bible society movement branched out, reaching every Christian affiliation across the globe (each creating their own printed text according to their beliefs). The societies' advance, however, were accompanied by many controversies, including issue with circulation laws, editing rights, and varying definitions of words in the Bible. For centuries these controversies led to various printed versions, so much so that the bible was printed in 530 languages by 1906; a vast increase from the 50 printed by 1804.

Carlyle's "Signs of the Times" uses the Bible Society movement as a metaphor for addressing spiritual malaise in the modern world. His metaphor suggests that Bible societies produce beings much like machines. Instead of focusing on recognizing one's spirit, societies mechanically focus on converting heathens into Christians despite the lack of genuine spiritual foundation.


G. Browne, History of the Bible Society. London, 1859.

T. H. Darlow and H. F. Moule, Historical Catalogue of the Printed Editions of holy Scripture. London, vol. i. 1903, vol. ii. 1908.

Cumming, Mark. The Carlyle Encyclopedia. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ P, 2004.

"Bible Societies." 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. (2008, December 7). In Wikisource, The Free Library. Retrieved 12:30, March 29, 2009

Last modified 15 March 2009