The Errorists

When the Mormons embarked on the business of publishing God’s new revelation to the world, the Book of Mormon, they joined an already teeming effort by American Protestants of various stripes to convert the New World to Christian belief (and practice). The largest efforts involved the American Bible Society (ABS) and the related but different American Tract Society (ATS). By the time the Mormons came on the scene, their combined efforts resulted in billions of pages each year. These were mostly ecumenical in effect, the mandate of the ABS in particular was to get those Bibles into the hands of every American. Various methods surfaced in both organizations for doing that, but the blunt economies of the work impinged on the original ideal that the books would be distributed at no cost. After considerable struggle over ideal, the ATS implemented a system of salaried agents who traveled to already established local distributors (who got the items at wholesale prices and were expected to get them on the ground via donation by local church people) or attempted to establish such local distribution, etc.[1]

The Mormons were publishers of serials nearly from the beginning and encountered much the same difficulties (on a relatively microscopic scale) as the huge concerns like the ABS and ATS. Individual Mormon missionaries published their own tracts (Parley and Orson Pratt are ideal studies) and sometimes the church picked up those works and sought wider distribution for them.

The ABS and ATS had some competition with denominational efforts though. For example, the Baptist Bible Society wanted to get those Bibles out there, but they wanted it done in such a way that patrons read it “correctly.” Many Baptists of the period had come to see themselves as correctors of Christian error, present on the earth from the time of Jesus, the true preservers of the Christian way, not those damnable Catholics.[2] In this way they avoided a favorite Catholic argument about trees and branches, etc. One that Mormons deployed with uncomfortable ease against both the other parties.

In any case, I was reading a BBS document the other day, which illustrates the point: Bibles needed to be distributed both to non-believers and “errorists” which in this context might have meant any number of things perhaps, but here it means people like Methodists (and Mormons I suppose). At first I thought it read “errantists” and that it was simply haranguing folks who didn’t subscribe to biblical inerrancy. That may have been part of the meaning, of course.

We don’t seem to struggle with the purchase/free angst now, with our Bible, etc. giveaway adverts.

[1] As a Mormon missionary in my time and place, I was expected to purchase church publications (the Book of Mormon for the most part) at a wholesale price (these were paperbacks sold for 50 cents) and resell them to potential converts. We had the same struggles as the both ATS agents and local distributors. It was pretty hard to sell those books and it was nearly as hard to give them away. Those in the ABS who argued that Bibles should be sold to patrons saw purchase as a kind of guarantee that the book or tract was taken seriously. In my mission this was turned around somewhat, where motivation to sell the books was built on the idea that if you could get a buyer, he or she would take the thing more seriously and not throw it out or leave it to gather dust. In both cases, it seems that whole enterprise was bullocks.

[2] A number of Methodist documents complain about Baptists haunting their baptismal events, lurking around ready to pounce on new recruits with doubt about the effect of their Methodist sprinklings.

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