The Chicago Bible Society’s origins go back to the beginnings of Chicago, and its growth has been the result of the efforts of thousands of volunteers who started and carried on its important mission of sharing God’s Word with those in need.
In 1833, Chicago was founded as a town of only 400 residents. Between 1833 and 1837, the population grew ten-fold, and in 1837, Chicago was incorporated as a city with a population of more than 4,000 people.
The history of the Chicago Bible Society starts in 1835, just two years after Chicago’s founding. The first effort to start the society was thwarted by an economic recession, and the society was disbanded because it could not raise enough money to pay its bills. Concerned Christians, both lay people and clergy, felt that something needed to be done to address the shortage of Bibles.
In 1840, the Chicago Bible Society was reestablished on a firmer financial footing. On April 7, 1840, a meeting was held at the old First Presbyterian Church to create the Chicago Bible Society. The records of that first meeting show that Mr. A.B. Lewis, an agent of the American Bible Society, arrived that year to assist in the organizing of the Society. Its purpose was to “supply those destitute [without Bibles] with Scriptures.” In October, the Society hired its first employee, Lewis Swazey, whose task was to take a census of the city’s residents in order to better understand the need for Bibles. The concern was for every household in the city to have a Bible.
The “exploration” completed by Mr. Swazey was reported to the Society at their annual meeting in 1842: 725 families were visited and 92 were found to be without a Bible. To meet that need, the Society developed a system of “colporteurs,” workers who would visit families and either sell or donate a Bible depending on that family’s ability to pay. In 1856, as the population grew, the society hired two colporteurs who visited more than eight thousand families.
The record from the 1856 annual report shows this report from 1950:
"That year the Chicago Bible Society sold 507 Bibles, but gave away 1094."
Since those early years, the Society has grown with the city. Through the Civil War, the Chicago Fire, two World Wars and many changes in our country, the Chicago Bible Society has continued to make sure that the Bible – the touchstone of assurance in a changing world – is both distributed and understood in a culture that, now more than ever, needs to hear God’s Word.