HISTORY OF THE CEYLON BIBLE SOCIETY
The Bible has a history spanning one thousand six hundred years. The writers of the various Books of the Holy Bible, are from different walks of life including, kings, prophets, soldiers, shepherds, fishermen and scholars. They wrote at different times to bring God’s message to people, to guide and encourage them, to strengthen their relationship with God. These Books written through God’s inspiration enlightens the spiritual growth and needs of all Christians in the world.
The sacred Scriptures were originally written by hand on scrolls, and were reproduced by priestly copyist. The Old Testament Books were first written in Hebrew and the New Testament Books in Aramaic and Greek. The Books written in Hebrew were translated into Greek by seventy scholars who worked independently in the 3-2 B.C. This translation is called the Septuagint. St. Jerome translated the Bible to Latin. The Books to be included in the Bible were decided upon at the Conference of Carthage in 397 A.D.
The handwritten Bible was first printed in movable type by the German printer, Gutenburg in 1450 A.D. With the printing of the Bible, the Holy Scriptures became available for Churches to be read to God’s people.
During the Reformation, the Bible was translated into many European languages including German, English, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish. These Bibles were made available to individual Christians. Translation of the Bible was prohibited at one time and many people including Wiiliam Tyndale sacrificed their very lives for this purpose.
Today the Bible has been translated in parts into 7350 languages and the full Bible into 692 languages.
CHRISTIANITY IN SRI LANKA
The Portuguese Period. (1505 – 1656)
Although there is a belief that there was a Christian presence in Sri Lanka from Apostolic times, Christianity became established in Sri Lanka only after the arrival of Portuguese missionaries. The first regular mission came in 1543, when a few Franciscan fathers were sent to Ceylon on the invitation of the king of Kotte. The Missionaries built churches, introduced liturgical form of worship including the use of litanies and hymns in the vernacular.
The Dutch Period (1656-1796)
The Dutch who ousted the Portuguese and ruled the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka for nearly 150 years were Calvinists. They established schools and translated the Scripture into Sinhala and Tamil and wrote them on Ola manuscripts. The New Testament was printed in Sinhala and Tamil at the Government press established by the Dutch. The Bible was the first Book that was printed in Sri Lanka and the first copy is preserved at the National Archives.
The British Period (1796-1948)
The Maritime Province of Sri Lanka came under British rule in 1796. Ceylon became a British Colony in 1802. The British Administration was staffed by many high ranking British Civil Servants and of these, notable was Sir Alexander Johnstone who was appointed as the first Chief Justice of the island. He was greatly influenced by the Evangelical Revival in Britain, and had brought with him 1810 a quantity of Bibles, New Testament and sufficient paper to print 5000 Bibles, anticipating the establishment of an Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Colombo. On the 7th of March 1804 a group of eminent volunteers founded the British and Foreign Bible Society in London. Among the members, was the great social reformer William Wilberforce. The aim of the Bible Society at its foundation as it continues to be is: “To circulate the Word of God into all parts of the world.” The Bible Society was established for the purpose of printing and distributing Bibles in Britain and abroad. It was from the beginning a non-denominational body, which sought assistance from all Christians.
Establishment of the Ceylon Bible Society
In 1811 the first Auxiliary in Asia was established in Calcutta. Few months later on the 1st of August 1812, the inaugural meeting of the Colombo Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society was held in the King’s House in Colombo. The Governor Sir Robert Brownrigg presided. At this meeting Sir Alexander Johnstone handed over the said Bibles, New Testament and paper to the newly established Society. The Revd. George Bisset, Assistant Colonial Chaplain was elected the Honorary Secretary. A strong sense of purpose pervaded the atmosphere.
One of the obstacles the first missionaries in Sri Lanka faced in the early years was the non-availability of Holy Scriptures in the vernaculars. Bibles in English, Dutch and Portuguese were imported from London. Tamil Scriptures were obtained from the Calcutta Auxiliary. The difficulty arose in respect of Sinhala, which is the language of the majority in Sri Lanka. The Colombo Auxiliary recognized the need to produce Scripture in Sinhala. However, this could not be effectively carried out, without proficient and erudite scholars in the two languages, Sinhala and English. This was not possible till the Baptist and Methodist missionaries acquired the ability to use not only colloquial but also literary Sinhala.
The momentous task of translating the Bible into Sinhala began in 1812 under the guidance of William Tolfrey, a British Civil Servant who gave the start to a succession of Sinhala translations undertaken in the 19th century. Fired by faith and hope and filled with the nobility and immensity of their task, men like Tolfrey devoted themselves with ‘intense assiduity’ and selfless service to its production.
The establishment of printing presses by missionaries greatly enhanced the printing of Sinhala Bibles. The Wesleyan Press (1815) the Church Missionary Press (1823) and the Baptist Mission Press in Kandy (1841) made it no longer necessary to print them in Calcutta. The Wesleyan Press under the personal supervision of the Revd. W.M.Howard, continued to print most of the Bibles and other publications of the Society.
Expansion of the Work of the Society
The enthusiasm of the early Protestant missionaries in Sri Lanka, and the extraordinary keenness of evangelical minded British Civil Servants was the main reason for the widespread activities of the Colombo Auxiliary. It paved the way for missionaries to distribute the Bible in remote areas of the Island. Due to the demand, several Branch Societies were founded. Jaffna in 1815, Ga1le in 1817, Trincomalee and Mallagam in 1821, Vadukkodai in 1823,a Dutch and Portuguese Association of the Society in Pettah in 1830. However, by the end of the 19th century all except the Colombo Auxiliary had ceased to function.
The Committee of the British and Foreign Bible Society experienced certain difficulties in the latter part of the 19th century which resulted in some changes in the governance structures of the auxiliaries in Europe and Asia. A conference was convened in Calcutta which covered the branches in India, Ceylon and Burma. It was agreed at this meeting that the work of the Ceylon Bible Society, should be reorganized and unified. Thereafter, from 1st December 1901 the official designation of the Bible Society in Sri Lanka was changed to “British and Foreign Bible Society, Ceylon Auxiliary.” A new Constitution was framed covering the work done and projected over the whole island. The Society constituted a Central Committee comprising representatives from various Christian denominations in Sri Lanka. Another landmark was the separation of the Society from the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1944 to constitute the Bible Society of India and Ceylon. In 1946 the World Fellowship of the United Bible Societies was formed. The connection with India and Pakistan was severed in 1960. In 1965 the Ceylon Bible Society became an Associate member of the United Bible Societies. In 1969 the Society obtained full membership of the U.B.S. In 1974 at the 145th Annual General Meeting held in December a new Constitution was adopted. In 1975 a Bill was passed in the National State Assembly on the 5th of December, incorporating the General Council of the Ceylon Bible Society as a legal entity. (Act No.48 of 1975)
The major aim of any Bible Society is to present the Word of God to the communities in a language that they could understand. In many countries the Bible was the first written document, in some instances even the written script had to be introduced. In some countries, including Sri Lanka, the first book to be printed, was the Bible.
In the period prior to the establishment of the Bible Society, translations had been pioneered by missionaries such as Jacome Gonsalvez (1676 – 1742) and Dutch Pastors Simon Kat, Johannes Ruel and Wilhelmus Conijin. In-spite of the shortcomings posed by language barriers, they completed Bible translations and Scripture portions, as well as books of prayers and liturgy in Sinhala and Tamil languages.
Following is a brief summary of the translation work carried out after the establishment of the Bible Society:-
A committee of translators was appointed by the Bible Society under the supervision of William Tolfrey a young British Civil Servant. It comprised the Revd. Andrew Armour an Anglican Priest. C.E.Layard of the Civil Service, the Revd. W.B.Fox and the Rev. Benjamin Clough of the Wesleyan Mission, the Rev.James Chater of the Baptist Mission and later the Rev.D.J.Gorgerly of the Wesleyan Mission. The Sinhalese members were Don Abraham De Thoma, Alapatha Muhandiram. Mudliyar George Nandoris de Silva, Don Jacobus Dias, Muhandiram Paulus Perera, Interpreter of the Provincial Court and the Proponent P.Pandithasekera.
The work of the Committee was sadly disrupted by the untimely death of Tolfrey in 1817. The Revd. Benjamin Clough replaced him and the New Testament in Sinhala was published in 1817, and the entire Bible in 1823.
The CMS missionaries were not happy with the classical Sinhala used in the above translation and informed the Bible Society that they would be starting a translation in a more colloquial language. Two CMS missionaries associated with this translation were Rev.James Selkirk and the Rev. Lambrick. The Bible was printed at the Kotte Press of the CMS and it became popularly known as the “Cotta Version.” When this version was introduced to the Anglican churches in the 1840s there was much protests. The Bishop of Colombo had to intervene and decide that the people may choose the Cotta version or the Bible Society’s Tolfrey version according to their wish. In the meantime, the Tolfrey version had been revised by the committee headed by the Rev. D. J. Gorgerly and published in 1827.
The revised version of the Sinhala Bible did not satisfy the local church leaders and revision was started in 1852. The new Revision Committee comprised 16 ministers and 11 and the translation was under the supervision of the Rev.Gorgerly.
The Baptist Mission had its own translation and it was published in 1885. This version was revised in 1905 by Charles Carter and published in 1919. Then there occurred another landmark event in the translation of the Sinhala Bible. The Bible Society and the Baptist Mission decided to compile a common version acceptable to both parties.
The work on the new Sinhala version commenced in 1923. The Revised version of the New Testament was published in 1931. It was a great achievement as it was accepted by all Protestant Denominational Churches. It was an amalgamation of the Bible published by the Baptist Mission in 1913 and the Bible Society’s version of 1910. The complete Bible was published in 1938 and it was referred to as the “Union (Old) Bible.”
The Union Version was released in 1938. No other translation was done for a number of years. In the post-independence era, the Sinhala language underwent dynamic changes. Accordingly the Bible Society began a process of publishing a new version of the Bible. Two important Conferences were held in 1959 and 1960. The latter Conference was a great achievement due to the participation of the younger churches that had been in existence for some time, the Salvation Army, The Seventh Day Adventist and the Ceylon Pentecostal Mission. The participation of the Roman Catholic Church was a great step forward in Ecumenical co-operation in Sri Lanka.
In 1973 the inter-confessional common language translation of the Sinhala New Testament was published. The complete Bible was published in 1982. The Bible with Deuterocanonical carried the authorization of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Sri Lanka.
The Society also appointed a committee to revise the Union Version with the task of modernizing the language of the text without making any alterations to the contents therein. The Revised Old Version of the Sinhala Bible was published in 1995.
The Common language Sinhala Bible was revised and the 2nd Edition was published in 1990.
As there were many request from the public this version was studied by a revision committee headed by the Rev.Dr.Henry Silva and Prof. G.V.P. Somaratne. The third edition of the New Revised Sinhala Bible was published in 2006. This edition superseded the 1st and 2nd editions which are no longer printed.
The revision of the 1938 version was necessitated in re-typesetting of the text for printing purposes. The text was typed without conjoining of Sinhala letters and with hyphenation. The 2nd edition was published in 2007.
The Bible Society has received many requests for the revision of the text of all three versions of the Sinhala Bible, namely the OV 2nd edition, Revised Old Version (ROV) and the New Revised Sinhala Version (NRSV) 3rd edition. A consultation will be held in 2014 with the Heads of Denominational Churches to plan the revision work.
It has always been the objective of the Bible Society to encourage the widest possible distribution of the Holy Scripture. In the early period of its ministry in Sri Lanka, the circulation of Bibles was not significant. Reason for this was attributed to low literacy and the limited number of Bibles printed in the local languages. The English Version was available to the colonial community and ratio wise distribution was very high.
The Society employed travelling distributors called ‘Colporteurs’ to introduce the Bible or portions, to people in rural areas. This system was first used successfully in France and hence the term ‘Colporteur.’ In Sri Lanka, these Colporteurs carrying Bibles on their backs in ‘Scripture Packs’, visited villages, fairs, pilgrim centers and places frequently visited by people. They covered places accessible only by foot. In the cultural traditions of Lanka, they were welcomed and given a hearing and considered to be “learned people” who were also honoured by their listeners. Frequently the Colporteurs travelled by bullock carts in “thavalams” or caravans of carts. In 1855 the Jaffna Auxiliary resolved to engage the services of a number of Colporteurs. They were not only distributors but were also evangelists.
From its inception, the Society received the support of denominational churches in the task of distributing Bibles and other Scripture material.
In the recent past sister Christian Organizations have also helped in this task.
Although in the early period Scriptures obtained through the BFBS was given free, in 1862 it was decided that, ‘No Scripture should be given away (free) by the Society in future, except to persons unable to purchase them, and these only at the discretion of ministers of the Gospel.” Free circulation was discouraged in order to make people treasure the Word of God.
From 2002, designated funds have been established to donate Bibles free to persons who are in need of the Scripture under difficult circumstances. They are:- The “Mary Jones Fund”, to provide Bibles for students in examination classes who are unable to afford one; the “sponsor a Bible Fund” from which 10 Bibles per annum per church, are provided for local churches that find it difficult to purchase Bibles for their congregations: the “Logos Fund”, which provides Bibles to those who have lost their Bibles due to war or natural disasters. The financial support for these Special Funds is provided by individuals, local and foreign.
The Ceylon Bible Society has been producing Scripture based material from the 1940s and the number of individual items now being printed, are in three languages and number over 1500. In the year 2004, the Society became a member of the Book Publishers Association of Sri Lanka. The printing is out sourced to many printing establishments and the Society maintains a high standard in the quality of printing. Some of the important publications are the Children’s Bibles, Encyclopedias, Scripture Cartoon Books, Children’s Activity Books and Sunday School Books. Many items are re-printed during a year
NON-PRINT MEDIA PRODUCTS
From the 1990s more and more audio and video material has been produced widening the scope of resource material available to the churches and to individuals. The Bible Society has produced the audio version of the New Testament and Old Testament Books Genesis and Exodus in Sinhala. The Old Testament Books Joshua, Ruth, Esther, Nehemiah and Daniel have been done in Sinhala and Tamil Languages. The complete Old Testament will be done in the year 201-2015.
The Society has also completed two DVD productions in Sinhala and Tamil, on selected Parables of Jesus.
Annually the Bible Society is given an opportunity by the National Christian Council, to produce a half hour tele-drama for the Rupavahini Corporation. To date, eight no of such dramas have been produced. These audio/video material are used for programmes of the Bible Society.
The digital versions of the Bible Text are under preparation.
During the first years of its ministry it was not considered necessary for the Society to have a fixed location. The stocks of Bibles were accommodated in the mission houses of the churches. In 1863 the first central depot was opened in Colombo.
Depots were also established at the CMS Mission premises in Kotte and in Pettah. In 1867 a depot was set up in Colombo Fort. Another depot was opened in Fort in 1869 at the Colombo Chamber of Commerce
In 1884 a building was constructed in partnership with the Christian Vernacular Education Society and the Religious Trust Society in New Moor Road, Pettah. Each Society provided one third of the cost.
In 1903 branch depots were opened in Negombo, Kollupitiya, Kotte, Moratuwa, Kalutara, Galle, Matara,Baddegama and Kegalle.
In 1905 plans were prepared to purchase a site for the main depot of the Bible Society. A site was acquired at Union Place, Colombo 2.The headquarters of the Ceylon Bible Society as stated in the Annual Reports continued to be at Union Place till the year l940.ln 1941 the Bible Society building was requisitioned by the Government to house soldiers and subsequently purchased in 1945, and is now occupied by Government offices.
Consequently the office of the Society was located in the following places : –
- 1941 – 490 Galle Road, Kollupitiya, Colombo 03.
- 1944 – 57,5th Lane, Kollupitiya, Colombo 03.
- 1947 – 287, Galle Road, Kollupitiya, Colombo 03.
- 1960 – 293, Galle Road, Kollupitiya, Colombo 03. (This property was purchased in 1950 by the British and Foreign Bible Society and ownership was transferred to the Ceylon Bible Society in 1978.)
- 1998 – The new Bible House Building was declared open by the UBS General Secretary Rev.Fergus Mac
Donald. It was built as a commercial building with loans obtained from the UBS for US $ 648,000(Rs.38 million.) and ECLOF (Rs.2.5 million.)
- 2006 – A property consisting 33 perches, was purchased at Akmeemana, Galle for a Bible Study Center with funds provided by the American Bible Society under the O 2l Project (Final Phase) The two storey building was declared open on the 15″ of September 2009 by the former President, Mrs. Vasanthi Rajaratnam.
- 2010 – A properly consisting of 27 perches, was purchased at Jubilee Road, Moratuwa under the Staff Housing Development Loans project. Two houses were built on the said land.
The Governance structure of the Bible Society is laid down in the Act of Parliament. This structure was one that was in place from the inception of the Society in 1812 and was merely given a legal identity by the Act.
Patrons and Presidents
The Presidents of the Society from its inception were the Governors of the island. From 1846 the Governs acted as Patrons of the Society. Both the Patron and the President were distinguished and eminent Christian leaders of the country. Other than the President, Vice Presidents were also appointed. The first Sri Lankan to hold any of these offices was Sir S.C.Obeysekera who was appointed a Vice President in 1912, the 100th year of the Bible Society. In 1912 the Donald Obeysekera Esq was appointed as the first Sri Lankan President.
From the departure of the last British Governor-General, Lord Soulbury in 1954, the position of Patron has devolved on the incumbent Bishop of Colombo. The first Bishop to be thus appointed was the Rt. Revd.A.R. Graham Campbell.
The present Patron is the Rt. Rev. Dushantha Lakshman Rodrigo, the Bishop of Colombo, and the President is Mr. Eraj Wijesinghe, Director at Bartleet Sri Lanka.
THE POSITION OF SECRETARY AND TREASURER OF THE SOCIETY
The post of Secretary, the chief executive position, is one with wide powers and immense responsibility. Till the late 20th century it was held by British Missionaries. The first Asian to hold this position was Paul.A.Krishnasamy, a South Indian. In 1936 the first Sri Lankan, the Revd.James Wirasinha was appointed as Secretary.
The transfer of leadership to Sri Lankans was a remarkable decision at a time when Christian Denominational Churches had not taken a similar decision. Since then there has been eight Secretaries appointed spanning 67 years.