The Austrian Bible Society (“Österreichische Bibelgesellschaft”)
Who is the Austrian Bible Society? Compared with other Christian organisations in Austria quite an old lady with a history of 157 years!
The history of the Bible in Austria is a very unique and at the same time very sad one. The Reformation found a broad response in Austria (90% of Austria at the end of the 16th century were in favour of the reformation) - the Bible was brought into many families. But the Roman-Catholic Church at that time forbade the possession and use of the Bible for common people.
In the times of the counter-reformation the Bible was a strictly forbidden book in Austria - possession of it was severely punished. People were given the alternative to either become a Roman-Catholic (and to hand out the Bibles to the authorities) or to leave the country (without the Bibles of course, but also without their children, who were put into monasteries and brought up there). The last emigration took place in 1734 when people from Salzburg left to Nürnberg. Bibles had to be smuggled into the country. Only in 1791 with the so-called “Toleranz-Patent” by emperor Joseph II Protestants were given some rights for their religious practises, for example they were allowed to build churches (but without bells or a tower, so not to be recognized as church from the street).
Attempts of the British and Foreign Bible Society to establish Bible Society work in the Habsburg Empire in 1817 failed. The civil revolution of 1848 made Bible distribution in Austria somehow possible. The British and Foreign Bible Society sent Edward Millard to Vienna and he opened a Bible depot in September 1850. Until spring 1852 nearly 40.000 copies of the Bible were distributed. Shortly afterwards the work had to stop and the storehouse was closed and the Bibles were in danger of being destroyed. Due to diplomatic interposition by Great Britain, Edward Millard was allowed to transport the Bibles over the Austrian border to Breslau (nowadays in Poland). In 1861 Emperor Franz Joseph granted the Protestants equal rights. Therefore Edward Millard reopened the Bible depot in 1864 in Vienna.
A very important part of the work were the Bible colporteurs, who went from house to house and offered the Bible to the people – in at that time Habsburg empire up to 52 colporteurs were employed by the Bible Society with headquarters in Vienna and branches in cities like Prague, Budapest, Triest and others. The work was often hindered by both governmental and clerical authorities. As the Bible colporteurs were not allowed to sell the Bibles directly, the orders were often cancelled by the local Catholic clergy. It was often dangerous when villagers set their dogs on the colporteurs. One Bible colporteur who worked in Tyrol was murdered 1874 - the deed was never cleared up. In 1918 after World War I the BFBS decided that it was no longer worthwhile to work in the small country, that Austria had become. But in 1922 the German theologian Hans Döring decided that Austria needed the Bible and therefore a Bible Society presence in the country. He became director of the Bible Warehouse in Vienna. In cooperation with protestant clergymen the work quickly expanded. Also the Catholics, majority of the Austrian population, became slowly more interested in owning and using the Bible. Bible distribution rose to 40.000 copies in 1935 due to a bookshop and the work of seven Bible messengers. Karl Uhl succeeded Hans Döring as director in 1936 and stayed in charge until 1970.
After the annexation of Austria to the "Deutsches Reich" in 1938 work went on under observation of the Gestapo. German Bibles weren't to be sold, Bibles in foreign languages and scholarly editions only with permit. 1941 the Nazis wanted to destroy the 35 tons of Scriptures in the Berlin Bible storehouse of the BFBS – already managed by the Vienna branch of the Bible Society. It was managed in a miraculous and courageous way to transport these Bibles to Austria by train at the risk of life. These Bibles ensured the distribution after the Nazi tyranny in the independent Austrian nation after 1945. Karl Uhl was one of the few opposing the Nazi regime.
In the post-war-period refugees rushed to the country, where they got Bibles. The Austrian Bible committee was founded by the responsible persons of the Protestant churches in 1947. Bible Sunday, celebrated in 1947 for the first time, helped to understand the message of God's Word. A Bible house in Vienna was opened in 1954 and accommodated a collection of Bibles in 400 languages. More and more donors became aware of the necessity of spreading God's word all over the world and supported the work of the United Bible Societies. Only in 1970 the independent Austrian Bible Society was established.
The Work and Mission of the Austrian Bible Society
Important was the Bible distribution among refugees from Hungary in 1956/57 in Austria. In the years of the communism in Eastern Europe, Austria, a neutral country, was an important place. This was also true for the Bible Society, who was responsible for Bible transport into the neighbouring communist countries like Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. After the fall of the iron curtain the Bible Society work in Austria had to be redefined. Already since the 1950-ies there had been work with school groups visiting the library of the Bible Society. Since neither translation nor production are tasks of the Austrian Bible Society the focus is on Scripture distribution and mission.
1992 was a “Year of the Bible” in the German speaking countries. A second “Year of the Bible” in 2003 reached out to the public, culture and media. A nationwide schools-competition in partnership with the government and the Ecumenical council of churches with its 14 member churches including the Roman Catholic Church was a big success.
In the late 1990ies, just next to the old and very small Bible house, the “Museumsquartier”, an area with modern museums was planned and later on built. Therefore the vision to have a new Bible Centre at this place arose. We experienced that “culture” is an area which can link people to the Bible. It took a long time of calculations, struggles and hopes until the doors were opened to the new “Bible Centre” next to the “Museumsquartier”. The Bible Society could “change” its old small house against a ground-floor Bible Centre in spring 2005. The Lutheran Church in Austria as well as the government department of culture supported this project. Since then more than 45.000 visitors have come to encounter the Bible: especially many groups from schools, children and youth from about 8 to 18 years of age. With special events, lectures, music and information the Bible Center is now well known among Christians and others searching for meaning. Temporary exhibitions focusing on themes of the Bible, the history of the Bible or biblical inspired art are an additional offer of the Bible Centre. The Bible Centre also offers Bibles in 110 languages for sale.
The Bible Centre has an interactive media display in its shopping windows. A piece of modern-media-art transports the message of the Bible into the street and invites people to interact with the Bible, especially during night-time. Especially the younger generation is surprised by the Bible and its message in a very positive way.
A traditional project of the Bible Society is the – free - Scripture distribution among prisoners in partnership with the prison chaplaincy and ministries. We also receive letters by individual prisoners demanding a Bible in their mother tongue.
A comparatively new and growing project is the Bible distribution among refugees. Austria is the country with the highest per capita rate of refugees in the European Union. Refugees are coming from Western Africa (Nigeria, Cote d’ Ivoire), Asia (Mongolia, Sri Lanka), former Soviet Union countries like Georgia, and of course Iran, Iraq and North Africa. The partnership with other organisations, no matter if Christian or just a relief organisation, helps us to get access to the people in spiritual need. We are grateful that it has been possible several times to visit the detention centers (“Schubhaft”) in Vienna, to meet the heads of these centers, police staff and refugees kept in the Schubhaft. It is an unique opportunity that the Austrian Bible Society is bringing Gods word to the refugees who are imprisoned. The demand for Bibles is growing and the blessing of this ministry is visible! But, of course the Bibles are costly and we pray that donations are given for this purpose – it is not easy to raise funds for the refugee ministry since many Austrian Christians still have prejudices against refugees.
The Bible Society has officially 12 member churches, protestant churches, free churches, but also orthodox churches. Travelling through the country and visiting churches and Christian groups, giving lectures about the Bible and its life changing message is also a vital part of the ministry of the Austrian Bible Society.
The work of the Bible Society is possible only thanks to individual donors and churches who support the work. The good contacts with media (National radio, newspapers) are also very helpful for the work of the Bible Society; we use them also to promote the work among refugees.