What is Bible Sunday?

(Photo: Unsplash/Alexis Brown)

Every year at the end of October, Bible Sunday is held in many churches across the world. This is the story... 

History of Bible Sunday

On Bible Sunday there is a focus on the Bible, and the collection may go to the Bible Society. It has not always been that Sunday, and although the Bible Society movement dates back to 1804, Bible Sunday is much older.

The practice of preaching from a set of prescribed readings, called a lectionary, dates back to Jewish synagogues. Early Christians followed this idea. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer created the one-year readings for the Church of England, called the Book of Common Prayer in 1549. This was revised over the years, particularly in 1662. There were set verses for each Sunday and a special prayer called a Collect. The Collect for the second Sunday in Advent was a Prayer of Thanksgiving for the Holy Scriptures. It was based upon the first line of the epistle set for that day which is Romans 15:4: "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope." (KJV)

The collect, written by Cranmer, goes: "Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed 1hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen." The priest often then followed this with a sermon on the Bible. As a result for centuries the second Sunday in Advent was called "Bible Sunday" in Anglican churches.

Bible Sunday and the Bible Society

The British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) was formed on 7th March 1804. It was the first independent Christian organisation which promoted the Bible, which was not promoting any particular denomination. Prior to that British Christian organisations were either Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Congregational or Quaker. As the Bible Society developed many towns had their own auxiliary branches, with representatives of all the local congregations, usually each of the clergy sat together on a committee, which is the start of the modern ecumenical movement.

From the 1870s, it became the custom for Bible Sunday to be held in each church, not just Anglican ones, and each congregation would make a collection for the local Bible Society branch, which was passed onto the national Bible Society. Bible Sunday then became an annual source of revenue for Bible Society work. Bible Sunday was then often followed a few days later by the AGM of the local Bible Society branch. The idea spread across the world, especially where British missions had established churches. It was never compulsory to hold it on that Sunday, and some churches might hold it a different Sunday, for example if a Bible Society speaker was coming.

Special Bible Sundays

This pattern followed for decades, but there were two years when the Bible Society had Bible Sunday declared on a different Sunday.

In 1904, a Universal Bible Sunday was declared for the first Sunday in March, being 6th March to mark the centenary of the Bible Society movement, which began a hundred years earlier in 1804. This was marked by churches across the British Empire, in the USA, and by Protestant churches of Europe, and there was a special service in St Paul's Cathedral in London.

In 1938, Bible Sunday was declared for 19th June, to mark the 400th anniversary of the placing of an English Bible in every parish church, on the orders of Henry VIII in 1538.

Changing Bible Sunday

From the 1980s there were a number of factors which led to the Sunday being changed. With Advent generally becoming more popular, and regularly being held across the denominations, holding Bible Sunday on the second Sunday in Advent meant that it was getting lost in the run-up to Christmas. Some Protestant churches, especially those of Lutheran and Calvinist heritage, like to mark Reformation Sunday on the Sunday nearest 31st October to commemorate when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses.

So from the 1980s the main large historic liturgical denominations which use a lectionary, or at least have it as an option, came together to agree to use a Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), over a three-year cycle. The Revised Common Lectionary moved Bible Sunday to the last Sunday after Trinity Sunday in Ordinary time. Thus since about 1994, most British churches have moved Bible Sunday to the 4th Sunday in October, which most years is the same as Reformation Sunday. In 2022, Bible Sunday was on 30th October, and in 2023 it is on 29th October.

Alternatives to Bible Sunday

In some countries around the world the idea of a Bible Sunday has been applied to different dates. Some churches, especially from the Catholic tradition, prefer to mark St Jerome's Day on 30th September, which marks the feast of St. Jerome who died on 30th September, AD 420. He translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, and he is considered the patron saint of translators. Some people refer to this as World Bible Translation Day, or International Translation Day.

In the USA, a National Bible Day was first declared by President James Madison in 1815, for the first Sunday in January. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln called a National Bible Day to pray for peace and unity between the North and the South during the Civil War. These days in the USA, National Bible Day takes place on the fourth Sunday in January.

Since 2014, a Day of the Bible was declared by the National Bible Association of the USA, who optimistically call it International Day of the Bible, which has been held annually since on 29th November. In 2023, 29th November will be a Wednesday. The idea is that at noon people stop to read some Scriptures.

From 2004, Wycliffe Bible Translators promoted a "No Bible Sunday" in May, to emphasise that many languages did not yet have a Bible translation. Since 2019, there has also been a National Bible Day in Philippines, which is held on the last Monday in January. In New Zealand National Bible Sunday is the third Sunday in July.

How to hold Bible Sunday

For most churches Bible Sunday is now the fourth Sunday of October. Bible Sunday is celebrated annually, across many churches, often supporting the work of the local Bible Society, or their favourite Bible agency. Some churches celebrate Bible Sunday during mid-week meetings or at other times. Sometimes a group of churches will come together and hold a joint service. It's an event for everyone in the fellowship, adults and children alike. Whilst many churches celebrate Bible Sunday on the same day, churches are free to choose any day to hold a Bible Sunday service, and some churches still hold it in on the old Bible Sunday in December.

Republished from Christian Today UK.