Listening In: Alan Crippen

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with the American Bible Society’s Alan Crippen.

ALAN CRIPPEN, GUEST: I like to describe it as a startup organization in its 203 year. So there was a search, a strategic process. Do we leave New York? The decision was to come to Philadelphia. And the city government here rolled out the red carpet to receive the Bible Society. What the move has effected is a renewal of the organization. It’s helped us in some ways to recover our story. We’ve moved to the birth city of our founder, Elias Boudinot. Being here, encountering the story of America’s founding and the American experience, and the symbolism of rediscovering our roots in the city of America’s origin is a pretty compelling and powerful place for us to be organizationally. So it, it feels like, again, I’m coming back, it feels almost like a startup.

SMITH: A lot of people have heard, in the past year, of the Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington, D.C. But a project of a similar kind is now underway in Philadelphia that you may not have heard about. Four years ago, the American Bible Society moved from New York City into a building on Independence Mall in the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district, and on the first floor of that building the American Bible Society is creating what it is calling the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center. The $60 million project is still two years away from opening, but it has been several years in the planning. The money is nearly raised, and—as you’ll hear from our guest today, Alan Crippen—the American Bible Society expects to begin construction in a matter of weeks. It would be difficult to find a person better suited to be the chief of exhibits, programs, and public engagement for this new facility than Alan Crippen. Crippen founded and led for a decade the John Jay Institute, named after one of the founders and the second president of The American Bible Society. Before that, he held senior leadership positions at the Family Research Council, and at Focus on the Family. I had this conversation with Alan Crippen at the headquarters of the American Bible Society in Philadelphia.

Alan Crippen, welcome back to the program, I should say, because I was in Philadelphia a couple of years ago and talked to you when you were at the John Jay Institute.

CRIPPEN: That’s right.

SMITH: And we were talking about leadership and the work that you’ve been doing for many, many years to help develop young leaders. Now you’re at the American Bible Society and you’re leading the effort to get this new Faith and Liberty Discovery Center off the ground. Tell us about it.

CRIPPEN: Right, well, Warren, it’s great to be back with you and it’s great to have you here in Philadelphia again. I’d like to call Philadelphia the metropolis of the American founding, so welcome. And you’re here on great day. A sunny day, and no humidity and a cool breeze.

SMITH: You sound like you’re from the Chamber of Commerce.

CRIPPEN: I know, maybe I am.

SMITH: But I think that, I mean, I know that about you already, that you love Philadelphia.

CRIPPEN: I do, yeah.

SMITH: And you really think that this is almost the only place in the country that what you’re working on now could happen.

CRIPPEN: Yeah, Philadelphia I think is a very special place. It’s certainly a special place in the American narrative. We have a United Nations designation as a World Heritage City. There are only two cities in America that have that designation and you might think, well, what are they? Are they in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville? No, it’s Philadelphia and San Antonio. And Philadelphia was the first one to get that designation. Why? Because of what happened here. What happened here in the 18th century, what happened here in the 18th century was special, the founding of America. It was the birth of American democracy and American conceptions of democracy, American constitutional order, religious freedom. So it is a special place and these monuments still exist. We’re talking this day from the eighth floor at Fifth and Market overlooking the most historic square mile in America: Independence Mall, anchored on the south end by that historic building, independent–what we call Independence Hall, the old Pennsylvania State House on the one end. And on the other end, the National Constitution Center is a building built about 20 years ago to monumentalize and commemorate the Constitution.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, you know, you’re exactly right. We’re in a corner of, of your offices up here and you can literally look out and see both buildings from the room that we’re in right now. It’s really remarkable. In fact, I took a couple of pictures a few moments ago and of course a massive American flag flying out there as well. It really is an inspiring space. I mean, I go to Washington, D.C. a lot. In fact, whenever I leave here with you today, Alan, I’m going to drive down to D.C. and you know, it’s inspiring. You drive in, especially, there was this one place on I-395 where you come over the top of the hill and at the Air Force Memorial and then you can sort of see everything laid out before you, but I’ll have to say that this space here almost rivals that in terms of—

CRIPPEN: Yeah, it’s special. And we’re close, I mean, it’s not far from Philadelphia to Washington. I mean by car it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive in decent traffic, but by train it’s an hour and a half. So people don’t really realize how close these cities are. But they’re special because they contain all these symbols, symbols that express ideals that we embrace and believe in. So American Bible Society, as you know, was in New York City for 199 years. It was founded in 1816 by American founders. I’d like to say the American Bible Society was founded by the Federalist Party of Prayer. We count among our founders—our founding president for instance was Elias Boudinot who was a member of the Continental Congress. He was a president of the Continental Congress. After that, he served in the House of Representatives under the Federal Constitution for three terms and ended up director of the mint. And in his retirement, he had a vision for a national organization that would devote its resources to ensure that every home in America had a Bible that they could read, a Bible that they could afford. Why? Well, he was a believer. He was born here in Philadelphia, by the way, born in 1740 and what’s going on in 1740? The Great Awakening. He was baptized right over here. We’re looking out and there’s a hotel that stands there, but before that, there was a preaching hall that was built to accommodate the preaching of George Whitfield.

SMITH: Oh, wow. Yeah. One of the great wonders of the Great Awakening.

CRIPPEN: The Billy Graham of the 18th century. And the crowds were so big, so they built the biggest building in Philadelphia at the time, was his preaching hall, to accommodate these massive crowds. The crowds of six and 8,000 people would show up to hear as Whitfield preached in the streets of Philadelphia.

SMITH: Yeah. Which is remarkable in the days before amplification. And, uh, and there’s even a famous story, I don’t know if you’re going to get to this or not about Benjamin Franklin.

CRIPPEN: Yeah. He paces it off, right? I mean, he, yeah, there’s this great–it’s in the autobiography of Franklin. It’s great stuff. But Whitfield baptized, Boudinot as an infant. If you read Whitfield’s journals in 1740, May of 1740, the two baptisms, and then you read the Boudinot family Bible, baptized by the Reverend George Whitfield, May 1740. So our founder has these sort of bona fides evangelical awakening credentials. He was catechized and raised as a Presbyterian. His pastor was Gilbert Tennent. As a consequence of the Great Awakening, Gilbert Tennent was a church planter and almost as famous as Whitefield is in terms of a preacher, and he passed through the Second Presbyterian church here in Philadelphia, which is the church in which Boudinot’s father, also Elias, was a deacon. So he’s raised in that. Boudinot then moves to New Jersey, he studies law under Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration. He marries Stockton’s sister Hannah, and Stockton marries Boudinot’s sister Anna. So these families are tied.

SMITH: That’s amazing.

CRIPPEN: Both these guys are patriots, and the officiant at the wedding was William Tennent Jr., the son of the great William Tennent of the law college and all of that. So, you know, this is the spiritual heritage of our founder, American Bible Society.

SMITH: Well, and one of the things that’s interesting about what you’re doing, Alan, is that this spiritual heritage that you know, that you’ve only begun to articulate here just to give to the very beginning, and I want you to say more about that in a little bit, is almost completely ignored by the monuments and memorials and museums that are here on the mall today.

CRIPPEN: Yeah, we’re missing a faith narrative. It’s there, it’s there if you know what you’re looking for. I mean, as we sit in this room, we look out, we see steeples of churches that are, that are quite old and beautiful. So the faith narrative is there. It’s there in the bricks and the mortar and the architecture. It’s there in the stories. But there’s no institution here among all these wonderful institutions to tell the story. And, you know, because we left New York three years ago and miraculously acquired this property here, right on the east side of the mall. We looked out and said, we have a responsibility here. This mall is known for two famous world documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, which includes the Bill of Rights as you know. But there’s another story. There’s a third document that’s key to that story. There’s a third document that is, let’s say, the subtext to the Constitution, right? When John Adams says that our constitution was made for a moral and a religious people and it’s wholly inadequate for the government of any other, what did he mean? Right? I think that’s a question worth all Americans to explore. So we want to bring the third document back to this narrative. You’ve already mentioned that there’s some amazingly wonderful historical and cultural institutions on this mall and around this mall, and we want to bring another. We want to bring the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center to this mall on the east end to tell the story of the Bible’s influence from the founding era to the present, on individuals in key historical and personal moments that defined this story of American liberty.

SMITH: So, Alan, where are you in the process right now in terms of, you know, building out the facility that is going to tell that story.

CRIPPEN: You know, the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is a $60 million project. It’s the largest singular most expensive project that the Bible Society has undertaken in its, you know, almost 203 year history. We conceptualized this about three years ago. I originally got involved as a volunteer. The project director, the director of the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is Pat Murdoch, who actually hails from North Carolina at least intermittently. He’s assembled an amazing team to conceptualize, you know, what to do here. We have hired a top-tier museum exhibit and media design firm in Manhattan called Local Projects to help us figure out how to tell this story in a highly interactive and immersive and high-tech and creative way that speaks to contemporaries. So the project’s been conceptualized and we’ve gone through a design phase. We have, I think we’re almost at 100 percent on construction documents. So essentially, we’re poised to begin construction within a few weeks.

SMITH: So you’re just–I think you said you told me earlier that your board wants you to have, or your leadership wants you to have, $50 of the $60 million raised, and you’re almost there.

CRIPPEN: And we’re almost there. We’re nearing the $50 million. We expect to close that gap within the next few weeks and from that point on, it’s kickoff.

SMITH: And I’ve been downstairs. I mean, of course, you mentioned earlier we’re on the eighth floor. I’ve been to the lobby of this building. It’s already thoroughly gutted. I mean, it looks like it’s ready for a build-out right now. I mean, you could, you could probably bring your construction team in there tomorrow, the next day.

CRIPPEN: Yeah. We’ve already done demolition. So the listeners know, we’re retrofitting existing space and we’re also adding new construction onto an existing building, 9,000 square feet of additional space. So this Faith and Liberty Discovery Center will have five galleries that tell the story of faith and liberty and the American experience. And we’ve decided to tell this narrative through the idea of shared values, values like faith, like liberty, justice, hope, unity, and love in particular, those values, a gallery dedicated to each of those values. Ideally the visitor comes in–we’re not calling this a museum. A museum has the wrong connotation. Museum is a great word. I think museums are important. In some ways we are a museum, but we’re marketing the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center as a discovery center. We want the visitor, and primarily the visitor who has very little knowledge about the Bible, to feel welcome, to feel included in a voyage of discovery to learn how this essentially forgotten document has been so critical to not just the founding, but to the entire story of America. And particularly you think of what animated all those great 19th century reformist impulses, right? These were, you know, Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, who Lincoln described as the little lady who started the Civil War, right? How did she start the Civil War? She started the Civil War by writing a book, a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin where the chief protagonist in Uncle Tom’s cabin is a Christ figure. So you know, this is how influential the Bible was in these key moments and on key individuals in our history. It’s hard to imagine what American history would be like without Harriet Beecher. And yet Harriet Beecher comes from a family of Beechers. Lyman Beecher, her father, was one of the great evangelists of the Second Great Awakening, and a founder, by the way, of American Bible Society. So, you know, these are the stories we want to tell. Lincoln, you know, Lincoln’s faith is problematic and there’s a lot of scholarship about that. But we do know this much. Lincoln knew the Bible, right? He was a Bible reader. He appropriated its stories, he appropriated its content, it informed his own thinking. Lincoln appropriated its style even in his own rhetoric, right, if you think of the Gettysburg address, which sounds like the King James Bible. It’s not, but he’s appropriated that style. And then maybe the greatest, I don’t know, arguably the greatest, most theological of any political American–American political speech would be the second inaugural address, where he’s appropriating very solid Scripture content. Who’s telling this story? Well, we’re going to. We’re going to tell how Scripture motivated, animated, inspired people to make America a better place, to more fully realize beautiful ideals of freedom that are articulated in our, in our founding documents. And yet we also know, right, that that story has its dark chapters and that Scripture has been used in oppressive ways.

SMITH: Yeah, misused and misappropriated.

CRIPPEN: Yeah, that’s the right word, misused. And so we don’t want to tell a sanitized story. We want our telling of this to be authentic in incorporating those dark chapters. I mean, we’re looking out the window there at Saint Augustine’s, a Roman Catholic church, the third oldest Catholic Church in Philadelphia. It was burned to the ground in 1844 in the Bible Riots, right. At one time the Bible was so important to Catholics and Protestants that they fought over what version should be read in the public schools. And in our dark chapters history, not just Philadelphia, but this happened in New York and Cincinnati and other places, you know, there were riots about this that actually killed people.

SMITH: Well, so Alan, given all of that, which is really fascinating and interesting, and I can’t wait for it to open so I can walk through it. To what end, I mean, I could imagine that Christians would come here and be encouraged and edified. But as you say, this is going to be a place where folks who don’t know scripture can be led into a deeper understanding. Is that the goal? Are both of those goals? Is it a, is there an overarching goal that I’m missing?

CRIPPEN: Yeah. Well, I think the goal is to tell the story. That’s the, the institutional mission as I cited. To what end is, I think we want Americans to have a deeper appreciation and respect for the Bible’s role in the American narrative. We, American Bible Society, want a higher degree of Biblical literacy. And you know, for our 203 year history, we’ve been about the Bible, right? We want Americans, and people around the world, engaged. That’s our word, engaged in the scripture. And in the early days, right, Americans didn’t have Bibles, which is why the Bible Society came into being. It came into existence to ensure that every American home had a bible. Well, I guess if that was the mission, we succeeded, right? Because the average American home has three Bibles, four Bibles, five Bibles? It makes a great flower press, it looks handsome on a shelf, particularly a leather bound edition, and it functions often as a doorstop, right? But who’s engaging it, you know, who’s reading it? So we have lots of Bibles, but we also have the highest degree of Biblical illiteracy in our, in our country. And what’s at stake at that? Well, we could talk about the spiritual price of that, of that biblical illiteracy. And it’s significant. But in terms of American civics, right? There’s a, there’s also a cultural price, right? I would posit you can’t understand the American civilizational story without some basic operating knowledge about the Bible. And I think, you know, built into the American Bible Society’s history and mission, you know, it has a religious, it has a religious mission or gospel mission, distributing the gospel, right? That’s been so key, without note or comment. But the Bible Society was founded by American founders. It was founded by, as I mentioned earlier, Boudinot; it was founded by John Jay, he was our second president and founding vice president. Our third president was Col. Richard Varick who was the federalist mayor of New York and on Gen. Washington’s military staff as a Continental Army officer. John Adams was a vice president for 30 years of American Bible Society. Francis Scott Key. Chief Justice John Marshall was a vice president American Bible Society right there. These men saw the connection between perpetuating, fostering, cultivating civic virtue and sustaining American republican democratic institutions. What’s the source of that virtue in their mind? Right? It was the Bible. So I think it’s that civic narrative that is our opportunity here. You know, we’re new to Philadelphia, but we’ve been welcomed by all our of our neighboring institutions. And when people know our story, right, our story—founded by American founders, our story parallels the American story—nobody’s questioned our legitimacy in being here. I mean, it’s a natural fit for American Bible Society, given its history and its founding, and to be situated here on Independence Mall, to tell the story of the Bible in America.

SMITH: Alan, I’d like to close our conversation today just by talking a little bit more about the American Bible Society itself. You talked a little bit about the founding of the American Bible Society. One of the facts that you, that you sort of leaked out there was that you were 199 years in New York City and that the organization itself is 203 years old. So you’ve been here in Philadelphia for a few years now. It was pretty controversial whenever y’all left New York just because you’d been there for so long.


SMITH: And there were a lot of folks in New York that were sad to see you go. The organization has had a lot of ups and downs over the years, as you would expect for an organization that is 203 years old. What’s the current state of the American Bible Society?

CRIPPEN: Yeah, well, it’s a great question. The current state of the Bible Society, it’s–I like to describe it as a startup organization in its 203rd year. I mean, there’s a lot of energy here. I think part of that has been affected, well, one by the leadership of Roy Peterson. Roy Peterson took the helm of American Bible Society about four years ago. And Roy is no stranger to the, to the Bible cause, right? He was the former president and chief executive officer of Wycliffe Bible Translators. And following Wycliffe Bible Translators, he was at the Seed Company. And Roy’s background prior to his work in Bible organizations was marketplace work. So he’s a businessman who has been involved in Bible work, Bible translation work, the Bible cause for 30 years or so. Roy brings really solid experience in leadership and direction to American Bible Society. I think, you know, the move from New York was traumatic. It was traumatic for our friends in New York who had loved and revered the Bible Society for 199 years. It was traumatic for the organization which loved New York and, you know, had been there for 199 years. But it was largely a decision of stewardship. We had a very valuable property at 1865 Broadway. You probably remember the Bible House there.

SMITH: I do, yeah. I’ve been there many times. Or a number of times, I wouldn’t say many times, but more than once, more than twice, right.

CRIPPEN: We were there in that property for about a half century. And when we acquired that property, you know, paid very little for the, for—it was a piece of dirt and we built, I guess it was a nine-story, you know, modern 1960s type building. That building needed about $20-$30 million worth of improvements. By this time, you know, New York’s booming, right? New York’s transformed. Many of our staff were actually working remotely. We had an auxiliary, most people don’t know this, we had an auxiliary headquarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, just in suburban Philadelphia, and most of our staff worked there.

SMITH: Just because they couldn’t afford, couldn’t afford to live and work in New York.

CRIPPEN: Couldn’t afford New York, right.

SMITH: And you mentioned the need for sort of deferred maintenance there. Some of that was being mandated by the city, right?

CRIPPEN: Mandated by the city.

SMITH: To bring it up to current code.

CRIPPEN: So, in terms of, you know, stewardship, you know, do we spend, right, do we spend $20 or $30 million to bring this building up to code? Most of our staff don’t live here anyway. So there was a search, right? There was a search that was a strategic process. Do we leave New York, do we sell, do we sell this property? And the decision was made to sell and to relocate. And it was not really certain where to relocate. But through—and I think it’s largely providential—the decision was to come to Philadelphia. And the city government here rolled out the red carpet to receive the Bible Society. We were received with open arms by the Chamber of Commerce, by the city government and administration, at the time it was Mayor Nutter’s administration, by the cultural institutions that surround this mall. And I think the, what the move has effected is a renewal of the organization. It’s helped us in some ways to recover our story, our storied past, right? We’ve moved to the birth city of our founder, Elias Boudinot. And, you know, Roy Peterson has articulated, I think, a new vision that the American Bible Society is to be the Bible Society of America. But that’s what it was founded to be, right? The Bible Society of America. And so I think, being here, right, looking out at these monumental landmarks, right, encountering the story of America’s founding and the American experience, and being in a major metropolitan city, a city, you know, like many with, you know, great beauty and yet great challenges. It’s also given us an opportunity to be invested in Philadelphia, into its civic life, its social life. And Roy has brought that vision. So I, you know, the symbolism of rediscovering our roots in the city of America’s origin to address and look forward into the future, it’s a pretty compelling and powerful place for us to be organizationally. So it, it feels like, again, I’m coming back, it feels almost like a startup.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, certainly the Faith and Freedom Discovery Center is a startup, you know, a new activity, a new enterprise. And so let’s kind of close with pivoting back to that. You talked about the fundraising. You talked about the fact that you’ve got all of your architectural documents in place. You’ve got, you know—when can I take a tour of the finished facility? When can people—when do you all plan or hope that people can start actually visiting the discovery center?

CRIPPEN: Well, thanks for asking, Warren. The Faith and Liberty Discovery Center is actually right now open on a virtual platform. So Www.FaithandLiberty.Org will take you into some online exhibits and will give you a flavor of what’s coming. And there’s a sort of a fun interactive technology to that website that’ll let the listeners, you know, experience and enjoy. And there’s also a lot of information about the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center’s upcoming construction. There’s some architectural renderings of what it will look like in the building we’re in and all of that. And some discussion of the team, there are interviews with some of the scholars who’ve been advising us along the way in the project, so that. But we expect to be breaking ground within a few weeks. Once we break ground, it will be two years of construction to soft opening. So right now we’re hopeful of an opening in the fall of 2020.

SMITH: Yeah. Great. Well, Alan Crippen, thank you for filling me in on what’s going on here, and I look forward to over the next two years getting some updates and getting a tour from you, Lord willing, whenever it opens two years from now.

CRIPPEN: Absolutely. Thank you, Warren, it’s great to be with you.

SMITH: So yeah. And thanks for your hospitality here today. This is truly a remarkable day to be in Philadelphia, thank you.

CRIPPEN: You’re welcome.

SMITH: That brings to a close my conversation with Alan Crippen. A few program notes before we go. As you might imagine, a ministry that is as large and as old as the American Bible Society has made a lot of news over the years, and WORLD has been diligent about covering it. To read more about some of the topics Alan Crippen and I discussed today, including more on the ABS’s president, Roy Peterson, and the controversy that surrounded the ABS’s move out of New York City, go to the WORLD website type the words “American Bible Society” into the search engine.

Listening In is brought to you by World News Group, and this podcast is just one of the many benefits of WORLD membership. To find out more about becoming a member of WORLD, go to

The technical producer for today’s program is Rich Roszel. He gets strong assistance from Alan Brooks. Our executive producer is Nick Eicher. I’m your host Warren Smith. And you’ve been Listening In.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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