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New center in Philly will explore Bible as part of American foundation

On display is the first English Bible printed in America

On display is the first English Bible printed in America

The newest neighbor of Independence Historic National Park — the American Bible Society — intends to build a Bible-oriented visitor attraction, to put the Bible in context with American democracy.

In 2015, the society moved its headquarters from Manhattan to a building at Fifth and Market in Philadelphia. By 2018, it plans to convert a 40,000-square-foot ground floor into a publicly accessible space, including a 25,000-square-foot “Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.”

The center is expected to cost $60 million and attract about 250,000 visitors a year.

designer

Designer Jake Barton (left) describes how the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center will explore the role of the Bible in American history. He is joined on stage by (from left) President of the American Bible Society Roy Peterson and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. In the foreground is one of the first Bibles printed in the United States. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The American Bible Society was founded in 1816 to promote the Bible around the world, including printing millions of copies in different languages for distribution. It has one of the largest collections of Bibles and written Scripture in the world, and the center will feature a rotating display of some of them.

The society hired the museum design firm Local Projects to make interactive technology that will show the Bible’s influence on the Founding Fathers.

“You can think if of the Declaration of Independence on one end, and the Constitution on the other end, and in the middle is the Bible,” said Roy Peterson, society president.

“I say it’s an invisible document. It was a force in [the Founding Fathers’] lives. Men and women of that period were literate. Even if they didn’t believe it, or didn’t ascribe to it in a religious way, people knew about the Bible, and it influenced their thinking,” said Peterson.

Peterson said the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center will embrace a multitude of faith traditions, not just Christianity. How, exactly, it will do that is not yet clear: the center is still very early in its planning stages.

Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects, said he will design the exhibition with stories of Americans who championed religious pluralism.

“Take William Penn, with his unfathomably radical idea to have this many people of this many religions gathered together,” said Barton. “It was an idea he went to jail for in England. He came to America as a religious refugee — to Philadelphia on this incredible notion.”

The Discovery Center will be located directly across the street from the National Museum of American Jewish History, which opened in 2010. Its director and CEO, Ivy Barsky, looks forward to its new neighbor.

“We warmly welcome this new attraction, to enrich this city’s interfaith dialogue and knowledge of American religious history,” said Barsky.

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