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Nashville: Publishing Bibles Is Big Business

May 28, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — They call Nashville the "buckle on the Bible Belt" with good reason. Its population is predominately conservative Protestant. It is the religious printing and publishing capital of America.

Bibles, hymnals, Sunday School books, Scripture tracts and religious magazines roll off the presses day and night in this, the biggest printing center in the South.

Printing is Nashville's No. 1 industry, employing 12,000 with gross annual sales of more than $600 million, half of it in religious publications.

Nashville is the home of Thomas Nelson Publishers, reportedly the biggest Bible publishing company. United Methodist Publishing House claims to be the largest church-owned and operated publishing and printing plant in the world.

Gideons International, the world's largest Bible distributor, is headquartered here. Last year, Gideons distributed 24 million Bibles printed in 55 languages to more than 100 countries and to hotels, motels, hospitals and jails all over America.

The nation's largest Protestant denomination, the 14.1-million member Southern Baptist Church, has done nearly all of its printing here since 1891. The church sells its Bibles, books and magazines to its 37,000 congregations and through its own 63 bookstores as well as other outlets. Last year's gross sales totaled $147.8 million.

"We spent $3 million in 1985 on postage alone at the Nashville Post Office sending our publications to all 50 states and 117 foreign countries," noted Frank White, 32, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention's Sunday School Board, the agency in charge of publications. It has 1,200 employees.

The $7-million profit from sales was used for missions, seminaries and other church work. The Southern Baptist Broadman Press handles all publications except Bibles, which are published by Holman Press, a Bible publishing house started in Philadelphia and purchased by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979. Holman sold 625,504 Bibles last year.

The Southern Baptist Convention's Sunday School Board does not do its own printing. It contracts it out to printing firms primarily located in Nashville.

Oldest in the City

Credit for the establishment of printing as the major manufacturing industry in Nashville goes to the United Methodist Publishing House. Established here in 1854, it is the oldest printing firm in the city.

Last year, UMPH's gross sales totaled $73.25 million, with $1 million in profit going to pensions for church ministers of the 9.3-million member denomination. UMPH does all of its own printing in its huge publishing house. It employs 1,300 in its publication divisions: Graded Press, Abingdon Press and Parthenon Press.

One of the largest religious book publishers in the United States, but not church owned, is Thomas Nelson Publishers. The company claims to publish one-third of all the Bibles printed in the world each year.

Its president, Sam Moore, 55, is a native of Beirut who changed his name from Zaidy to Moore when he migrated to America in 1950 and began selling Bibles door-to-door.

In 1961, he started Royal Publishing and published his own Bibles.

Eight years later he bought Thomas Nelson Publishers, the British Bible publishing firm founded in 1798.

Today, Moore is president and chief stockholder of Thomas Nelson, a publicly owned company that had $68.9 million in gross sales last year.

Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Robert Schuller and Billy Graham all use Nelson Bibles. The Billy Graham Assn. last year bought 400,000 Bibles from Thomas Nelson, the company that also publishes popular sellers written by Schuller and other religious leaders.

Thomas Nelson publishes seven of the best-known English translations of the Bible, as well as the new Catholic Study Bible, among others.

Dodd Mead, the 145-year-old publishing house, is now owned by Thomas Nelson, as are Ideals Publishing Co. and Morning Star, a Christian greeting card company.

In the 1985 Thomas Nelson annual report, Moore noted that the company "served the $1-billion market provided by Christian bookstores across America."

He ended with a parting note most unusual for an annual report: "God will give us the courage and skills to bring this company forward to honor Him and His People."

Two religious publishing houses in Nashville cater primarily to America's black denominations, the African Methodist Episcopal Sunday School Union and the National Baptist Publishing Board.

$2 Million in Sales

AME's Sunday School Union, the publishing arm of the AME church, the largest predominately black Methodist denomination with 2.2 million members in 6,200 churches, was established a century ago in Nashville. It did $2 million in gross sales last year. The firm has 35 employees.

The National Baptist Publishing Board was founded in 1896 in Nashville by R. H. Boyd as a privately owned publishing house. It does not reveal gross sales or earnings. The company has 125 employees. T. E. Boyd III, great-grandson of the founder, is its president.

20th Century Christian Publishing Co. is yet another privately owned religious publishing house in Nashville. It employs 40 people. Its main market is the Church of Christ. It does not divulge financial figures.

There are several smaller religious publishing houses in Nashville as well.

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