A story has long circulated about the famed infidel Voltaire, who claimed he’d make the Bible nothing more than a museum piece within a hundred years. It is said that a hundred years after his death, his house was being used by the Geneva Bible Society (or another in some accounts) for printing and storage. The two Bible societies that are variously mentioned both deny the story and say that the story was invented in America. One journal makes a pretty good case against it, with several authoritative citations (see http://www.nzarh.org.nz/journal/2004v77n1aut.pdf page 14). According to the report on the anecdote,
. . . the closest affirmation of this version of the story is that the British and Foreign Bible Society depot in Paris stands on a site once occupied by a prison for those convicted of minor offences (embezzlement, debt, etc.) in which, according to the choice of sources, Voltaire may or may not have been confined. No other residence of his has been an office of any Bible Society.
The available evidence suggests that the entire story probably arose from a misunderstanding of the 1849 Annual Report of the American Bible Society (ABS). In the appendix of that report we find an account of a speech given by William Snodgrass, an officer of ABS:
The committee had been able to redeem their pledge by sending $10,000 to France, the country of Voltaire, who predicted that in the nineteenth century the Bible would be known only as a relic of antiquity. He [Snodgrass] could say, while on this topic, that the Hotel Gibbon (so-called from that celebrated infidel) has now become the very depository of the Bible Society, and the individual who superintends the building is an agent for the sale and receipt of the books. The very ground this illustrious scoffer often paced, has now become the scene of the operation and success of an institution established for the diffusion of the very book against which his efforts were directed.
An inattentive reader of the above paragraph could easily have mistaken it to mean that the Bible Society had acquired a property formerly owned by Voltaire. The building referred to by Snodgrass was in fact a hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, named after a completely different skeptic, the historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794). It seems reasonable to conclude that someone misread this 19th century document and began the Voltaire myth that continues to be “commonly reported until this day.”
That’s the closest thing to the truth of the story. Since atheists like to cite this as Christians trying to pass a story to prove their point, let’s make sure we have our facts straight, lest we “defend the truth with a broken sword.”
—Luke Griffin, Jacksonville, Alabama