American Bible Society to shutter $60 million Faith and Liberty Discovery Center


(RNS) — A $60 million museum that showcased the Bible’s role in American history will shut down less than three years after it opened.

The American Bible Society announced Wednesday (March 13) it will close the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia on April 1. The 40,000-square-foot museum, which cost a reported $60 million to build, opened in May 2021 in the Wells Fargo building on Independence Mall.

Leaders at the ABS had hoped the center, which was designed for “sharing the importance of the impact of Scripture on the development of the United States,” would draw a quarter million visitors a year, the Philly Voice reported in 2018, when the project was first made public.

“We want the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center to be a place that unites people, shows how faith has always played a role in our nation, and helps visitors consider what difference faith can make in our lives today,” Roy Peterson, then ABS president, said in 2018. 

The ABS cited the COVID-19 pandemic and “other factors impacting sustainability” in announcing the decision to close the center. The nonprofit did not immediately respond to questions about the costs of running the center or the number of staffers being laid off. 

“The FLDC as conceived was a wonderfully innovative idea,” Jennifer Holloran, who became president of ABS this month, told staff in an email, which was obtained by Ministrywatch, a Christian nonprofit watchdog group. “That idea came with big possibilities and requirements to allow it to be functional in the long run. Unfortunately, despite the valiant efforts of our FLDC leadership and team, we have not been able to achieve the long-term sustainability that an experience like that needs to be successful.”

Entrance to the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy FLDC)

Entrance to the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of FLDC)

The center — which includes exhibits titled “The Freedom of Faith,” The Spirit of Liberty” and “Struggling Towards Justice” — will remain open to the public until March 28, and tickets purchased for visits after that date will be refunded, according to the ABS.

Rob Wonderling, executive director of FLDC, said he was proud of the work done by the center’s staff. It is unclear how many staff from the center are being laid off due to its closing. 

“It has been an honor to serve the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center and witness the many ways it has spurred inspiration, engagement, and personal discovery over the years at the heart of Independence Mall,” said Wonderling, in a statement.

Founded in 1816, the ABS funds Bible translation and distribution and creates Bible resources so “all people may experience its life-changing message,” according to the nonprofit’s website.

The group, which sold its New York home in 2014 and relocated to Philadelphia, has experienced significant leadership churn over the past decade. In 2014, then-President Doug Birdsall was fired after six months on the job. He was succeeded by President Roy Peterson, who retired in 2019. Peterson’s successor was removed after two years. Several interim leaders were appointed to lead the ABS before Holloran was named president earlier this year.

A number of staffers quit the ABS in 2018, protesting new rules on sex and marriage. About 30 staffers were laid off last year, part of a “fundamental change” to the group’s model, according to Christianity Today magazine.

The American Bible Society, left, is headquartered in Philadelphia, along the Independence National Historical Park. (Image courtesy Google Maps)

The American Bible Society, left, is headquartered in Philadelphia, along the Independence National Historical Park. (Image courtesy of Google Maps)

ABS has long been one of the most fiscally successful religious charities in the country, with an annual revenue of more than $100 million and more than $600 million in investments, according to its 2022 financial disclosures, the latest available. However, questions have continued about the effectiveness of its management and ministry model. Forbes magazine once described the ABS as “a terrific example of how a nonprofit shouldn’t operate.”

Holloran told Christianity Today magazine earlier this year that the group’s “board and senior leaders have made great progress in refocusing the organization around its historic vision and mission.”

“American Bible Society is well positioned to come alongside the global Church in helping people understand the Word, grow deep roots, and truly become hearers and doers of the Word that produce fruit,” said Holloran, the first female president of the organization, when her new role was announced. “I’m excited to bring a fresh perspective to leading this historic organization as it continues to adapt to cultural and technological trends that create significant new challenges and thrilling opportunities.”

In a statement announcing the FLDC closing, Holloran said the center had “served as a place of exceptional learning and inspiration” and that ABS leaders “look forward to reimagining what the future of content could look like through a publicly accessible, digitized format.”

“We’re tremendously grateful for our local Philadelphia partners, for those who have contributed to its vision, and for the FLDC’s staff who have invested their hearts into serving every person who has walked through the doors,” she said.


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