The founding meeting took place among eight founders in the New York City office of Philip Schaff, in January 1880. Eighteen people attended the first annual meeting in June of that year. The society's ongoing activities include an annual meeting in North America that it claims is "the largest international gathering of biblical scholars". There are also annual regional meetings throughout the United States and an additional annual meeting held outside North America. The 2008 Annual meeting will be held in Boston, Massachusetts, November 21-25.
The society publishes several serials, including:
The SBL serves as the authorized North American distributor for books published by Sheffield Phoenix Press (SPP) and as the distributor for the Brown Judaic Studies Monograph Series (BJS). The society publishes a number of other monographic series, including Academia Biblica, Archaeology and Biblical Studies, Biblical Encyclopedia, Early Judaism and Its Literature, Global Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, History of Biblical Studies, Masoretic Studies, Reprints from Brill, JSOT Press, and Others, Resources for Biblical Study, Semeia Studies, Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Studies in Biblical Literature, Symposium, Text-Critical Studies, The New Testament in the Greek Fathers, Writings from the Ancient World and Writings from the Greco-Roman World.
The society provides some helpful electronic resources for biblical scholarship, including resources for teachers and students of all levels as well as clergy. The society's handbook of style provides guidelines for academic publications, including a detailed system of romanization of Hebrew. The society also distributes high-quality fonts for biblical languages free of charge on its web site. Some of the fonts are in the public domain, while others are offered to individual scholars for non-profit use only.
The society is active in technology research for biblical scholarship, maintaining affiliations with technical organizations such as OASIS and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the Open Scripture Information Standard.
"It appears that Frederic Gardiner of Berkeley Divinity School in Middletown, Connecticut, initiated conversations with Philip Schaff and Charles Augustus Briggs of Union Theological Seminary in New York about the need for such a group. The outcome was a preliminary meeting held in Schaff's study in New York City on the second of January, 1880, 'to take into consideration the formation of a Society for the promotion of study in Biblical Literature and Exegesis.' " James Strong of Drew Theological Seminary, and four other men, also attended this first meeting in Schaff's office.
The inaugural public meeting followed shortly, over the 4th and 5th of June. Among the eighteen who attended this meeting were Francis Brown and Joseph Henry Thayer. Schaff presented a paper titled 'The Pentecostal and the Corinthian Glossolalia'. Officers for the society were elected, the first president being Daniel Raynes Goodwin (1811–1890), who served for seven years until 1887. Goodwin had previously been president of Trinity College (Connecticut).
Over the following ten years scholars who joined the Society included: Henry Preserved Smith (1881), William Rainey Harper (1882), Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1882), George Foot Moore (1883), Ernest DeWitt Burton (1883), James Rendel Harris, Caspar René Gregory of Leipzig, Shailer Mathews and Nathaniel Schmidt.