The Aitken Bible and Congress
Prior to the American Revolution, the only English Bibles in the colonies were imported either from Europe or England. Publication of the Bible was regulated by the British government, and an English language Bible could not be printed without a special license from the British government; all English language Bibles had to bear the imprint of the Crown. However, other language Bibles were printed in America, including America’s first – the Eliot Bible (1661-1663), by John Eliot, the “Apostle to the Indians,” but his Bible was in the Massachusetts Indian language. Bibles could also be printed in French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, other Indian languages – just about anything but English.

Because English language Bibles could not be printed in America but had to be imported, when the Revolution began and the British began to blockade all materials coming to America, the ability to obtain such Bibles ended. Therefore, in 1777, America began experiencing a shortage of several important commodities, including Bibles. On July 7, a request was placed before Congress to print or import more, because “unless timely care be used to prevent it, we shall not have Bibles for our schools and families and for the public worship of God in our churches.” 1 Congress concurred with that assessment and announced: “The Congress desire to have a Bible printed under their care and by their encouragement.” 2 A special committee overseeing that project therefore recommended:

[T]he use of the Bible is so universal and its importance so great, . . . your Committee recommend that Congress will order the Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere, into the different ports of the States of the Union. 3

Congress agreed with the committee’s recommendation and ordered Bibles imported. 4 While those Bibles were ordered imported by Congress, there is no indication that any ever arrived.

(Interestingly, decades later in 1854, when a group claimed that the government was violating the separation of church and state by allowing government-sponsored religious activities in public, James Meacham of the House Judiciary Committee responded with a lengthy report refuting their claims. In so doing, he specifically cited that 1777 act of Congress, noting:

I do not deem it out of place to notice one act of many to show that Congress was not indifferent to the religious interests of the people and they were not peculiarly afraid of the charge of uniting Church and State. On the 11th of September, 1777, a committee having consulted with Dr. Allison [an early congressional chaplain] about printing an edition of thirty thousand Bibles, and finding that they would be compelled to send abroad for type and paper with an advance of £10,272, 10s [over $2 million in today’s currency], Congress voted to instruct the Committee on Commerce to import twenty thousand Bibles from Scotland and Holland into the different ports of the Union. The reason assigned was that the use of the book was so universal and important. Now, what was passing on that day? The army of Washington was fighting the battle of Brandywine; the gallant soldiers of the Revolution were displaying their heroic though unavailing valor; twelve hundred soldiers were stretched in death on that battlefield; Lafayette was bleeding; the booming of the cannon was heard in the hall where Congress was sitting [in Philadelphia] – in the hall from which Congress was soon to be a fugitive. At that important hour, Congress was passing an order for importing twenty thousand Bibles; and yet we have never heard that they were charged by their generation of any attempt to unite Church and State or surpassing their powers to legislate on religious matters. 5)

Four years later, in January of 1781, Robert Aitken (publisher of the Pennsylvania Magazine in Philadelphia) petitioned Congress for permission to print an English-language Bible on his presses in America rather than import the Bibles. In his memorial to Congress, Aitken said “your Memorialist begs leave to, inform your Honours That he both begun and made considerable progress in a neat Edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools” and went on to say “your Memorialist prays, that he may be commissioned or otherwise appointed & Authorized to print and vend Editions of, the Sacred Scriptures, in such manner and form as may best suit the wants and demands of the good people of these States.” 6 Congress appointed a committee 7 that was to “from time to time [attend] to his progress in the work; that they also [recommend] it to the two Chaplains of Congress to examine and give their opinion of the execution.” 8 The committee, comprised of Founding Fathers James Duane, Thomas McKean, and John Witherspoon, 9 reported back to Congress in September of 1782 giving its full approval. They also included assurances from the two chaplains of Congress that “Having selected and examined a variety of passages throughout the work, we are of opinion that it is executed with great accuracy as to the sense, and with as few grammatical and typographical errors as could be expected in an undertaking of such magnitude.” 10 Congress gave Aitken a ringing endorsement in the form of a congressional resolution to “publish this Recommendation in the manner he shall think proper” 11 to help sell and circulate the Bible. The complete text of this Congressional resolution is:

Whereupon,
RESOLVED,
THAT the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion, as well as an instance of the progress of arts in this country, and being satisfied from the above report of his care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorize him to publish this Recommendation in the manner he shall think proper. 12

Robert Aitken then proceeded to print his Bible, now known as the Aitken Bible or the Bible of the Revolution. That Bible – approved by the Founding Fathers in Congress – was the first English-language Bible to be printed in America. 13 Records show that of the 10,000 originally printed by Aitken, 30-40 total copies still exist (5-10 of which are in private hands); one of these existing Bibles is at WallBuilders.

(Incidentally, on May 30, 1783, the Rev. John Rodgers, a military chaplain and close friend of George Washington, suggested to his Commander-in-Chief that one of these congressionally approved Bibles be given to every member of the Continental Army. Washington was highly pleased with the suggestion but regretfully noted that Roger’s proposal had arrived too late – Congress had just disbanded the Continental Army, retaining only a skeleton force. Washington lamented:

Your proposition respecting Mr. Aitkin’s Bibles would have been particularly noticed by me – had it been suggested in season… It would have pleased me if Congress should have made such an important present to the brave fellows who have done so much for the security of their country’s rights and establishment. 14)

Of this Bible, and of Congress’ direct role in its creation and distribution, one early historian observed:

Who, in view of this fact, will call in question the assertion that this is a Bible nation? Who will charge the government with indifference to religion when the first Congress of the states assumed all the rights and performed all the duties of a Bible Society long before such an institution had an existence in the world! 15

You can view the Congressional actions concerning the Aitken Bible in the WallBuilders “Library” section here.


Endnotes

1. Letters of Delegates to Congress, Paul H. Smith, editor (Washington: Library of Congress, 1981), Vol. 7, p. 311, n1.

2. Letters of Delegates to Congress, Paul H. Smith, editor (Washington: Library of Congress, 1981), Vol. VII, p. 311, “Committee on Publishing a Bible to Sundry Philadelphia Printers,” July 7, 1777.

3. Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. VIII, p. 734, September 11, 1777.

4. Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. VIII, p. 735, September 11, 1777.

5. Reports of Committees of the House of Representatives, Made During the First Session of the Thirty-Third Congress (Washington: A. P. Nicholson, 1854), Vol. II, p. 126, “Rep. No. 124: Chaplains in Congress and in the Army and Navy,” March 27, 1854.

6. The Holy Bible as Printed by Robert Aitken and Approved & Recommended by the Congress of the United States of America in 1782 (New York: Arno Press, 1968), Introduction to this Aitken Bible reprint.

7. Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1912), Vol. XIX, p. 91, January 26, 1781.

8. Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. XXIII, pp. 572-573, September 12, 1782.

9. Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. XXIII, p. 572, September 12, 1782.

10. Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. XXIII, p. 573, September 12, 1782.

11. Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. XIII, p. 574, September 12, 1782; The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments (Philadelphia: Robert Aitken, 1782).

12. Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907), Vol. XIII, p. 574, September 12, 1782; The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments (Philadelphia: Robert Aitken, 1782).

13. “ The First English Language Bible Published in North America,” Library of Congress (accessed on March 29, 2012).

14. George Washington, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, John C. Fitzpatrick, editor (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1938), Vol. 27, p. 1, to John Rodgers on June 11, 1783.

15. W. P. Strickland, History of the American Society from its Organization to the Present Time (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1849), pp. 20-21.