The First American Bible
(An Historical Preface)
Margaret T. Hills
Former Secretary for
Research of The American Bible Society 1968 Arno Press
The War of the American Revolution had entered its third year. Since the fateful firing
of the "first shot" on Lexington Green, the Continental Congress, sitting in
Philadelphia, had been required to make many crucial decisions, both military and
political. Now, in July 1777, a petition signed by three clergymen was placed before that
dedicated body of colonial representatives calling for a determination of an entirely
To the honourable Continental Congress of the United States of North
America now sitting in Philadelphia.
We the Ministers of the Gospel of Christ in the City of Philadelphia,
whose names are under written, taking it into our serious consideration that in our
present circumstances, books in general, and in particular, the holy Scriptures contained
in the old and new Testaments are growing so scarce and dear, that we greatly fear that
unless timely care be used to prevent it, we shall not have bibles for our schools and
families, and for the publick worship of God in our churches.
We therefore think it our duty to our country and to the churches of
Christ to lay this danger before this honourable house, humbly requesting that under your
care, and by your encouragement, a copy of the holy Bible may be printed, so as to be sold
nearly as cheap as the common Bibles, formerly imported from Britain and Ireland, were
The number of purchasers is so great, that we doubt not but a large
impression would soon be sold, But unless the sale of the whole edition belong to the
printer, and he be bound under sufficient penalties, that no copy be sold by him, nor by
any retailer under him, at a higher price than that allowed by this honourable house, we
fear that the whole impression would soon be bought up, and sold again at an exorbitant
price, which would frustrate your pious endeavours and fill the country with just
We are persuaded that your care and seasonable interposition will
remove the anxious fears of many pious and well disposed persons; would prevent the
murmurs of the discontented; would save much money to the United States; would be the
means of promoting Christian knowledge in our churches, and would transmit your names with
additional honour to the latest posterity.
Our sincere prayers shall ever be for your welfare and prosperity, and
we beg leave with the greatest respect to subscribe our selves
Your most obedient humble servants
Referred to a committee composed of John Adams, Daniel Roberdeau and
Jonathan Bayard Smith, the petition was not reported upon until September 11th. On that
day, General Washington was fighting the Battle of the Brandywine and General John
Burgoyne was on his way toward Saratoga. Before long, Philadelphia would he occupied by
the troops of General Sir William Howe and Congress itself would flee to Lancaster and
then to York.
In its report, the committee stated that it had "conferred fully
with the printers, etc. in this city and are of the opinion, that the proper types for
printing the Bible are not to be had in this country, and that the paper cannot be
procured, but with such difficulties and subject to such casualties as render any
dependence on it altogether improper . . ." It recommended, therefore, that Congress
"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."
When the motion carried by the narrowest of margins, seven to six, a
subsequent motion was immediately passed ordering "that the consideration thereof be
postponed to Saturday next." However, since nothing more is known concerning this
resolution, it is doubted whether the beleaguered Congress ever took steps to effect its
Isaiah Thomas, the first historian of American printing, reported that
by 1775 there were fifty presses in the Colonies. Why then should the proposal of three
Philadelphia clergymen receive such careful consideration from a Continental Congress
harassed by the demands of a war whose tide had yet to be turned from overwhelming defeat
Prior to the War of the Revolution, there had been no publication of
the English Bible in the Colonies. All demands for Scriptures had to be met by importation
from England and the Continent. It is true, of course, that there was a scarcity of the
type and paper necessary for the successful publication of a book as large as the Bible.
Most of the presses were used for the impression of documents, proclamations, pamphlets
and papers. But there was a far more serious consideration that kept it from being printed
by an American printer. It was, in fact, illegal for any printer in the Colonies to
produce the English Bible.
Publication of the Scriptures in any lands under the British crown was
restricted; in order to insure accuracy in printing, to the Oxford and Cambridge
University Presses and to one other printer licensed by the king. In Scotland, special
licenses were required.
There is, however, the fascinating story that an edition of the English
Bible and several Testaments were printed in Boston about 1750. But no copy has ever been
satisfactorily identified, for the paper and type would have been imported and, according
to the story, a British imprint was employed.
While the Royal License applied only to the publication of the text of
the King James Bible, without comment, there seems to have been no restriction on
annotated editions. But these publications were usually large and elaborate, filled with
engravings. They were, consequently, expensive and had to be financed by subscription.
Several such projects had been proposed in the Colonies but had foundered for lack of
Also, inasmuch as the restriction did not apply to the printing of
Bible translations, a complete translation by John Eliot, printed in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, in 1663 for the Indians of that area, and three editions of the German
Bible, printed by Christopher Saur and his sons in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1743, 1763
and I 776, were the only known publications of the Holy Bible in colonial America until
the closing years of the War of the Revolution.
In 1780, another motion pertaining to the printing of the Scriptures
was made in Congress:
Resolved: That it be recommended to such of the States who may think it
convenient for them that they take proper measures to procure one or more new and correct
editions of the old and new Testament to be printed and that such states regulate their
printers by law so as to secure effectually the said books from being misprinted.
Introduced by James McLene of Pennsylvania and seconded by John Hanson
of Maryland, nothing more substantial is known to have developed from this recommendation
than resulted from the clerical petition three years earlier. However, on January 21,
1781, it seemed at last to have been an opportune time for Robert Aitken to present the
following memorial to Congress:
To the Honourable The Congress
of the United States of America
The Memorial of Robert Aitken
of the City of Philadelphia, Printer
That in every well regulated Government in Christendom The Sacred Books
of the Old and New Testament, commonly called the Holy Bible, are printed and published
under the Authority of the Sovereign Powers, in order to prevent the fatal confusion that
would arise, and the alarming Injuries the Christian Faith might suffer from the Spurious
and erroneous Editions of Divine Revelation. That your Memorialist has no doubt but this
work is an Object worthy the attention of the Congress of the United States of America,
who will not neglect spiritual security, while they are virtuously contending for temporal
blessings. Under this persuasion 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, But being cautious of suffering his copy of the Bible to Issue forth
without the sanction of Congress, Humbly prays that your Honours would take this important
matter into serious consideration & would be pleased to appoint one Member or Members
of your Honourable Body to inspect his work so that the same may be published under the
Authority of Congress. And further, 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, provided the same be in all things perfectly consonant to the Scriptures as
heretofore Established and received amongst us.
Robert Aitken was no stranger to the respected gentlemen of Congress.
In January 1776, he began printing the journals of Congress, and when, in December of that
year, the Continental Congress retreated to Baltimore, they sent an "express" to
him requesting that he bring his press and utensils at public expense to Baltimore where
he might locate and continue his engagement with Congress. But Aitken decided to remain in
Philadelphia where he had settled after arriving from Scotland in 1769.
Born in Dalkeith, near Edinburgh, in 1734 (or 1735), Aitken had learned
the art of bookbinding and gone into the book business in Paisley. When he was about
thirty-five years old, he left his wife and three children behind while he came to America
to investigate the prospects of publishing and selling books here.
Shortly after his arrival in Philadelphia, he advertised for sale, for
ready money only, a long list of "the very best books" and ordered printed two
books -- a Shorter Catechism and A Dialogue between Jockey and Maggy, or How to
Court a Country Girl. These appeared with his imprint (but without printer
identification) in 1770. Evidently satisfied with the outlook, he returned home to
Scotland in November and by May 10, 1771, was back in Philadelphia with his wife, Janet,
and two children, Jane and Robert, Jr., his third child having died while he was in
Aitken set up shop in Philadelphia on Front Street, nearly opposite the
London Coffee H6use, with stock he had purchased for fifty pounds. The list of stock as of
June 11, 1771, is shown in his "Waste Book", a large folio (now with the
Pennsylvania Historical Society) which covers his accounts from 1771 to 1802. The
wide-ranging list includes, in addition to books and stationery items, yard goods, silver
knee buckles, needle cases, a bird cage, six gilt school Bibles at five shillings, and
twelve Pocket School Bibles at six shillings three pence. He thus established himself in
Philadelphia as a bookseller and soon thereafter as a publisher and binder.
In January 1775, he began publication of a sophisticated monthly, The
Pennsylvania Magazine, with Thomas Paine as editor and a subscription list of six
hundred. Each issue was a large octavo-size magazine of forty-eight pages, and it has been
described as one of the most attractive of early American periodicals.
It was in 1777 that Aitken decided to test the market with a New
Testament, a small book of ~ pages, measuring five and a half by three and an eighth
inches. Other editions of 1778 and 1779 are recorded but according to The English Bible
in America, no copies are known to he in existence. Subsequently, other publishers in
America followed his lead with their editions of New Testaments:
- 1779 Isaac Collins, Trenton
- 1780 Thomas and Fleet, Boston
- Hall and Sellers, Philadelphia
- Francis Bailey, Philadelphia
- Isaac Collins, Trenton
- 1781 James Adams, Wilmington, Delaware
While Aitken's "Waste Book" shows sales of Testaments in the
last few days of August 1777, there are no more entries until after the British had left
Philadelphia in June of 1778. Then, on July 18th, he advertised in the Pennsylvania
Evening Post a new "neat" edition of the New Testament, just published, and
sales reappear in this "Waste Book".
Robert Aitken's memorial to Congress for aid in printing the Bible was
referred on January 26, 1781, to "the committee on the Motion for Printing the Old
and New Testament," but it was some months before any action was taken on it. In the
meantime, in the autumn of that same year, Aitken petitioned the General Assembly of the
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to render him monetary assistance. After a prolonged series
of delays, on March 15, 1782, it was resolved by that body --
That the sum of one hundred and fifty pounds, be given on loan, to the
said Robert Aitken, in small sums, and at such times as will be most convenient for paying
the same, free of interest, for the space of one year, from the date of the receipt of
such sum or sums as he may receive.
Ironically, it is not recorded whether Robert Aitken ever took
advantage of this long-sought-after offer of assistance.
On September 1, 1782, the committee appointed by Congress to consider
Aitken's project, having learned the completed Bible was almost ready for publication, at
last took action by requesting the Chaplains of Congress to examine the proposed edition
The two Chaplains of Congress were distinguished citizens of
Philadelphia. The Rev. Dr. William White, rector of Christ Church, was instrumental in
organizing the Protestant Episcopal Church in America and later became the first president
of the Bible Society of Philadelphia, the first Bible Society established in the United
States. The other chaplain, the Rev. George Duffield, was pastor of the Third Presbyterian
Church in Philadelphia and after the war was to be one of the leaders in the formation of
the Presbyterian Church in the United States.
But before the report of the Chaplains was received, Aitken himself
sent another memorial to Congress. Dated September 9th, it declared that his Bible,
"accomplished in the midst of the Confusion and Distresses of War," had at last
been completed. In seeking the aid of Congress, he suggested their purchase of a portion
of the edition on the account of the United States: "One Fourth of it will Amount to
200 Bibles for each State..."
The Chaplains of Congress, Dr. White and Mr. Duffield, made their
report on September 10, 1782. Two days later, on the 12th, the Committee reported to
Congress, submitting copies of both their request to the Chaplains and the Chaplains'
report. The same day Congress approved 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 recommended his Bible to the American people,
graciously authorizing him to publish the recommendation "in any manner he shall
Aitken thought it proper to print the three documents in his Bible,
immediately following the title page, as the reader will discover in the facsimile to
which this essay serves as an introduction.
Aitken's Bible was not issued until September 25th when he sent a
special copy to John Hanson, then president of the Congress, for the use of that body and
as an example of the work they had honored with their patronage. On the same day, he
placed an advertisement of his Bible, just below the full text of the action of the
Congress and the Committee reports, in the Freeman's Journal, a periodical
established in 1781 whose masthead claimed that it was "Open to all parties but
influenced by none."
The first English Bible printed in this country, as well as the first
Bible to be recommended to the people by the Congress of the United States, was relatively
small in dimensions. It measured but five and five-eighths inches by three and one-eighth
inches. Printed in brevier type on American-made paper, it contained 726 leaves (1,452
pages). It is considered to be an excellent piece of printing with remarkably few divided
words and with pages unmarred by "rivers" of blank space.
The edition consisted of ten thousand copies in which, as was the
custom in small King James version Bibles, the books of the Apocrypha were omitted. The
graceful title page carried the coat of arms of Pennsylvania and the New Testament showed
Robert Aitken's initials, R.A., in script letters below the Order of Books on the back of
the title page.
When the Aitken Bible was issued, the War of the Revolution was nearing
its end. In 1783, Dr. John Rodgers, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New York,
wrote to General Washington suggesting that copies of Aitken's Bible be presented to each
of the soldiers in the army when they were discharged. General Washington replied that
this worthy suggestion came too late, for Congress had already ordered the discharge of
two-thirds of the army. He added:
It would have pleased me well, if Congress had been pleased to make
such an important present to the brave fellows who have done so much for the security of
their country's rights and establishment.
With the cessation of hostilities, trade was soon renewed with Britain
and the Continent. For Robert Aitken it meant that the sale of his Bible would be
challenged by the importation of less expensive and more attractive copies of the
Scriptures. And despite the efforts of his Presbyterian friends to encourage the exclusive
purchase of his Bible within the Synod of New York and Philadelphia; his "Waste
Book" records for the ensuing years indicate relatively small returns from their
Nevertheless, Aitken continued in the book business often producing
very fine examples of the binder's art he had learned as a youth in Scotland. In 1785, be
began a publication of the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, for
which he and his daughter also produced many special bindings. Many years later, in 1808,
Jane Aitken was to publish a four-volume Bible which contained the translation of the
Greek Septuagint Old Testament by Charles Thomson after his retirement as secretary of
Congress in 1789-the first translation of that Greek text into English ever made.
In 1789, Aitken appealed to Congress for a patent for the exclusive
right to print Bibles in America for fourteen years. It was denied. By that time, a number
of American printers were publishing Testaments, and in 1790 the Rheims-Douay Bible of
Mathew Carey and a smaller Bible by William Young were published, both in Philadelphia. In
1791, Isaiah Thomas at Worcester and Isaac Collins at Trenton began their series of fine
editions, and the American printing trade was well launched into the publication of the
Scriptures. By 1800, there had been printed twenty-four editions of the whole English
Bible and forty-eight of the New Testament, mostly in Philadelphia, Boston, Trenton,
Wilmington, New York and Worcester.
The sad picture of Robert Aitken's financial status a decade after his
first memorial to Congress can be glimpsed in a communication he sent in 1791 to John
Nicholson, at that time Receiver of general taxes for the state of Pennsylvania:
I have calculated from my true loss by Continental money 3,000 and
on the Edition of 10,000 Bibles 4000 -- owing to these you may readily figure my
situation. My house is under mortgage for a considerable sum, a foreign debt, though not
of its value. I have other debts to pay, not considerable--what I earn goes to pay them as
soon as earned...
Of the ten thousand copies of Robert Aitken's Bible, only a few are
known to exist today. In 1940, the Rev. Edwin A. R. Rumball-Petre was able to locate
twenty eight copies in institutions here and abroad and twenty two in private collections.
Of the others, imagination alone may dare to suggest their fate.
On his death in 1802, the Gazette of the United States in its
issue of July 2nd said simply:
On the 14th in the 68th year of his age, Mr. Robert Aitken Sen. of this
city, Printer: near 40 years a respectable inhabitant of this city; through the whole of
an useful life regarded far his integrity and probity; and leaving behind him a family,
carefully brought up in the paths of industry and virtue.