With the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1776, the importation of Bibles to the colonies abruptly ceased, promising as Amos put it, a “famine of the Word of God.” Presbyterian pastors Francis Allison and John Ewing of Philadelphia, with William Marshall of the Scots Presbyterian Church, petitioned Congress to insure the availability of the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments to the country. Bibles had been imported from Britain and Ireland. The church official considered the cost of the project, which was considerable, and persuaded the Continental Congress to import 20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland, and elsewhere. The British, it should be noted, took over Philadelphia; Presbyterian leaders had to flee in 1777.
Just before this, Robert Aitken, Presbyterian and Philadelphia printer, put out copies of the New Testament for use in the schools. This caught Congress’ favorable attention. But it took this Presbyterian printer of Philadelphia to persuade the new United States Congress to do something about the situation. The petition read like this:
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 Honors 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,
And as in Duty bound your Memorialist shall every pray
Philadelphia. 21, Jany. 1781.
Congress referred this matter to a Committee — note the early emergence of this practice — of which Princeton’s Presbyterian president John Witherspoon was a member. The Congress was given leeway to recommend this matter to the states.
Meanwhile Aitken himself petitioned the General Assembly of Pennsylvania for assistance to publish his “neat and correct edition of holy scriptures” for “private families” since “he did not have the means to do it by himself.” It took the printer months of petitioning in 1781 to catch the attention of Congress preoccupied with the revolution. Lord Cornwallis, by the way, surrendered to American forces in October 1781. Not until September 1782 did Congress request congressional chaplains to examine Aitken’s text.
The chaplains approved the text and were thanked by Congress, which resolved to authorize the printing of the first all-American Bible, September 10, 1782.
Unfortunately, an attempt to provide American soldiers this good book failed, but was appreciated by Commander-in-Chief, Virginian George Washington.
Shortly after the printer published the Bible in 1782, he sent copies to Congress and printed an advertisement in the Freeman Journal to promote his work:
Printer, Bookseller, Bookbinder and Stationer, at Pope’s Head in Market-street, near the Coffee-House, has just finished, and has now ready for sale, a new and very correct edition of
The Holy Bible:
With which Booksellers, Store keepers and others, in town and country, may be supplied by wholesale and retail on the most reasonable terms the times will permit.
The serious Christian will be pleased to find, that the scarcity of Bibles, of which he has so long has reason to complain, is now removed; and the patriot will rejoice at the advance in the arts, which has at length produced The First Edition of the Holy Scriptures, in the English language, ever printed in America …
Aitken is worth remembering on the 225th anniversary of his all American Bible, 1782.
See Minutes of the Presbyterian Church, USA, 1706-1788 praising Aitken’s work (p.582); T.C. Pears, “The Aitkens Bible, “ Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, XVIII, 6, (June, 1939), 225-239.
James H. Smylie is professor emeritus of church history at Union Seminary — PSCE in Richmond, Va.