Bible of the Revolution: Among rarest of books

By Bill Federer

Bible of the Revolution
Bible of the Revolution

In colonial America, Bibles had to be imported from Britain, as the British government strictly regulated their printing. It was illegal to print Bibles in the English language without a license from the king. Licenses were only granted to Oxford and Cambridge University presses and a printer in Scotland.

The Revolutionary War interrupted trade with the king’s authorized printers in Britain, resulting in shortages of the King James Authorized Version, which was used by clergy, courts of justice and in education.

In July of 1777, three clergymen signed a petition to the Continental Congress:

To the honorable Continental Congress of the United States of North America now sitting in Philadelphia.

Honored Gentlemen, 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 public 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 honorable 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 sold. The number of purchasers is so great, that we doubt not but a large impression would soon be sold. … 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 be the means of promoting Christian knowledge in our churches. …

Our sincere prayers shall ever be for your welfare and prosperity, and we beg leave with the greatest respect to subscribe our selves. Honored Gentlemen, Your most obedient humble servants,
Francis Alison,
John Ewing,
William Marshalle

The chaplain of Congress, Patrick Allison, brought the issue to the attention of the Continental Congress, which referred it to a committee composed of John Adams, Daniel Roberdeau and Jonathan Bayard Smith.

The committee reported to Congress, Sept. 11, 1777, 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. …”

The committee recommended: “The use of the Bible is so universal and its importance so great that your committee refers the above to the consideration of Congress. … The Committee recommends that Congress will order the Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere, into the different parts of the States of the Union. Whereupon it was resolved accordingly to direct said Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 copies of the Bible.”

That same day, Sept. 11, 1777, Washington’s troops lost the Battle of Brandywine, retreating eventually to Valley Forge, and British General John Burgoyne’s troops were marching down from Canada.

In a panic, the Continental Congress evacuated Philadelphia before action could be taken on the Bible resolution, fleeing to the city of Lancaster, then to York, Pennsylvania.

On Sept. 26, 1777, British General William Howe occupied Philadelphia, expecting that the war would soon be over, as European countries surrendered when their capital was captured.

The war continued and in 1780 a motion pertaining to the printing of Bibles was again made in Congress by James McLene of Pennsylvania and seconded by John Hanson of Maryland:

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.

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On Jan. 21, 1781, Robert Aitken presented a “memorial” petition to Congress to publish the Bible:

To the Honorable The Congress of the United States of America,

The Memorial of Robert Aitken of the City of Philadelphia, Printer, Humbly Sheweth 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 Honors 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 Honorable 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, a Scottish immigrant, printed the Pennsylvania Magazine, which had 600 subscribers, with Thomas Paine as editor. In January of 1776, Robert Aiken began printing the journals of the Continental Congress. In early September, 1782, Robert Aitken sent a message to Congress informing them he had nearly completed his Bible, “accomplished in the midst of the Confusion and Distresses of War.”

Congress requested the chaplains of Congress review it:

Report of Committee of Congress on Mr. Aitken’s Memorial
By The United States Congress Assembled:
September 12th, 1782.

The Committee to whom was referred a Memorial of Robert Aitken, Printer, dated 21st January, 1781, respecting an edition of the Holy Scriptures, report, That Mr. Aitken has, at a great expense, now finished an American edition of the Holy Scriptures in English, that the Committee have from time to time attended to his progress in the work;

that they also recommended it to the two Chaplains of Congress to examine and give their opinion of the execution, who have accordingly reported thereon; the recommendation and report being as follows:

‘Philadelphia, 1st September, 1782.
Reverend Gentlemen,
Our knowledge of your piety and public spirit leads us without apology to recommend to your particular attention the edition of the Holy Scriptures publishing by Mr. Aitken.

He undertook this expensive work at a time when, from the circumstances of the war, an English edition of the Bible could not be imported, nor any opinion formed how long the obstruction might continue.

On this account particularly he deserves applause and encouragement.

We therefore wish you, Reverend Gentlemen, to examine the execution of the work, and if approved, to give it the sanction of your judgment, and the weight of your recommendation.

We are, with very great respect, Your most obedient humble servants.
(Sign’d) James Duane, Chairman in behalf of a Committee of Congress on Mr. Aitken’s Memorial.’

The two chaplains of Congress at this time were: Rev. George Duffield, pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, who helped form the Presbyterian Church in the United States; and Rev. William White, rector of Christ Church, who helped organize the Protestant Episcopal Church in America and was the first president of the Bible Society of Philadelphia – the first Bible Society in the United States.

Chaplains William White and George Duffield reported to Congress, Sept. 10, 1782:

Report of the Congressional Chaplains
Reverend Doct. White and Revd. Mr. Duffield,
Chaplains of the United States in Congress assembled.

Agreeably to your desire we have paid attention to Mr. Robert Aitken’s impression of the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament.

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.

Being ourselves witnesses of the demand of this invaluable book, we rejoice in this present prospect of a supply; hoping that it will prove as advantageous as it is honorable to the Gentleman, who has exerted himself to furnish it, at the evident risque of private fortune.
We are,
Your very respectful and humble servants,
(Sign’d) William White, George Duffield.
Philadelphia, September 10th, 1782.

On Sept. 12, 1782, Congress approved of Robert Aitken’s printing of the Bible. Called “the Bible of the Revolution,” it was the first English-language Bible printed in America and the only Bible ever authorized by an act of Congress:

Endorsement of Congress
Honble James Duane, Esq. Chairman, and the other Honble Gentlemen of the Committee of Congress on Mr. Aitken’s Memorial.

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 influence 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.
Cha. Thomson, Sec’ry.

Robert Aitken’s “Bible of the Revolution” is one of the rarest books. In 1940, the Rev. Edwin A.R. Rumball-Petre located 28 copies in institutions in America and abroad, and 22 in private collections.

Copies of the “Bible of the Revolution” are in the possession of the American Bible Society’s Museum of Biblical Art in New York; Houston Baptist University’s Dunham Bible Museum; and Hobby Lobby’s Green family which is planning on opening a museum in Washington, D.C. to display the Green collection – the world’s largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts.

Congress’ endorsement of Robert Aitken’s Bible was signed by the Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson, who had also signed the Declaration of Independence with John Hancock on July 4, 1776. Charles Thomson, with William Barton, designed the Great Seal of the United States.

When Charles Thomson retired from Congress, he spent 19 years researching and writing his “Thomson Bible,” a four-volume work containing the first American translation of the Greek Septuagint.

Charles Thomson’s Bible was printed in 1808 by Jane Aitken, the daughter of Robert Aitken, who had taken over her father’s printing business when he died on July 15, 1802.

This made Jane Aitken the first woman ever to print the Bible.

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