The good people at 18th Century Bibles, craftsmen who preserve and reproduce historic Bibles and, in the process, hand off “historical accuracy of the great Christian literature of the 1700s” to posterity, cite today as the 232nd anniversary of Congress’ authorization of the Aitken Bible—the first English-language Bible to be printed in America. (However, I think the actual anniversary is September 12, per the Congressional resolution. Click here and scroll down.)
Here’s what 18th Century Bibles has to say:
Courtesy 18thCentury Bibles
Before the Revolution, it had been impossible to print an English language version of the Bible in the colonies, because no American printers held a license from the King granting permission to print the Bible. The war cut off shipments of Bibles from Great Britain, but also got rid of the need for the license; thereby creating a shortage of Bibles and the ability to print them in America. Robert Aitken stepped in to fill this void.
Beginning in 1777, Aitken began publishing and selling New Testaments. Aitken made the first New Testament printed in this country in 1777. After this first printing, he had to bury all of his equipment. The regulars were headed to Philadelphia and would have looked very unfavorably on any printer that they came across. Robert Aitken first advertised his New Testament for sale in the August 28, 1777 edition of the Pennsylvania Evening Post. The transcription of this ad is below:
“Just printed (bound and ready for sale) by R. Aitken, printer and bookseller, opposite the London Coffee-house, Frontstreet, a neat edition of THE NEW TESTAMENT for the use of schools, where may be had writing paper of different kinds, particularly letter paper of the first quality, and several hundreds of excellent quills.”
There are only three known copies of Aitken’s 1777 New Testament still in existence today. One can be found in the New York Public Library’s collection. Another belongs to the Philadelphia Historical Society. The last was auctioned off by Bloomsbury Auctions in London November, 2011 by an undisclosed seller. Demand was heavy, so every year, for the next five years, Aitken published a new edition of his New Testament. In total, he published five editions: Aitken’s second edition was published in 1778; his third in 1779; his fourth in 1780; and finally his last and fifth edition was published in 1781. I am unsure of the number of New Testaments Aitken printed each year, but I expect that it was somewhere between one thousand and ten thousand.
It was not until 1782 that Aitken had his first complete Bible. He printed his 1782 Old Testament and added it to his previously printed 1781 New Testament. I believe that Aitken planned ahead and printed about ten thousand additional New Testaments in 1781 and had them waiting to be bound with the ten thousand Old Testaments he printed in 1782. If you look at my web site, you will notice that the 1782 Bible’s New Testament title page is dated 1781, while the Old Testament is dated 1782. 1782, or maybe 1783, was the only year that the Aitken Bible was published. I am pretty sure that these Bibles were not available (bound) until 1783.
After the war, America was once again flooded with inexpensive Bibles from England. Aitken was stuck with way too many Bibles and was near financial ruin. The Presbyterian Synod stepped in and purchased Aitken’s remaining stock and gave them to the poor.
|My own photograph of an Aitken Bible, taken July 2011 at the American Bible Society in New York City.|