Robert Aitken immigrated from Scotland to settle in Philadelphia just as the American Revolution was brewing. There he opened a bookshop and, with the help of Ben Franklin’s son-in-law Richard Bache, began publication of “The Pennsylvania Magazine.” By 1776, Aitken was the official printer of the Journals of Congress for the Continental Congress.
Aitken was soon disturbed at the lack of Bibles available to his countrymen, and he took immediate action to correct the problem. In 1782 he produced the first complete English-language Bible printed in America. It was also the first and only Bible ever authorized by a U.S. Congress. The story of how this Bible came to be is an interesting walk back in time to a critical point in American history, and its significance goes far beyond the scope of any religious book.
When the colonies declared their independence, England cut off their supply of books in general, and Bibles in particular. As long as the United States remained under British rule, the British government also forbid Americans to print their own Bibles. Only a handful of printers, all located in England, were authorized by the crown to do so. By 1777 there was a severe shortage of Bibles in America.
On September 11, 1777, this shortage of Bibles was brought to the attention of the Continental Congress by its chaplain, Dr. Patrick Allison. He reported that Bibles were urgently needed because, “the use of the Bible is so universal and its importance so great.” On his advice, Congress passed a resolution to import 20,000 English Bibles “from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere,” mostly because materials needed to produce an American version were very difficult to obtain.
At this point, the continuing war with England was the first priority for Congress, and their time was so consumed in dealing with it that no action was taken on the Bible issue. Soon a second motion was made to import Bibles, but was postponed, never to be considered again.
In January of 1781, Aitken petitioned Congress to authorize and if possible even fund the printing of his version of the King James Bible. He also asked them to certify his work to be accurate compared with the original. Congress agreed to his request, partially to help the American printing industry. This was a bold move on their part as Aitken’s printing of the Bible was still technically illegal.
In September, 1782, a committee appointed to consider Aitken’s petition asked the two Chaplains of Congress to examine his Bible for accuracy. Based upon the resulting report, the Congress of the Confederation approved and recommended his Bible to the American people in the following resolution:
“…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.” (Congressional Resolution, September 10, 1782)
Although they had the Bible checked for accuracy, and they recommended it’s production, Congress stopped short of funding the project. Therefore, Aitken used his own money to produce the Bible. This is, however, the only instance in history of a U.S. Congress authorizing the printing of a Bible. Years later that session was often mockingly referred to as “The Bible Congress.”
Aitken’s Bible was small enough to fit in a pocket. It measured 6 inches tall by just under 4 inches wide and was a thoroughly American product. It was printed in Philadelphia on a thick grade of wood-pulp paper (cotton was considered too expensive) made in Pennsylvania, and using an early American movable-type press. These words were printed on the first page of every one: “Congress ‘recommend[s] this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States.'”
Aitken sent a special copy to President of Congress John Hanson, both to show Congress the book they had approved, and to provide them with scripture for use during their sessions. In 1783, after Aitken’s Bible was distributed throughout the newly-formed states, Dr. John Rodgers contacted General George Washington suggesting that every Revolutionary veteran be given a copy of the Bible when they were discharged. Since 2/3 of the army had already gone home, the suggestion arrived a bit too late.
Washington regretted the missed opportunity, though. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “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.”
Although 10,000 copies of the Aitken Bible were printed, the first printing is extraordinarily scarce today. Estimates place the number of copies remaining at 30-40, with less than a dozen held privately. The last copy of Aitken’s Bible sold at auction brought $57,000 (in 2008). It remains one of the world’s rarest books, even harder to obtain than a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.
The Aitken Bible was more than just the first English language religious book printed in a new nation. It symbolized a final separation from England and her laws, as well as the right of every American to worship freely, not under the control of government restrictions. More American versions of the Bible soon followed, but Robert Aitken’s version remained the only one ever printed with Congressional approval.