The Only Bible Recommended to Americans
On January 21, 1781, it seemed at last to have been an opportune time for Robert Aitken to present to Congress a memorial on the first English Bible to be made in America.
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.
And as in Duty bound your Memorialist shall every pray
Philadelphia. 21, Jany. 1781.
An Appointed Printer
Of course, by this point, Robert Aitken was no stranger to the respected gentlemen of Congress. Years earlier, from September 1776 until May 1778, he had served as the appointed printer for the Journals of Congress.
In December 1776, when the Continental Congress retreated to Baltimore, they sent an "express" to Aitken 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.
Presently, on January 26, 1781, Robert Aitken's memorial to Congress for aid in printing the Bible was referred to "the committee on the Motion for Printing the Old and New Testament," but it would be over 18 months before any action was taken on it.
On September 1, 1782, the committee appointed by Congress to consider Aitken's project learned the completed Bible was almost ready for publication. At last, the representatives took action by requesting the Chaplains of Congress to examine the proposed edition for accuracy.
The Chaplains of Congress
The two Chaplains of Congress were distinguished citizens of Philadelphia—from different denominations—a sign the American Congress, unlike their British counterparts, would not favor one religious group over another.
The first chaplain, Rev. Dr. William White, rector of Christ Church, was instrumental in organizing the Protestant Episcopal Church in America. He later became the first president of the Bible Society of Philadelphia, the first Bible Society established in the United States.
The second chaplain, the Rev. George Duffield, was pastor of the Third Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. After the war, he 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 First American Bible
The Chaplains of Congress, Dr. White and Mr. Duffield, gave a favorable report on September 10, 1782, praising Aitken's Bible for its "great accuracy". 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 declared they “highly approve 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…." In addition, our Founders continued, “they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States….”
Furthermore, Congress graciously authorized Aitken “to publish this recommendation in any manner he shall think proper." Aitken thought it proper to print the official documents in his Bible, immediately following the title page.
Thus, Atiken published his Bible on September 25th, 1782. That day Aitken 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."
On that same day, Aitken sent a parcel to John Hanson, then president of the Congress. The item included was for the use of that body and as an example of the work they had honored with their patronage. Inside the package, the president of the Congress found a special copy of the Aitken Bible—the only Bible recommended to Americans by our Founders.
Adapted from the following source: Hills, Margaret T., The English Bible in America, New York: American Bible Society and The New York Public Library, 1961.