The First English Bible Made in America
The first English Bible made in America was relatively small in dimensions. It measured but five and five-eighths inches by three and one-eighth inches. Printed in brevier type on American-made paper, it contained 726 leaves (1,452 pages). It is considered to be an excellent piece of printing with remarkably few divided words and with pages unmarred by "rivers" of blank space.
The edition consisted of 10,000 copies in which, as was the custom in small King James version Bibles, the books of the Apocrypha were omitted. The graceful title page carried the coat of arms of Pennsylvania. Below that was the designation "Printed and Sold by R. Aitken."
When the Aitken Bible was issued, the American Revolution was nearing its end. In 1783, Dr. John Rodgers, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New York, wrote to his friend General George Washington concerning the Aitken Bible. Rodgers suggested that copies of the Aitken Bible could be presented to each of the soldiers in the army when they were discharged.
General Washington replied that, unfortunately, this worthy suggestion came too late. Congress had already ordered the discharge of two-thirds of the army. The Father of Our Country lamented the fact that he would not be able to give a copy of the Aitken Bible to each of his men, writing:
Your Proposition respecting Mr Aikins Bible would have been particularly noticed by me, had it been suggested in season. But the late Resolution of Congress for discharging Part of the Army, takg off near two thirds of our Numbers, it is now too late to make the Attempt. 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.
Sacrifice and Perseverance
With the cessation of hostilities, trade was soon renewed with Britain and the Continent. For Robert Aitken, it meant that the sale of his Bible would be challenged by the importation of less expensive and more attractive copies of the Scriptures.
Aitken’s Presbyterian friends tried to encourage the exclusive purchase of his Bible within the Synod of New York and Philadelphia. Yet, his "Waste Book" records for the ensuing years indicate relatively small returns from their distribution.
Nevertheless, Aitken continued in the book business often producing very fine examples of the binder's art he had learned as a youth in Scotland. In 1785, he began a publication of the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, for which he and his daughter also produced many special bindings.
Many years later, in 1808, daughter Jane Aitken was to publish a four-volume Bible which contained the translation of the Greek Septuagint Old Testament. This work was written by Charles Thomson, who had served as secretary through the entirety of the Continental Congress, from 1774 until his retirement in 1789. His Bible was the first translation of that Greek text into English ever made.
Overcome by Competition
In 1789, Aitken appealed to Congress for a patent for the exclusive right to print Bibles in America for 14 years. It was denied. By that time, a number of American printers were publishing Testaments, and in 1790 the Rheims-Douay Bible of Mathew Carey and a smaller Bible by William Young were published, both in Philadelphia.
In 1791, Isaiah Thomas at Worcester and Isaac Collins at Trenton began their series of fine editions, and the American printing trade was well launched into the publication of the Scriptures. By 1800, there had been printed 24 editions of the whole English Bible and 48 of the New Testament, mostly in Philadelphia, Boston, Trenton, Wilmington, New York, and Worcester.
The sad picture of Robert Aitken's financial status a decade after his first memorial to Congress can be glimpsed in a communication he sent in 1791 to John Nicholson, at that time Receiver of general taxes for the state of Pennsylvania. As Aitken wrote:
I have calculated from my true loss by Continental money 3,000 and on the Edition of 10,000 Bibles 4000—owing to these you may readily figure my situation. My house is under mortgage for a considerable sum, a foreign debt, though not of its value. I have other debts to pay, not considerable—what I earn goes to pay them as soon as earned….
A Lasting Legacy
Upon the death of Robert Aitken in 1802, the Gazette of the United States in its issue of July 2nd said simply:
On the 14th in the 68th year of his age, Mr. Robert Aitken Sen. of this city, Printer: near 40 years a respectable inhabitant of this city; through the whole of an useful life regarded far his integrity and probity; and leaving behind him a family, carefully brought up in the paths of industry and virtue.
Today, of the original 10,000 copies of his Bible, only a few are known to exist. In 1940, the Rev. Edwin A. R. Rumball-Petre was able to locate 28 copies in institutions here and abroad and 22 in private collections. A more recent estimate places the number at only 32 copies in total, with three of these in private hands. Imagination alone may dare to suggest the fate of the rest.
In fact, the Aitken Bible has become one of the rarest books in the world. In addition, it has become one of the most highly sought after. An auction of one original Aitken Bible at Christie’s on June 14, 2018 yielded a winning payout of $118,750.
Indeed, with the passage of time has come an appreciation for what Aitken accomplished. Not forgotten is the Bible of the American Revolution, the only Bible approved by Congress, the only Bible recommended to Americans by our Founders, and the first English Bible made in America. Thus, the Aitken Bible stands as a most important marker of a most significant time in American history.
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.