The History of the Bible in America

William FedererBy William Federer13 Minutes

“Bible teaching … is ploughed into the very heart of the race” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

In colonial America, Bibles had to be imported from Britain as the British government strictly regulated the printing of religious materials. It was illegal to print Bibles in the English language without a license from the King. The first book printed in America was The Bay Psalm Book, in 1640, by Stephen Daye, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Used by Puritans in congregational worship, the complete title was: “THE WHOLE BOOKE OF PSALMES faithfully TRANSLATED into ENGLISH Metre, Whereunto is prefixed a discourse declaring not only the lawfulness, but also the necessity of the heavenly Ordinances of singing Scripture Psalmes in the Churches of God.”

In 1663, Missionary John Elliot printed the first Bible in the Western Hemisphere at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was in the Algonquin language spoken by the Wampanoag tribe. It would be 120 years later that the first complete Bible in the English language would be printed in America.

Queen Elizabeth I, in 1589, had granted Christopher Barker the title of Royal Printer. He had the exclusive “perpetual royal privilege” to print Bibles in England. His son, Robert Barker, assumed the position of the King’s Printer with the sole permission to print the King James “Authorized Version.” Unfortunately for him, Robert Barker did not adequately proof his 1631 edition, resulting in the word “not” being left out of the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” It became known as “The Wicked Bible.” Printing of it was immediately stopped and Robert Barker was thrown into prison.

By 1629, Oxford University and Cambridge University had acquired royal licenses to print revised editions of the Bible, and in 1633, so did a printer in Scotland.

The American Revolution

The Revolutionary War interrupted trade between the American colonies and the King’s “authorized printers” in Britain. This caused a shortage in America of the King James Authorized Version of the Bible, which was used extensively by clergy, courts of justice and in education. In July of 1777, three prominent 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 (a founder of University of Pennsylvania & University of Delaware),

–John Ewing (provost of University of Pennsylvania),

–William Marshalle (Scots Presbyterian Church, Associcate Presbytery of Pennsylvania).”

The Chaplain of Congress, Patrick Allison, Pastor of Philadelphia’s First Presbyterian Church, 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 the Continental Congress, September 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, September 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 September 26, 1777, British General William Howe occupied Philadelphia. Howe expected this would end the war, as the tradition in European warfare was that when a country’s capital was captured they would surrender.

The Aitken Bible

The war continued, though, and in 1780 another motion was presented to Congress pertaining to the printing of the Bible by James McLene, a delegate from Pennsylvania, and seconded by John Hanson, a delegate from 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.”

On January 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 …”

Robert Aitken continued:

“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:


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.'”