The Bible of the American Revolution
The British did not let Americans print English-language Bibles. Although the first book, The Bay Psalm Book, was printed in 1640, it was another 140 years before an English Bible was printed in America.
As long as the colonists were subject to British law, they could not print the King James Version, which was—and still is—copyrighted by the British Crown and can be printed only by license from the king or queen. When independence from Britain was declared, British law no longer governed the colonists. In addition, the war cut off imports of many goods, including Bibles.
A committee of the Continental Congress suggested in 1777 that “the use of the Bible is so universal and its importance so great” that Congress should order a printing of Bibles or “import twenty thousand Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere.” Bids were solicited from printers, but they were all too expensive. Because of the British army’s capture of Philadelphia and Congress’s lack of money, the Bibles were never imported.
Robert Aitken, a Philadelphia bookseller and one of the five printers who had bid on the Bible and who was already printing the Journals of Congress, printed a New Testament in 1777. He reprinted it several times. Encouraged by his success, Aitken asked for the financial support of Congress to print the entire Bible.
The money was never granted, but Aitken printed ten thousand copies of the complete Bible anyway in 1782, the first English Bible printed in America. In the front he reproduced a resolution passed by the Continental Congress on September 10, 1782:
The United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, . . . and . . . 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.
Today fewer than forty copies of Aitken’s Bible exist, making it one of the rarest books in the world. While these Bibles were being printed, the colonies were at war with England, and at one point Aitken had to bury the type in a barn to prevent British soldiers from destroying it.
Seven years later Aitken asked Congress to grant him the exclusive right to print Bibles in America for fourteen years. The request was denied, and by 1800 there were fifteen editions of the New Testament and twenty of the whole Bible in print from a variety of American printers.
There have been reports of earlier printings of the English Bible in America, most notably in an 1810 book on The History of Printing in America. But no confirmed copy of an earlier printing of the English Bible has ever been found.