The Gun Wad Bible
Each of the three printings of Martin Luther’s German Bible made by Christopher Saur and his son was a first.
The first printing in 1743 was the first European-language Bible printed in America. (The first Bible of any kind printed in America was in an Algonquin dialect.)
The second printing in 1763 was the first Bible printed on American-made paper.
And the third printing in 1776 was the first Bible printed from American-made type.
Christopher Saur, a creative and energetic immigrant in Germantown, now a part of Philadelphia, wanted to help Germans preserve their ethnic culture, and so he published a German-language newspaper, books, and for forty years an almanac. Benjamin Franklin also printed German-language material, but he used a Roman typeface. Sauer gained acceptance for his books by using imported German typefaces. For more than 25 years the Germantown congregation of Brethren met in Sauer’s home.
Sauer’s crowning achievement was 1,200 copies of a Bible printed in 1743 with type large enough so that it “may be easily read even by old Eyes." The cost of the Bible was 18 shillings, “but to the poor and needy we have no price.” He did not have the experience, training, or financial resources for such a large undertaking, but he proceeded with confidence “to the Glory of God and the Good of Mankind,” as a sign in his shop said.
German Christians in America were divided in their beliefs. In Sauer’s effort to print a Bible that all parties could use, he managed to print a Bible that most parties criticized, in part because Saur was seen as an “arch-Separatist.” Lutheran and Reformed clergy criticized typographical errors. Some
objected to a section of Job containing two German versions. Others objected to an appendix to the New Testament written by Saur himself. It took nearly 20 years for the first printing of the Bible to sell out.
His son, also Christopher, made a second printing in 1763 after his father’s death.
In 1776 sheets for a third printing were ready for the binder when British soldiers invaded Germantown and used the pages as bedding for their horses and to make cartridges for their guns—giving it the nick name “The Gun Wad Bible.” Christopher’s daughter, Catherine, saved ten copies for her family. Because he was a pacifist, Christopher Sauer refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new state of Pennsylvania. He was unfairly tried and his property, including his printing shop, was seized and sold at auction.