The Aitken Bible
Also Known As "The Bible of the American Revolution"
The Only Bible Ever Printed with Congressional Approval &
The First English Bible Printed in America
Pastor David L. Brown, Ph.D.
Curator of the Christian Heritage Archives
According to P. Marion Simms book, The Bible In America, "three efforts to publish English Bibles in America failed ." This was due in part, because of the monopoly England held on printing the Bible in English. The Crown allowed no Bibles to be printed while America remained a collection of English Colonies. Bibles were imported freely from England and Holland. But, when the colonies declared their independence, Bible imports were curtailed. On September 11, 1777 the shortage of Bibles was brought to the attention of the Continental Congress by its chaplain, Dr. Patrick Allison. He said in his report that Bibles were urgently needed because, "The use of the Bible is so universal and its importance so great " While Congress passed a resolution, by one vote, to import 20,000 Bibles in English "from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere, into the different parts of the Union " it was never done.
This is where American patriot Robert Aitken enters the picture. Aitken was a native of Scotland, but came to America in 1769. He was a Quaker and he settled in Philadelphia and went into business as a bookseller and publisher, under the sign of the "Pope's Head" in Market Street, just three doors away from the Coffee House which was the unofficial gathering place of those who believed in the Revolutionary cause. Robert Aitken, with Richard Bache, Ben Franklin's son-in-law, published the "Philadelphia Magazine." Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary pamphleteer, was a frequent contributor. The first Congress engaged Aitken to publish the Journals of Congress. He narrowly escaped arrest and imprisonment by the British. I believe the hand of God was on him and instead, he remained at large, and was able to produce the "Bible of the American Revolution."
In 1777, by his own initiative Aitken managed to obtain both type and paper and produced a "small twelvemo" New Testament. Three more editions were printed in 1778, 1779 and 1781, the one in 1779 being for school purposes. Though his New Testaments filled an important need, on January 21, 1781, he asked Congress for both sanction and support for the production of a complete Bible.
A committee including Rev. John Witherspoon, and Thomas McKean received his petition and the Chaplains of Congress went to investigate Aitken's accuracy and performance to date, while the work was in process; they were favorably impressed, so a Resolution of Congress was adopted which states
That the United States in Congress assembled 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, and being satisfied from the above report of his care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they 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. CHA. THOMSON, Secy."
The Aitken Bible was printed with the approval of Congress. This was the first and only Bible ever to receive the formal blessing of Congress! The 1782 small duodecimo Aitken Bible (KJV) was a wholly American production; the type was that used for the previous Aitken New Testaments; the paper, tough and hard, was made in Pennsylvania. A writer in Freeman's Journal, published in Philadelphia, in 1780's, had this to say about this Bible: "Under all these disadvantages, a complete, and an accurate, and elegant edition of the Bible was published in this very city ."
Though 10,000 copies of Aitken's Bible were printed, today there are fewer remaining copies than existing copies of the Gutenberg Bible! It is one of the world's rarest books. It is not uncommon for one page of this Bible to sell for $400 or more.
I praise the Lord for the courage, initiative, tenacity and resourcefulness of Robert Aitken. He provided the first English New Testaments and Bibles for a new nation that desperately needed them!