VANCOUVER, Wa., August 20, 2011—The American War of Independence and the Civil War brought untold destruction not just to property, but to people’s hopes and dreams. In this dark time the Bible emerged as the light that brought unity and restored hope to a new nation. Soldiers in the field had Bibles in their own language to read and to bolster their faith.
In the early days of the struggling American colonies, England refused to grant permission to the colonists to print the sacred text on the new continent. All Bibles were imported from England. This allowed appropriate taxes and revenues to be collected. The Continental Congress sought in vain to import 20,000 Bibles from Holland and Scotland.
However, the successful revolution and independence from England signaled a new era for printing Bibles. In 1777, an entrepreneur Scotsman, Robert Aitken, courageously set out to publish the first New Testament ever printed in America.
The first complete Bible in a small hand size hit the market in 1782. The printer’s quaint address listed on the title page reads, “Three doors above the coffee house, in Market street.” The “Bible of the Revolution” as it is called, received full congressional support, the first and only Bible ever to have such approval.
The statement issued by Congress and published in the Aiken Bible reads:
“Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aiken [sic], as subservient to the interests of religion, as well an instance of the progress of arts in this country, and … 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 printing of Bibles in the colonies ensured that all who could afford them could have Bibles of their own. However, cash money was often in short supply. In order to assure that potential buyers could afford the purchase, Bible printer Isaiah Thomas advertised large family Bibles for sale with interesting terms of payment. Placed in the December 10, 1789 edition of a local newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy, his ad provides a lengthy description of the beauty and size of this Bible, then says:
“To make payment easy to those who wish to be encouragers of this laudable undertaking, and to be in possession of so valuable property as a Royal Quarto Bible, and who are not able to pay for one all in cash—from such the Publisher will receive one half of the sum or 21 shillings, in the following articles, viz. Wheat, Rye, Indian Corn, Butter, or Pork, if delivered at his store in Worcester, or at the store of himself and Company in Boston, by the 10th day of December, 1790: the remaining sum of 21 shillings to be paid in Cash, as soon as the books are ready for delivery. This proposal is made, to accommodate all, notwithstanding the sum of 21 shillings will by no means be the portion of cash that each Bible bound, will cost the Publisher.”
Near the end of the Revolutionary War, Presbyterian minister Dr. John Rogers suggested that a copy of the Aitken Bible be given to each member of the Continental Army. The proposal found favor with George Washington, but with his army disbanding, he thought it would not be financially responsible to approve such a measure.
Washington’s letter describing his thoughts on this is a classic document of the history of the Bible in America. Dated June 11, 1783, the letter was featured in facsimile in The Bible of the Revolution, published by the Grabhorn Press for John Powell in 1930. In it Washington writes:
“Your Proposition respecting Mr. Aitkin’s 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, taking 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 & Establishment.”
The Bible came to America with the pilgrims in the early 17th century as they sought a new life in a new land. The struggle for survival in a land of harsh climate, the constant diligence to remain free, and the hope to enjoy freedom of belief came with a cost. But their faith survived, their resolve never wavered, and the dream of Bibles easily available in their own language became a Revolutionary reality.
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