The Aitken Bible—AKA The “Congress Bible”

America: “A Christian people!–Not merely a sober, industrious people, without religion, if such could be expected, but distinctively a Christian people.”–1840; M. I. Motte.

THE CONGRESS BIBLE. “A History of the Aitken, or Congress Bible, Which Was the First American Edition of the Scriptures.” “A correspondent of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, who signs himself “Penn,” gives the following interesting story concerning the Aitken Bible, sometimes called the “Congress Bible,” copies of which are occasionally offered in the sales of rare books: (2) (3)

During the years when the Continental Congress held its sessions in this city, Robert Aitken, (1734–1802) whose printing office was near the London Coffee House, at Front and Market streets, was known as a publisher of reputation in point of stability and enterprise. One of his undertakings in the year after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence was the publication of an edition of the New Testament. The time when it made its appearance seems to have been not long before the arrival of the British under Howe.

GERMAN EDITION PUBLISHED HERE.

Although the Christopher Sauer edition of the Bible in German had already been published here, or at Germantown, there had been no English edition. Some printers had projected such a work, but had been unable to overcome the difficulties of organizing a printery that would be equal to it, or of obtaining enough subscriptions to guarantee them against loss. These difficulties were even recited to the Continental Congress as a reason why it should do something to put the Bible in the hands of the people.

A memorial signed by the Rev. Dr. Allison and others was laid before the members, urging them to take action to that end; a committee was appointed to look into the matter, and this committee reported a recommendation in favor either of importing the necessary type and other material for an edition of thirty thousand copies, or of buying twenty thousand in Holland, Scotland or elsewhere and distributing them in the States of the Union.

THE AITKEN EDITION.

The vote on this report, as taken by States, was seven in favor of it and six against it; and it was about this time that Aitken published his edition of the New Testament—an edition which went to press on at least three subsequent occasions in the course of the Revolution.

Toward the close of the war this publisher resolved to print the entire Holy Scriptures. He asked Congress formally for encouragement and support, and enlisted the aid of members of the local clergy in behalf of the project. How hazardous the venture was at that time is to be inferred from his statement that on one occasion he had to remove his type hastily out of the city and bury it under a barn in order to save it from destruction by British soldiers.

But Aitken, who was a Scotchman by birth, was a man not easily turned from any purpose to which he had committed himself; he was known as one of the leading booksellers of Philadelphia, and he deliberately faced the risks of a publication which would have been hard to carry out even in times of peace.

Aitken was obliged to encounter all the uncertainties and embarrassments of a condition of war, not knowing at what time the enemy might come back and again occupy the city. It is, therefore, remarkable that he should have executed his purpose, as he did, before the Revolution was at an end, in spite of the scarcity of type and what was then called, to use our modern phrase, the high cost of living.

CONGRESS APPROVES EDITION.

It was this Aitken edition of the Bible which received the official approval of the American Congress while in session at the State House in that city. Aitken, it seems, had sent thither a petition for the co-operation or sanction of Congress; it was referred to a committee which consisted of James Duane, Thomas McKean and the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, who was already a man of eminence in the Presbyterian pulpit, and they at once consulted with the chaplains of Congress, both of whom were Philadelphians—one the Rev. George Duffield, (Grandson’s Bio) of the Old Pine Street Presbyterian church, and the other, the Rev. Dr. William White, of Christ church, afterwards the famous bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church.

These reverend gentlemen were informed that in recognition of their piety and public spirit, it had been thought proper to ask them to give their particular attention to Mr. Aitken’s edition of the Holy Scriptures, in order that the committee might have the benefit of their personal and professional judgment. In the communication that was addressed to them, they were told that Aitken had undertaken 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. {Chas. Thomson signed the page shown at the left.  Note: More information regarding Secretary Thomson may be found at the end of this article.}

It was thought that, on this account, he particularly deserved applause and encouragement. ‘We therefore wish you, reverend gentlemen,’ said the committee, ‘to examine the execution of the work, and, if approved, to give it the sanction of your judgment and the weight of your recommendation.’ It had apparently been understood, however, that Congress was not to pay for the publication or to assume any financial responsibility, and at no time did it do so, so far as is now known.

RESOLUTION ENDORSING PUBLICATION.

The two clergymen in question promptly reported that they had given attention to what they called ‘Mr. Robert Aitken’s impression of the Holy Scriptures,’ that they had selected and examined a variety of passages throughout the work, and that they were satisfied that it had been executed with as few grammatical and typographical errors as could be expected in a book of such magnitude.

It has not infrequently been said that the Congress ‘ordered’ the publication of this Bible, and every now and then some one with more zeal than the sense of fact or truth even goes so far as to say that it was ‘published’ by Congress as if it were an official edition for the use of the people. But the words of the two clergymen leave no possible room for any intelligent doubt on that point, even if it were not known that Aitken himself – referred to the subject in similar terms.

Being ourselves witness,’ said the committee, ‘of the demand for the invaluable book, we rejoice in the present prospect of a supply, hoping that it will prove as advantageous as it is honorable to the gentleman who has exerted himself to furnish it at the evident risk of his private fortune.’

But while Congress did not pay for it or publish it, the course which that body did take would now be regarded as extraordinary. It passed a resolution endorsing the publication. Thus it was resolved that ‘the United States Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken as subservient (sic) to the interests of religion, as well as the progress of the arts in this country, and being satisfied from the above report (Duffield and White’s) 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.’

The Resolution:

Philadelphia, September 10, 1782.

Honorable James Duane, Esq. Chairman, and the other honorable gentlemen of the Committee of Congress on Mr. Aitken’s memorial.

WHEREUPON, RESOLVED,

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 influence 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, Sec’ry.

BIBLE PUBLISHED IN 1782.

To the Aitken Bible or ‘Congress Bible,’ as it has sometimes been called, public attention was assiduously directed. Published in the autumn of 1782, the title page contained the words, ‘Newly Translated out of the Original Tongues, and with the Former Translations Diligently Compared and Revised. Philadelphia: Printed and Sold by R. Aitken at the Pope’s Head, three doors above the Coffee House in Market street.’ Some copies were bound in two volumes and others in one; the type was brevier, and each page measured six inches long and three and a half inches wide. The imprint on the title page contained the coat of arms of Pennsylvania.

A few years ago there were believed to be about forty copies of this Bible still in existence in various parts of the United States; and probably none of them could now be had for less than five hundred dollars. But the publisher was never able to meet all the heavy expenditure which the publication imposed upon him. Bibles from England undersold it, and doubtless were superior to it in typography.”—The American Stationer; January 7, 1911.

CHARLES THOMSON’S TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE

After Robert Aitken died, his daughter (Jane Aitken) continued her father’s printing business. In 1808, she published Charles Thomson’s (former Secretary of The Continental Congress Of The United States of America, 1774-1789) translation of the Bible. (1,000 four-volume sets). It was reported that Charles Thomson labored 19 years on the project. “Thomson’s was the first English translation of the (Greek) Septuagint published, and was considered by British biblical scholars to represent the best in American scholarship.”