Did the Continental Congress Publish America’s First Bible?

The Aitken Bible, the “Bible of the American Revolution,” remains a source of confusion, for many Christians today. A rare copy of this Bible is on display at the new Museum of the Bible.

The Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington, D.C. in November, 2017, seeks to educate visitors about the role of the Bible in America. We need such a museum, as an examination of the evidence reveals a number of misconceptions people, even some Christians, have had about America and the Bible.

Prior to the American Revolution, most of the colonies embraced some form of public commitment to Christianity. For example, in those days, the Church of England was the official faith of my native state Virginia (then a colony), supported by law and the collection of taxes. If you considered yourself an “Episcopalian” or an “Anglican,” you were in good company.

But if you were a Baptist, you might have problems. For example, weddings performed by Baptist clergy were not legally recognized in the colony of Virginia. So, if you were Baptist, and you could not abide by the wedding liturgy of the Church of England, you were in trouble. For according to the law, you and your Baptist spouse would be “living in sin,” unless an Anglican priest married you.

The favoritism towards the Church of England, in Virginia, lasted through the Revolutionary War period. The Church of England, which became the “Episcopal Church” in America, was finally disestablished in the new state of Virginia, in 1786. This was accomplished by the passing of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a document anticipating the religious freedom clauses of the federal Bill of Rights, amended to the U.S. Constitution, in the early 1790s. The traditional link between Christian church and state was effectively broken, by America’s Founding Fathers. But even as late as 1902, Virginia’s religious freedom clause, in the state constitution, still maintained this admonition, originally written in 1776, “it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

Therefore, a common secularist canard, that Christianity was never really part of the founding of America, can be easily dismissed. True, Christianity, broadly speaking, was not, in a strict sense, the “official” religion of America, in the early decades of the young republic. The Founding Fathers, and American leaders after them, were certainly not opposed to the spread of Christianity, but they were increasingly inclined not to make explicit, governmental endorsements of the faith. However, for all practical purposes, Christianity was the de facto standard of faith, towards the latter end of the 18th century, and even into much of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Nevertheless, a commonly accepted belief today comes under scrutiny here: What about the Continental Congress? Did not the Continental Congress actually print the first American Bible in English? Was not this first Bible distributed for use in public schools? Was this not an explicit, government endorsement of Christianity?

Let us consider the evidence: You should take a minute to view the following YouTube advertisement, promoting the Museum of the Bible’s (MOTB) grand opening. On display is the so-called Aitken Bible, what the museum calls “the Bible of the American Revolution.” Pay careful attention to how the MOTB frames the story, and then keep reading:

The Museum of the Bible Gets it Right… Other People? Well….

The video tells you that no English Bibles were printed in America, prior to the America Revolution. British book merchants pretty much had a monopoly on the distribution of English Bibles to the colonies.

But the 1770s war changed all of that. An embargo kept English Bibles from coming into the rebellious colonies. So, a Philadelphia printer, Robert Aitken, had an idea. Towards the end of the war, he petitioned the Continental Congress to “approve a publication of the Bible.” In 1782, a group of Congressional chaplains “approved of Aitken’s execution of the Bible.” Congress then “recommended this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants to the United States.”

Thankfully, the MOTB got this story right (despite being short on the details). Unfortunately, the same can not be said for other story tellers about the Aitken Bible.

In popular actor Kirk Cameron’s 2012 documentary, Monumental, that was reviewed a few years ago, here on Veracity, Cameron interviews the leader of Wallbuilders, David Barton, to find out more about the Aitken Bible. In Monumental, David Barton tells Kirk Cameron that it was Congress that “printed” the Aitken Bible.  Barton adds that “they said in Congress that this Bible is a ‘neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for use of our schools’.” In other words, Congress printed the first English Bible, for the purpose of being distributed in American public schools.

But is what David Barton told Kirk Cameron, in this popular Christian movie, accurate? I heard the exact same set of claims, among others, made by David Barton, at a talk he gave, in April, 2006, when he visited our church. I was dubious of such claims, but when I asked David Barton personally about it, he insisted that he had the primary evidentiary documents, in his possession, that would verify such claims.

It might be helpful to fill in some of the leftout details, from the MOTB video, about the Aitken Bible.

Popular media personality David Barton, who travels the country, trying to educate people about the role of the Bible in American life. Is Barton always reliably accurate?

The Rest of the Story About the Aitken Bible

When the embargo was placed against the American colonies, Congress did discuss what might be done in response, as there was effectively no large scale printing industry in the colonies, leading up to the American Revolution. Could American printers somehow circumvent this embargo, and print large books, like the Bible, on their own? If so, some in Congress reasoned that this could weaken the British blockade.

The big problem was the supply of paper. American printers, like Philadelphia’s Robert Aitken, still had to depend on Britain for large supplies of paper, to make large book printing runs. Printing smaller pamphlets was one thing. Printing large books, like the Bible, was something else.

Congress kept delaying the matter, as no easy solution seemed within reach. Robert Aitken, towards the end of the war, decided to take a risk. He was able to obtain enough paper to make a large print run (maybe from smuggled paper, via Canada?? I am not sure, and I do not have a verifiable source). After some successful small runs with printing just the New Testament, he published 10,000 copies of the entire Bible. But how was he going to distribute and sell these Bibles?

As a government contractor, printing various items for Congress (as did other printers), the Continental Congress itself seemed the most likely entity who could help him out. He did write a letter, to Congress. In that letter, Robert Aitken asked Congress to publish, by Congressional authority; that is, effectively “buy,” or at the very least, endorse his Bible. It was Aitken himself who described the Bible as a “neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for use of  schools.” David Barton’s website at Wallbuilders, as of 2017, shows the correspondence between himself and Congress.

As the correspondence shows, Congress never said that the Bible was to be made available “for the use of schools.” Those were Aitkens‘ words, not Congress’. Instead, the Congressional chaplains picked through a number of passages in Aitken’s Bible, to make sure that the printing was accurate. What the Congress was “recommending” was the accuracy of the Aitken’s Bible to readers. After all, mistakes had been made among British printers before.

The 1631, London printed, so-called “Wicked Bible,” that omitted a single word in the Ten Commandments, rendered Exodus 20:14, as “thou shalt commit adultery,” was a case in point. Accuracy in printing such a large and sacred work as the Bible was deemed important, as a sign of quality in American goods. Therefore, to make something more of Congress’ “recommendation,” goes beyond the evidence at hand.

Aitken got something from Congress, namely a stamp of approval that this was not a cheap and erroneous printing job. But Congress never bought any of Aitken’s Bibles. In fact, Robert Aitken lost his shirt in the whole deal. Soon, the war was over, and with it, the “Bible” embargo, and less expensive Bibles made it into American markets. Aitken was not able to sell enough of the Bibles to make any profit, and he never ventured to print another Bible again.

Getting the Story Right!

What is the point of this whole discussion? Well, saying that Congress recommended Aitken’s Bible as being an accurate piece of work, versus Congress actually agreeing to print a Bible, for the purpose of distribution in schools, is a completely different matter. The story of the Aitken Bible is fascinating, in and of itself. Sadly, however, many Christians I know have heard a rather skewed version of the story.

Scholars had been trying to correct David Barton’s misrepresentation of the Aitken Bible story, even before I heard him speak in 2006. Unfortunately, despite pleas to correct his story, David Barton was still telling people as late as 2012, for the Kirk Cameron Monumental movie, that it was Congress that “printed” the Aitken Bible.  Sometime in 2013, shortly after the Thomas Nelson publisher, yanked Barton’s book about Thomas Jefferson, from their distribution, due to errors in that book, Barton finally admitted that it was Aitken himself who did the printing, and not Congress. But to my knowledge, David Barton is still telling people that Congress recommended Aitken’s Bible “for use of our schools.” 

As a Christian, I am glad that David Barton wants young people, who attend American public schools, to read the Bible. I do, too! Despite one’s religious convictions, all American children should have at least a basic familiarity with the story of the Bible. From the perspective of understanding history, culture, and English literature, a knowledge of the Bible is essential. America’s Founding Father would surely agree.

Furthermore, my greatest desire, as a Christian, would be that young people also have the freedom to read the Bible for themselves, with an interest in knowing God, if they are so hopefully inclined, and coming to a knowledge of the Savior. Those opposed to the Christian faith might disagree, but young people should be given the opportunity to make their own decisions about the Bible.

However, for the sake of integrity, Christian researchers like David Barton need to do a better job in getting the story right. It does no good to twist the story of the Aitken Bible, to advance an idea that American Founding Fathers promoted the idea of reading the Bible in government-supported, public schools, as an explicit endorsement of the Christian faith. It might be a desirable for some Christians to want to believe that. But wanting to believe something to be true does not make it true.

I know many Christians who have believed David Barton’s story about the Aitken Bible, told as late as 2012, and as early as 2006, in various movies and talk shows (see YouTube clip below). Why David Barton did not correct the error immediately, when other historical researchers pointed it out to him, surely by 2006, remains a mystery to me. As far as Barton’s continued claim that Aitken’s Bible was recommended by Congress, for “use in schools,” I do not yet, as of 2017, see any evidence of correction to his story.

Truth matters. If Christians can not be trusted to get the story of American history right, why would an unbelieving world believe what we say about the Bible?

Kudos go to the Museum of the Bible for getting the story of Aitken’s Bible right, even if the full story is not told in the above video. Is the Museum of the Bible part of some “leftist conspiracy” to silence the Bible? Hardly. Is the Museum of the Bible without controversy? No, not at all. Yet the reason why the Museum of the Bible is able to get the story right about the Aitken Bible is because they have an established peer-review process, that enables scholars across a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines to fact check one another.

Still not convinced? You might actually have to go to visit the Museum of the Bible, to see their copy of an Aitken Bible, and learn and decide for yourself.

 

Notes:

Much of the information gathered in this blog post comes from Warren Throckmorton’s blog.(and here, as well). Throckmorton, is not a professional historian, as he is a psychologist teaching at Grove City College. But his work has been endorsed by several leading evangelical Christian historians.

Some helpful background material for understanding the relationship between religion and U.S. federal and state constitutions, can be found in John Witte Jr. and Joel A. Nichols’, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment: Third Edition (I recall page 107, for some information about Virginia, above).

Some of Barton’s critics are associated with the secular left, such as Chris Rodda’s Liars for Jesus, dating back to around 2006. But not everyone of Barton’s critics are on the secular left. Jay Wile, a Young Earth Creationist, also takes issue with David Barton’s research methods and conclusions.

The argument that Congress printed the first English Bible, for use in public schools, has had a long history, according to this 1982 New York Times opinion piece.  David Barton’s latest information about the Aitken Bible can be found at Wallbuilders. More information about the Aitken Bible, and other early American Bibles, can be found at the International Society of Bible Collectors.

For a helpful video, that includes the segment of the Kirk Cameron Monumental film, referenced in the blog post, you can view it below. Notice how David Barton’s story changes over time:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

4 responses to “Did the Continental Congress Publish America’s First Bible?

  • Tom Van Dyke

    Good job. David Barton is sloppy; the secularists are more concerned with destroying him than spreading the truth.

    The Continental Congress did indeed give its approval and recommendation to Aitken’s Bible, showing us that strict “separation of church and state” was alien to the early republic. The rest is nitpicking.

    Like

    • Clarke Morledge

      Thank you, Tom, for your comments. I know that we have had some curious exchanges before, so I appreciate your positive review.

      My main concern is that of Christian integrity. It is important to get the story right because truth matters. Otherwise, an unbelieving world will not listen if they conclude that Christians are prone to tell lies.

      Like

  • Diana Fenger

    Blessed Thanksgiving Clark,

    Thank you for all your blogs. You have stretched my brain and even though I’m well in age I’m still learning. Have you done any research on Horn Books in America? I grew up in Philadelphia and was taught that all children were given a Horn Book in the early years of our country.

    Thank you, Diana Fenger

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Clarke Morledge

      Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, too, Diana.

      My understanding is that horn books, as an aid to the education of youth, have a long history, going back to at least the 16th century in Europe, and they surely found their way to America.

      Puritans used the so-called “New England Primer” as early as the 1680’s in Massachusetts. A 1780s version of this horn book included this famous prayer:

      Now I lay me down to sleep,
      I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep;
      If I should die before I wake,
      I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.

      As to its distribution to “all” children, that is highly unlikely, as there was no uniform educational standard across the early United States. Uses of horn books varied by state and community.

      Like

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