Before the American Revolution, it had been illegal to print an English language version of the Bible in the Colonies. Only the Crown could grant permission to print the Bible, and no American printers held a license from the King granting permission. However, when the war cut off shipments of Bibles from Great Britain, thereby creating a shortage, the Colonies’ declaration of independence from the Crown removed this requirement for a license thus opening the way to begin printing the Bible in America.
The war had entered its third year, when on July 7, 1777, a petition signed by three clergymen was introduced to the Continental Congress then sitting in Philadelphia:
“We the Ministers of the Gospel of Christ in the city of Philadelphia … taking it into our serious consideration that in our present circumstances, books in general, and in particular, the holy Scriptures contained in the old and new Testaments are growing so scarce and dear, that we greatly fear that unless timely care can be used to prevent it, we shall not have bibles for our schools and families, and for the publick worship of God in our churches.
We therefore think it our duty to our country and to the churches of Christ to lay this danger before this honourable house, humbly requesting that under your care, and by your encouragement, a copy of the holy Bible may be printed, so as to be sold nearly as cheap as the common Bibles, formerly imported from Britain and Ireland, were sold.”
Because of more pressing issues relating to the war, this petition was not examined, discussed, nor a report given by the committee until two months later on the 11th of September. That day, the report issued by the committee stated that they had “conferred fully with the printers, etc. in this city and are of the opinion, that the proper types for printing the Bible are not to be had in this country, and that the paper cannot be procured, but with such difficulties and subject to such casualties to render any dependence on it altogether improper…” The committee then recommended that Congress “order the committee of commerce to import 20,000 bibles from Holland, Scotland or elsewhere into the different ports of the Union.”
In the meantime, Robert Aitken had already taken the initiative and stepped in to fill this void. Beginning in 1777, Aitken, at his own expense, began publishing and selling a small duodecimo New Testament, the first English translation of the New Testament to be Made in America. This New Testament filled “353 pages tightly” and measured 5-1/2″ x 3-1/8″. The text was laid out in two columns with chapter and verse numbers, but no headings. The title page proclaims: “newly translated out of the original Greek; and with the former translations diligently compared and revised. Appointed to be read in churches.” With just a few changes, the wording echoes the title page of the first edition of the King James Bible published in 1611, although Aitken omits the King James’ reference to the king!
Aitken first advertised his New Testament for sale in the August 28, 1777 edition of the Pennsylvania Evening Post:
“This logo, depicting an anchor and ship in stormy seas, was printed on Aitken’s shipping forms. As with any British colonist, Aitken would first need to brave the ocean before setting foot in America. One can imagine that this logo reflected both his personal experience as well as the overseas origin of his stock of books. In 1769, Aitken made a brief trip to America as a temporary sojourner, selling books and other goods he brought over from Scotland. Aitken returned home, but brought his family back with him in 1771 to establish permanent residency. On his trip, he shipped over enough supplies to start a business importing, binding, and printing books (see Sher, 532 ff.).”
A version of this logo is found in the Marian S. Carson Collection, Library of Congress, and is printed in Richard B. Sher, The Enlightenment and the Book (University of Chicago, 2007), p. 533, fig. 8.4.