In the meantime, Robert Aitken had already taken the initiative and stepped in to fill this void. Beginning in 1777, Aitken began publishing and selling a small New Testament, the first English translation of the New Testament to be printed in America, which measured 5-1/2″ x 3-1/8″. The title page proclaims it is “newly translated out of the original Greek; and with the former translations diligently compared and revised. Appointed to be read in churches”. Aitken first advertised his New Testament for sale in the August 28, 1777 edition of the Pennsylvania Evening Post:
Before the American Revolution, it had been impossible to print an English language version of the Bible in the colonies because no American printers held a license from the King granting permission to print the Bible. The war cut off shipments of Bibles from Great Britain, thereby creating a shortage of Bibles. The colonies’ declaration of independence to the Crown removed the requirement for a license thus opening the way to begin printing the Bible in America.
The war had entered its third year; in July 1777, a petition signed by three clergymen was introduced to the Continental Congress that was 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.”
This petition was not examined, discussed, and a report given by a committee until September 11th. The report issued by the committee composed of John Adams, Daniel Roberdeau and Jonathan Bayard Smith 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.”
“Just printed (bound and ready for sale) by R. Aitken, printer and bookseller, opposite the London Coffee-house, Frontstreet, a neat edition of THE NEW TESTAMENT for the use of schools, where may be had writing paper of different kinds, particularly letter paper of the first quality, and several hundreds of excellent quills.”
Regrettably for Aitken, shortly after this advertisement, on September 26, 1777, the British army marched into Philadelphia beginning an occupation that lasted until June of 1778. Evidently, Aitken must have gotten a heads-up as he was able to bury his equipment in a barn before the British entered Philadelphia. After the British retreat in June 1778, Aitken began printing again. On July 18th, Aitken advertised in the Pennsylvania Evening Post a new “neat” edition of the New Testament.
Demand was heavy, so for the next four years, Aitken published a new edition of his small New Testament. In total, Aitken published five editions: Aitken’s second edition was published in 1778; his third edition in 1779; his fourth in 1780; and finally his last and fifth edition was published in 1781. No copies of these latter four editions are known to exist and only three copies of the 1777 edition are known to survive. One is held by the Philadelphia Historical Society, a second by the New York Public Library, and a third sold at auction in London on November 29, 2011 for £128,100 ($198,555).
See photos of my 1777 New Testament at the following link: Click Here