For Sale: $245 my replica of the first New Testament, in English, made in America. It is the 1777 Robert Aitken New Testament. I sold the other one yesterday, so this is the only one left. You can purchase this one at the following link: Purchase Here from my ETSY Store
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. See the original below:
See the transcription of petition below:
“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. See the original ad below:
See the transcription of this original ad below:
“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 invaded Philadelphia beginning an occupation that lasted until June 18, 1778. Evidently, Aitken must have gotten a heads-up that “the British were coming” as he was able to bury his printing equipment in a barn before the British entered Philadelphia. No other entries were recorded in Aitken’s Waste (account) Book until after the evacuation of the British army on June 18, 1778.
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. Soon after this advertisement, entries once again began to be entered in Aitken’s Waste Book which reflected a steady demand for his American-made 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 are known to exist of the 1778, 1779 and 1780 editions while 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). Aitken’s 1781 printing of the New Testament was bound with his newly translated Old Testament in 1782.
Replicating Robert Aitken’s 1777 New Testament is a multi-step process: from printing the text block to tooling the leather, please examine the various photos on this web page of me at work making replicas of this first New Testament in English, made in America.