“Rev. Gentlemen, Our knowledge of your piety and public spirit leads us without apology to recommend to your particular attention the edition of the Holy Scriptures publishing by Mr. Aitken. He undertook 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. On this account particularly he deserves applause and encouragement. We therefore wish you, reverend gentlemen, to examine the execution of the work, and if approved, to give it the sanction of your judgment and the weight of your recommendation. We are with very great respect, your most obedient humble servants.”
~ Letter dated Philadelphia, 1 September, 1782, on the Congress’ adoption of the Aitken Bible
 
~ Letter dated Philadelphia, 1 September, 1782, on the Congress’ adoption of the Aitken Bible

Scans of the original Aitken Bible:

This is a photo of James Darlack working (scanning and cleaning up) his way through the book of Exodus that will become part of our 1782 Robert Aitken Bible, aka “The Bible of the Revolution”.

 

 

Robert Aitken produced the first English language New Testament made in America. Before the 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, but also got rid of the need for the license; thereby creating a shortage of Bibles and the ability to print them in America.  


Robert Aitken stepped in to fill this void. Beginning in 1777, Aitken began publishing and selling New Testaments. Demand was heavy, so every year, for the next five years, Aitken published a new edition of his New Testament base off of the King James Bible. In total, he published five editions: Aitken’s second edition was published in 1778; his third in 1779; his fourth in 1780; and finally his last and fifth edition was published in 1781. I am unsure of the number of New Testaments Aitken printed each year, but I expect that it was somewhere between one thousand and ten thousand. 


It was not until 1782 that Aitken published his first complete Bible; his first Old Testament (1782) was added to his previously printed 1781 New Testament. I believe that Aitken planned ahead and printed about ten thousand additional New Testaments in 1781 and had them waiting to be bound with the ten thousand Old Testaments that he printed in 1782. You will notice that the 1782 Bible’s New Testament title page is dated 1781, while the Old Testament is dated 1782. This was the only year that the Aitken Bible, aka “Bible of the Revolution” was published. 


After the war, America was once again flooded with inexpensive Bibles from England. Aitken was stuck with way too many Bibles and was near financial ruin. The Presbyterian Synod stepped in and purchased Aitken’s remaining stock and gave them to the poor; thus saving him from bankruptcy. 


Original Aitken Bibles are very rare. The last copy I saw sold went for about $150,000.
 
The last time I looked the following institutions were owners of original Aitken Bibles
 
British Museum
Mass. Historical Society
New York State Library
Library of Congress
American Antiquarian Society in Worcester Massachusetts
American Bible Society
Lenox Library New York
Maryland Episcopal Library Baltimore MD
Connecticut Historical Society
Philadelphia Library Company
Pennsylvania Historical Society

See the transcription of this add to the right:

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.

This is the title page of an Issac Watts Hymnal Printed by Robert Aitken:

This rare advertisement of the Robert Aitken Bible appeared in the FREEMAN’S JOURNAL OR NORTH AMERICAN INTELLIGENCER PUBLISHED IN PHILADELPHIA BY FRANCIS BAILEY, February 5, 1783.

 

“Robert Aitken, Printer, bookseller, bookbinder, and stationer, at Pope’s Head, in Market Street, near the Coffee House, Has just finished, and has now ready for sale, a new and very correct edition of The Holy Bible; With which booksellers, store keepers and others in town and country, may be supplied by wholesale and retail on the most reasonable terms the times will admit. The serious Christian will be pleased to find, that the scarcity of Bibles, of which he has so long had reason to complain, is now removed; and the Patriot will rejoice at the advance in the arts, which as at length produced The first Edition of the Holy Scriptures, in the English Language, ever printed in America; each of these will allow the merit due to so capital an undertaking; and the trader will find his interest in affording his patronage and encouragement to this work, as several circumstances, particularly the largeness of the type, and the remarkable good quality of the paper, render this edition superior to any of the same size imported from Europe. N.B. The Bibles will be sold either bound or in sheets, and a suitable discount allowed to those who purchase large quantities.”Robert Aitken, Printer, bookseller, bookbinder, and stationer, at Pope’s Head, in Market Street, near the Coffee House, Has just finished, and has now ready for sale, a new and very correct edition of The Holy Bible; With which booksellers, store keepers and others in town and country, may be supplied by wholesale and retail on the most reasonable terms the times will admit. The serious Christian will be pleased to find, that the scarcity of Bibles, of which he has so long had reason to complain, is now removed; and the Patriot will rejoice at the advance in the arts, which as at length produced The first Edition of the Holy Scriptures, in the English Language, ever printed in America; each of these will allow the merit due to so capital an undertaking; and the trader will find his interest in affording his patronage and encouragement to this work, as several circumstances, particularly the largeness of the type, and the remarkable good quality of the paper, render this edition superior to any of the same size imported from Europe. N.B. The Bibles will be sold either bound or in sheets, and a suitable discount allowed to those who purchase large quantities.”