KING JAMES VERSION-+--The First American Bible
(An Historical Preface)


Margaret T. Hills
Former Secretary for Research of The American Bible Society 1968 Arno Press

The War of the American Revolution had entered its third year. Since the fateful firing of the "first shot" on Lexington Green, the Continental Congress,
sitting in
Philadelphia, had been required to make many crucial decisions, both
military and
political. Now, in July 1777, a petition signed by three clergymen was
placed before that
dedicated body of colonial representatives calling for a determination
of an entirely
different nature.

To the honourable Continental Congress of the United States of North America now sitting in Philadelphia.

Honoured Gentlemen

We the Ministers of the Gospel of Christ in the City of Philadelphia, whose names are under written, 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 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

The number of purchasers is so great, that we doubt not but a large impression would soon be sold, But unless the sale of the whole edition belong to the
printer, and he be bound under sufficient penalties, that no copy be
sold by him, nor by
any retailer under him, at a higher price than that allowed by this
honourable house, we
fear that the whole impression would soon be bought up, and sold again
at an exorbitant
price, which would frustrate your pious endeavours and fill the country
with just

We are persuaded that your care and seasonable interposition will remove the anxious fears of many pious and well disposed persons; would prevent the
murmurs of the discontented; would save much money to the United States;
would be the
means of promoting Christian knowledge in our churches, and would
transmit your names with
additional honour to the latest posterity.

Our sincere prayers shall ever be for your welfare and prosperity, and we beg leave with the greatest respect to subscribe our selves

Honoured Gentlemen
Your most obedient humble servants

John Ewing
William Marshalle

Referred to a committee composed of John Adams, Daniel Roberdeau and Jonathan Bayard Smith, the petition was not reported upon until September 11th. On that
day, General Washington was fighting the Battle of the Brandywine and
General John
Burgoyne was on his way toward Saratoga. Before long, Philadelphia would
he occupied by
the troops of General Sir William Howe and Congress itself would flee to
Lancaster and
then to York.

In its report, the committee stated that it 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 as
render any
dependence on it altogether improper . . ." It recommended, therefore,
that Congress
"order the committee of commerce to import 20,000 bibles from Holland,
Scotland or
elsewhere into the different ports of the states of the Union."

When the motion carried by the narrowest of margins, seven to six, a subsequent motion was immediately passed ordering "that the consideration thereof be
postponed to Saturday next." However, since nothing more is known
concerning this
resolution, it is doubted whether the beleaguered Congress ever took
steps to effect its

Isaiah Thomas, the first historian of American printing, reported that by 1775 there were fifty presses in the Colonies. Why then should the
proposal of three
Philadelphia clergymen receive such careful consideration from a
Continental Congress
harassed by the demands of a war whose tide had yet to be turned from
overwhelming defeat
to victory?

Prior to the War of the Revolution, there had been no publication of the English Bible in the Colonies. All demands for Scriptures had to be met by importation
from England and the Continent. It is true, of course, that there was a
scarcity of the
type and paper necessary for the successful publication of a book as
large as the Bible.
Most of the presses were used for the impression of documents,
proclamations, pamphlets
and papers. But there was a far more serious consideration that kept it
from being printed
by an American printer. It was, in fact, illegal for any printer in the
Colonies to
produce the English Bible.

Publication of the Scriptures in any lands under the British crown was restricted; in order to insure accuracy in printing, to the Oxford and
University Presses and to one other printer licensed by the king. In
Scotland, special
licenses were required.

There is, however, the fascinating story that an edition of the English Bible and several Testaments were printed in Boston about 1750. But no
copy has ever been
satisfactorily identified, for the paper and type would have been
imported and, according
to the story, a British imprint was employed.

While the Royal License applied only to the publication of the text of the King James Bible, without comment, there seems to have been
no restriction on
annotated editions. But these publications were usually large and
elaborate, filled with
engravings. They were, consequently, expensive and had to be financed by
Several such projects had been proposed in the Colonies but had
foundered for lack of

Also, inasmuch as the restriction did not apply to the printing of Bible translations, a complete translation by John Eliot, printed in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, in 1663 for the Indians of that area, and three editions
of the German
Bible, printed by Christopher Saur and his sons in Germantown,
Pennsylvania, in 1743, 1763
and I 776, were the only known publications of the Holy Bible in
colonial America until
the closing years of the War of the Revolution.

In 1780, another motion pertaining to the printing of the Scriptures was made in Congress:

Resolved: That it be recommended to such of the States who may think it convenient for them that they take proper measures to procure one or
more new and correct
editions of the old and new Testament to be printed and that such states
regulate their
printers by law so as to secure effectually the said books from being

Introduced by James McLene of Pennsylvania and seconded by John Hanson of Maryland, nothing more substantial is known to have developed from
this recommendation
than resulted from the clerical petition three years earlier. However,
on January 21,
1781, it seemed at last to have been an opportune time for Robert Aitken
to present the
following memorial to Congress:

To the Honourable The Congress
of the United States of America
The Memorial of Robert Aitken
of the City of Philadelphia, Printer

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