Revisiting the Aitken Bible

The following is a guest blog post by Katherine Carté, author of Religion and the American Revolution: An Imperial History, published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press. Sweeping and explicitly transatlantic, Religion and the American Revolution demonstrates that if religion helped set the terms through which Anglo-Americans encountered the imperial crisis and the violence of war, it likewise set the terms through which both nations could imagine the possibilities of a new world.

The story of the Aitken Bible is well known in some circles in the United States, and utterly absent from others. The reason for the disparity is simple. The printing of the first English-language Bible in the United States is a signal moment in a providential history for those who see the US as a Christian nation, while those who see the in the Revolution the origins of a “wall of separation between Church and State,” the Aitken Bible is largely irrelevant. As with most things in history, the truth is more complicated.  It provides evidence of the significant disruption the Revolution brought to American religious life, as well as the improvisational and haphazard way that political leaders chose to address that chaos.

The story starts in 1777, when the Continental Congress responded to a petition from a group of clergy requesting that it either print or import Bibles, because they were getting scarce. The lack of Bibles was a direct result of the Revolution.  By British law, the Bible could not be printed in English in the American colonies, but only by the authorized printers in Britain. Nonetheless, in the colonial era, the books had been cheap and plentiful. Unfortunately, the Revolutionary War cut off the stream of imports. The leaders of Protestant institutions in the rebelling colonies—men who were used to many forms of government support for religion within an explicitly Protestant empire—expected the emerging national government to pick up the slack.  Nothing in their experience told them that country being created would not follow that long-established pattern.

They were mistaken. Though theoretically favorable to the idea, the Congress declined to act in 1777. While the matter still lay tabled, the body was forced to flee Philadelphia because of the approach of British troops. Overwhelmed by the task of fighting an expensive war they were still likely to lose, they also had no easy way to support Protestant institutions. Each of the rebelling colonies had its own individual establishment. If Congress tried to create a centralized religion through government action, it ran the risk of deepening divisions. Though they did not voice those concerns in 1777, the delegates were certainly aware of the problem. In 1774, during the meeting of the First Continental Congress, John Jay had even objected to the calling of a prayer before the body because its members were “so divided in religious Sentiments.” He was overruled, but the issue of religious divisions between and within colonies continued. Since not even the Revolution’s most active partisans could assume religious unity within their ranks, it certainly could not be taken for granted more broadly. 

During the Revolutionary era, the strategy hit on by Congress for dealing with religious questions was essentially to punt. Many political leaders approved of the idea that government bodies would support religion, but they were unsure of precisely how to do that at the federal level and they were even more cautious to commit scarce funds to the matter.  When questions of religion arose, they dealt with the issue at hand, while consistently avoiding any broad or far-reaching action. That strategy of improvisation was on clear display five years later, the next time Bibles were discussed in Congress. At that point, in September 1782, Robert Aitken, Congress’s own printer, produced the new nation’s first English Bible. On his request, Congress endorsed the effort, but it declined to defray the printing costs.  The bound volumes thus included the statement that “the United States, in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interests of religion.” Nonetheless, approval of a print run was a far different thing from the kind of institutional support for Protestantism that the clergy petitioning in 1777 had imagined.  The new national government made no attempt to control the copyright for the Bible, as the British crown had, or to support any Protestant institutions directly in order to ensure the new country would be a direct successor to Britain’s Protestant empire. The only mention of religion in the Articles of Confederation was a pledge for the states to protect one another from attacks “on account of religion.” 

The story of printing Bibles for the new nation was one of many such moments on the herky-jerky, experimental path towards teasing apart institutions of church and state. Those who participated in the process ran the gambit from devout to atheist, from pragmatic to doctrinaire. But in the crisis of Revolution, everyone had to make do in an utterly novel situation. It would take decades—into the nineteenth century—before US citizens settled into new (and already conflicting) narratives of the relationship between church and state.

Restoring contingency, chance, and uncertainty to the subject of religion and the American Revolution is important, because it reminds us just what a significant transformation the conflict was. For this reason, we should neither oversimplify, nor ignore, stories like the Aitken Bible, which interweave organized religion and our founding era governments. We ascribe both piety and religious liberalism to the era at the cost of underestimating the scale of that change for the history of religion and for the Age of Revolutions.

Katherine Carté (who previously published as Katherine Carté Engel) is associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University, with affiliations in the Religious Studies department.