The Bible in British America and the Early Republic

The Bible of the earliest English colonists in America was the Geneva Bible, first printed in its entirety in 1560 by Protestants who were exiled during the reign of Mary I (1553-1558). Published in Geneva, Switzerland, 51 years before the King James Version, the Geneva translation became the working Bible of the English Reformation. It arrived in America with the Jamestown, Virginia, settlers in 1607 and came on the Mayflower to Massachusetts in 1620 (despite the availability of the King James Bible after 1611). The popularity of the Geneva Bible persisted into the second half of the seventeenth century and saw its final printing in 1644.

No English-language Bible would be published in America before the Revolution, yet imported English Bibles were perhaps the most widely owned books in the colonies. Bibles and Books of Common Prayer of the Church of England are listed in Virginia estate inventories more than any other book. Eighteenth-century records show that the Williamsburg post office sold both bound and unbound English Bibles and provided custom binding in various styles.

The first Bible produced in America was John Eliot's translation in the language of the Algonquin Indians, printed in 1663 and 1685. No other Bible would be produced in the colonies until 1743, when German immigrant Christoph Saur of Germantown, Pennsylvania, printed America's first European-language Bible, the Luther translation in German. In 1763, his son Christoph's German edition became the first Bible printed on American-made paper, some of it from the paper mill of William Parks of Williamsburg, Virginia, as evidenced by the watermarks in some copies. Saur's 1776 Luther Bible was the first to be printed with American-made type.

During the American Revolution, book commerce between Britain and America was severely impeded, and Bibles became difficult to procure. Scottish immigrant and Philadelphia publisher Robert Aitken, who became the official printer of Congress during the war, produced America's first English language New Testament (King James) in five printings from 1771 to 1781. In January of 1781 he petitioned Congress to authorize the production of a complete King James Bible. In September of 1782, Aitken received authorization to begin printing this first American English-language Bible, for which George Washington commended him the following year.

At the end of the Revolution, persecuted Irish Catholic journalist Matthew Carey fled England for America and set out to publish a Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible in English. Despite the small number of Catholics in the young United States, Carey managed to find enough subscribers to print about five hundred copies of this first American non-King James English Bible, which appeared in December of 1790. The same year, William Young of Philadelphia produced perhaps a few hundred copies of a pocket-sized King James Bible, printed together with a Psalter and marketed as an edition for students.

Isaac Collins, a Quaker from Delaware who became printer for the state of New Jersey during the Revolution, published a King James New Testament at Trenton in 1779. A decade later, between 1789 and 1791, Collins produced by subscription some 5,000 large-format King James Bibles, the first edition of the scriptures printed in New Jersey. The easy-to-read Collins Bible became known as the country's first "Family Bible."

The same year, Isaiah Thomas, one of the most successful printers in colonial America, printed America's first illustrated Bible at Worcester, Massachusetts. Thomas produced his King James Bible in two forms: a large folio of two volumes, and a somewhat smaller royal quarto of one volume. Thomas seems to have offered his 1791 Bibles with or without the 50 large copper plate engraving, for illustrated copies today are extremely rare. The non-illustrated versions obviously, were less expensive.

In 1796, Jacob Berriman of Philadelphia published America's first single-volume, illustrated tall folio King James Bible, featuring the works of several eighteenth-century American engravers. In 1798, Philadelphian John Thompson produced the first hot-pressed King James Bible in America, using the technique of searing the ink into the paper. Thompson's two-volume, pulpit-sized edition was the largest American Bible at that time.

After he retired as Secretary of the United States Congress from 1774 to 1789, the scholarly Charles Thomson labored for twenty years to produce the very first English translation of the Greek Old Testament called the "Septuagint." His four-volume work was published in 1808 by Jane Aitken of Philadelphia, daughter of Robert Aitken, the publisher of the first American English-language Bible in 1782. Jane Aitken thus became the first woman publisher of a Bible in America.

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