fol. A1v, Congressional recommendation
The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments newly translated out of the Original Tongues; and with the former Translations Diligently compared and revised. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Robert Aitken, 1782, 1781.
Duodecimo. 2 vols. in 1 ( pages), 8½ x 6 inches. Roman, double column. Title vignette (arms of Pennsylvania). Bound in blind-stamped dark brown calfskin, panel design; restored spine. § DMH 1283; Hills 11. § CD-ROM: 12.3, title page; 12.3, fol. A1r; 12.3, fol. Ss2vSs3r; also Congressional Recommendation, recto and verso.
When America declared its independence from England at Philadelphia in 1776, suddenly the British Royal Patent that had prohibited the printing of English Bibles in the Colonies (thereby monopolizing the Bible market for Londons printers) no longer pertained. In 1777, the printer Robert Aitken (17351802) of Philadelphia took advantage of the situation by publishing the New Testament. At his own expense he also began preparing the entire King James Bible for presentation to the Continental Congress. According to the Journal of Congress, an extract of which was reprinted as the Bibles preface, the Congress voted 12 September, 1782, to "recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States" and authorized Aitken to publish their recommendation as he wished (A1).
Two centuries later, we may wonder what this Congressional recommendation really means. Recent proponents of prayer in the schools have cited it as a precedent for official recognition of the Bible by the government and have called for a Constitutional amendment that would allow Bible reading and prayer in public schools. However, the events of 1782 predate our Constitution, and the Congress did not authorize Aitkens or any other Bible. Aitkens preface makes it clear that a separation of Church and State was maintained: the Congress merely recommended Aitkens edition to Americans who wished to read a Bible and authorized only that Aitken freely print the recommendation. Aitken was not officially solicited to print his work, the Congress paid him nothing for his efforts, and no legal statement was made by the government regarding the use of the Bible in public schools.
Robert Aitken was born in Scotland and became an apprentice in a printing shop in Edinburgh. He established his own bookselling and binding shop in Philadelphia in 1771 and started his own press in 1774. His daughter, Jane Aitken, became a printer as well and published Charles Thompsons four-volume translation of the Bible in 1808. Although Robert Aitkens long and successful career was distinguished by the printing of the first American English New Testament and Bible, he missed a place in political history in the summer of 1776 when his competitor, John Dunlap, printed the first broadsides of the Declaration of Independence.
Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831), in his History of Printing in America (1810), wrote that during his apprenticeship to Zechariah Fowle, several older printers had told him of their work on English editions of the New Testament and Bible in Boston three decades before Aitkens work. The first was said to be a small New Testament published by Gamaliel Rogers and Daniel Fowle around the year 1749, on which Zechariah Fowle had worked as an apprentice, and the second was a complete Bible published by Samuel Kneeland and Timothy Green around the year 1752 with the imprint of the London printer Mark Baskett (Thomas 1964, 107108, 123). Although no copies of these Bibles are known to exist, and Thomass story cannot otherwise be verified, we should not put such achievements past these enterprising early American printers. Nevertheless, Aitkens Bible of 1782 can safely be called the first English Bible printed in America with an American imprint.
The title page bears the woodcut device of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with an escutcheon bearing a ship, a plow, and three sheaves of wheat surmounted by an eagle between two rampant horses and two enframing stalks of Indian corn, with the motto "Virtue, Liberty and Independence" below. The format of the Bibles text, set in two columns with numbered verses and capitalized chapter headings, embodies the early American virtues of simplicity, practicality, and economy.
Literature: Blumenthal 1977, 14; Murphy 1983, 39; OCallaghan  1966, 31; Thomas 1964, 107108, 123, 26667.