Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Bible in America

I’ve lost count of how many Bibles we have in my household. Between my husband, college-aged son, and I, we must have over twenty copies of God’s Word in various forms and translations. I don’t say this lightly, because I know there are many places in the world today where the Bible is banned and people risk their lives to smuggle in and distribute God’s Word to hungry Christians, places where owning a copy of the Good Book could mean imprisonment or death. So, in that light, I feel very blessed to live in a time and place where I’ve been able to so easily purchase copies without ever fearing for my life or freedom—and I pray for those around the world who don’t have such free access to the greatest love letter of all time.

The King James Bible

But have you stopped to consider that once upon a time in America, Bibles weren’t all that freely available? In fact, there was a time in our nation’s history where it was illegal to print the Bible in the English language on our shores. Yes, you read that correctly. I said illegal. During the Colonial period, it was against the law for anyone other than the Royal Printer to produce copies of the Holy Scriptures in English. Dating back to 1589, all copies of the Bible had to come from the printing press of Christopher Barker or, later, his son, Richard. For about forty years, these two were the only ones who could print an English-language Bible in all of Britain or her colonies. In 1629, Oxford and Cambridge Universities were given royal licenses to print the Word, and in 1633, a printer in Ireland was added to that very short list of authorized providers of English-language Bibles. 


As Christians flocked to North America in search of religious freedom, they had to bring copies of the Holy Scriptures with them—printed by one of these approved sources—or they would have to request for one to be shipped “across the pond”. There was no running down to Olde Walmarte and picking up a cheap New Testament or perusing the Bible section at Ye Corner Bookshoppe to peruse the latest version in the “common man’s language.” There was one version—the King James Authorized Version—and it came from one of four sources, all far outside the colonies.

So imagine what happened when those colonies declared their independence from England. The access to the supply of God’s Word was suddenly cut off. And no one was printing English-language versions here in the new, fledgling country because it had been illegal to do so up to that point. This threw a wrench into the work of not only churches and the clergy being able to study God’s Word, but also courts of law who turned to the Bible for guidance in their judgments…and even schools, who used the Bible to teach their students on various subject matters. This was a crisis no one expected. By 1777, three members of the clergy in Pennsylvania realized that Bibles were growing scarce in this new country, and they petitioned the Continental Congress to do something about it. 

A committee was formed, the issue was discussed, and a stopgap measure of importing 20,000 copies of the Bible from other countries was thrown out. Problem solved, right? Not so fast. On the same day this measure was discussed, George Washington lost the Battle of Brandywine and the British came marching southward from Canada. Fearing for their safety, the Continental Congress vacated Philadelphia before ever voting on the solution to the Bible shortage. They eventually landed in York, Pennsylvania, even as General William Howe captured and occupied the new nation’s capital of Philadelphia. So the matter of the Bibles was lost in the turmoil.

Robert Aitken

The topic wasn’t revisited for another three years. In 1780, a Pennsylvania delegate, James McLene, again brought a petition before the Congress, requesting they do something about the shortage of Bibles. Robert Aitken, a Scottish immigrant who printed the journals of the Continental Congress, informed that body that he was working on a translation of the Holy Scriptures that could be used for printing once he’d completed the task. He finished it in September of 1872—a full five years after the dilemma of the Bible shortage was first brought before the Continental Congress.

At the Congress’s request, the two chaplains of the Congress reviewed the work of Mr. Aitken and found it to be a sound translation. So on September 12, 1782, the Continental Congress approved the printing of this very first English-translation Bible in America—the only one that has ever received congressional approval in the history of this nation. It became known as “The Bible of the Revolution” or the Aitken Bible.

Few copies of this Bible remain today. In the 1940s, it was found that less than 30 copies existed in museums and around 20 were held in private collections around the world. Should you wish to see an original Bible of the Revolution, one is on display in the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C.

It’s Your Turn: Do you own more than one copy of the Bible? Do you have a favorite translation, and if so, what is it? Have you ever been to a Bible museum, and where?


Jennifer Uhlarik
 discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.



by Jennifer Uhlarik


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  1. Thank you for this post! I think we have 5 or 6 Bibles here. I have preferred the NAS but I recently realized that they have published an updated version from what I have. My favorite Bible is fine as far as I am concerned, though. I do often think about the populations around the world who don't have access to God's Word. We take our ability to have access to the Word far too lightly, I agree with you.

    1. Great to hear from you, Connie! Thanks for stopping by. My favorite version is NKJV, though I often pull out other versions to read when I'm having a hard time grasping certain passages. Sometimes the alternate translation makes more sense in those situations.