Robert Aitken (1734–1802) was a Philadelphia printer and the first to publish an English language Bible in the newly formed United States. He was born in Dalkeith, Scotland.
He emigrated to Philadelphia in 1769, where he published the Pennsylvania Magazine, or American Monthly Museum in 1775–76.
Starting in Philadelphia as a bookseller in 1769 and 1771, Aitken started publication of The Pennsylvania Magazine in 1775, continuing through 1776. He also printed copies of the New Testament in 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1781. He died in Philadelphia in 1802.
The Aitken Bible of 1782 was reviewed, approved and authorised by the Congress of the Confederation. The Bible was reviewed first for accuracy by the Congressional Chaplains White and Duffield and they reported on its accuracy. Then the Journals of Congress for September 1782 records on page 469, “Resolved. That the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitkin, as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an influence of the progress of arts in this country and being satisfied from the above report (by the congressional chaplains), they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States and hereby authorise him to publish this recommendation.” (Spelling has been modernised).
In 1781 Aitken undertook to print the first complete English Bible produced in America and sought the official sanction of Congress for his edition. Congress passed a resolution officially authorising the edition in September 1782. Known as the “Aitken Bible,” this was the first and only edition of the Bible ever authorised by Congress. As Aitken reported to George Washington, the venture was a financial failure.
Background and the need for an American printed Bible
The war with Britain had cut off the supply of Bibles, and, on September 11, 1777, the Continental Congress reviewed a committee report, informing them that a locally produced Bible may not be a viable option, due to the risk and cost of procuring the materials necessary. The committee noted, “…the use of the Bible is so universal, and its importance so great, that the committee refer the above to the consideration of Congress, and if Congress shall not think it expedient to order the importation of types and paper, your committee recommend that Congress will order the Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere, into the different ports of the states in the Union.” Congress favored the idea of importing 20,000 Bibles, in order to address the short supply. Library of Congress
On Thursday, September 12, 1782, Congress reviewed a report dated September 1, 1782, from their Congressional committee, and signed by the committee Chairman, James Duane. The committee had been, “…referred a memorial of Robert Aitkin, dated January 21st, 1781, respecting an edition of the holy scriptures.” This committee had, from time to time, checked on the progress of Aitken’s work, and their report stated, “Our knowledge of your piety and public spirit leads us without apology to recommend to your particular attention the edition of the holy scriptures publishing by Mr. Aitkin.” Library of Congress Next Congress reviewed a report dated September 10, 1782, from the committee, and signed by the Chaplains of the United States in Congress assembled, William White and George Duffield. This report stated they had reviewed the printing and it was found to be, “…with as few grammatical and typographical errors as could be expected in an undertaking of such magnitude.” Library of Congress The outcome is listed as, “Resolved. That the United States in Congress assembled highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitkin, as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an influence of the progress of arts in this country and being satisfied from the above report (by the congressional chaplains), they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States and hereby authorize him to publish this recommendation.”
In 1783, after Aitken’s Bible had begun to be distributed, Dr. John Rodgers of the First Presbyterian Church of New York suggested to General George Washington that every discharged soldier be given a copy of Aitken’s Bible. Since the war was coming to a close and Congress had already ordered the discharge of two-thirds of the army, the suggestion came too late. However, Washington said, “It would have pleased me well, if Congress had been pleased to make such an important present to the brave fellows who have done so much for the security of their country’s rights and establishment.”