Author: Ron Davis
The Bible, New Testament, and various books of the Bible were translated into fifteen languages in America by the time of the Civil War. In the first 200 years of Bible publication in America the Bible or New Testament was printed in Algonquin, German, English, Greek, Latin, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Cherokee, and Hawaian, it that chronological order. Scripture portions were translated into three additional Native American languages: the Gospel and the Epistles of John into the Delaware language in 1818; the book of Genesis in 1835 and the Gospels in 1850 into Chippewa; the books of Acts, Romans and Galatians in 1835, and the book of Isaiah in 1839, into Mohawk. Portions of Scripture into Cherokee were begun in 1831, and the New Testament was printed in 1857. The New Testament with Hawaian and English text in parallel columns was also published in 1857.
The most famous and valuable early America Bible, the first Bible printed in America, was in the Natick dialect of the Algonquin language. The Bible was tanslated by John Eliot (1604-1690), a Congregational minister and missionary, and published in Cambridge, Masschusetts for Native Americans. Eliot had graduated from Cambridge University in England and had migrated to America in 1631. The New Testament was published in 1661 and the whole Bible in 1663, having been printed by Marmaduke Johnson (sent over from England) and Samuel Green, with help from an Algonquin. The first book ever printed in America, The Bay Psalm Book, a Psalter, had previously been published in Cambridge in 1640, with the help of John Eliot and Cotton Mather. The book, though frequently reprinted, is now rare. When a copy does come to auction, it brings the highest price of any book printed in Colonial America.
John Eliot saw at least 4000 Native Americans turn to Christ during his thirty years of missionary work. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), the Irish-born chemist and physicist, and formulator of Boyle\’s laws of gases, was a major contributor from England to the Eliot Bible. Because substantial financial support for publication came from England, and because the ‘Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England’ had been organized in England in support of the mission work in Massachusetts, Bibles were sent back to England. Forty copies of the 1661 first edition were sent to London to the Governor of the Commissioners of the New England colonies. Later they were placed in public institutions in England. Darlow and Moule summarize the historic significance of the Eliot Bibles, ‘They constitute the earliest example in history of the translation and printing of the entire Bible in a language as a means of evangelization.’
The first Bible published in America in a modern language was by Christoph Saur (1693-1758). This German Bible was published in Germantown, Pennsylvania, adjacent to Philadelphia. It is essentially a Martin Luther version, but with revisions from the Berleburg Bible (published 1726-1742). Saur was an immigrant from Germany and of pietistic Anabaptist (Brethren) persuasion. He published the Bible in 1743, in a large and heavy quarto. In 1745 and 1755 he published a German New Testament. Saur published these Bibles for fellow German refugees in Pennsylvania, and stressed that ‘for the poor we have no price.’ Saur sent a dozen copies of his 1743 German Bible to Dr. Heirich Luther in Frankfurt, Germany, since Luther had sent the metal type to Saur to print the Bibles. The Bibles sent to Luther are now in public institutions in Germany. In 1940 Edwin Rumball-Petre, in America\’s First Bibles registered 134 copies of this Bible in America, Germany, and England.
Christoph Saur II (1721-1784) published the second Saur Bible in 1763, the first Bible printed in America on American paper. Rumball-Petre located only 125 copies of this edition in public and private collections worldwide. In addition the son printed at least six editions of the German New Testament, the last being in 1775. Finally, in 1776 Christoph Saur II printed the German Bible in an edition of 3000. It has been dubbed the ‘Gun Wad Bible,’ because the Bible pages were supposedly used by American or British soldiers to make gun wads for their rifles, as well as for firewood and horsebedding. In a sad footnote to American history, Christoph Saur II, in 1777, was accused, apparently falsely, of being disloyal to the American colonies. He was arrested, and his property, including the printing press, confiscated. Christoph Saur II, a Brethren elder, was a pacifist, but not a Loyalist. Two of his sons, however, were apparently Loyalists and migrated to Canada after the war. Much of the 1776 edition did not survive; in 1940 only 195 copies of the 1776 German Bible were registered extant. Rumball-Petre registered 454 copies of all three editions (1743, 1763, 1776) of the Saur Bible, the earlier editions being scarcer and more valuable than the 1776 edition. Christoph Saur II also published Psalters in the 18th century.
Samuel Saur, the youngest brother of Christoph Saur II, published Psalters in 1791, 1796, and 1797, the 1796 Psalter likely being the first portion of Scripture published in the South. He developed, according to Isaiah Thomas\’ History of Printing in America, a type making business in Baltimore, S. Sower & Co., which cast type for a small Bible, the ‘First American Diamond Edition,’ published in Baltimore in 1812. Variations on the Saur name are Sauer and Sower, books printed in the English language using the latter spelling.
In 1787 German New Testaments were also printed in Pennsylvania by Dunker brethren of the Ephrata Cloister and by a German Lutheran printer, Michael Billmeyer. Both the Ephrata Brethren and Billmeyer had Saur connections.
German Seventh Day Baptists led by Conrad Beisssel had established the Ephrata Cloister, a Protestant monastic community in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Christoph Saur I had been with Beissel in Ephrata before either man had established a printing business. Saur, in his first year of printing, began work on an 800-page hymnal for Ephrata. The Ephrata Cloister\’s own publishing business began soon after Saur\’s, and between 1745 and 1795, produced over 40 books. In addition to German New Testaments, Psalters, and hymnals, the Cloister published, in German, The Bloody Arena (Martyrs Mirror), the most masive book ever printed in Colonial America. Christoph Saur and Conrad Beissel were the first German-language printers in America, besides Ben Franklin, who had experimented with a German-language periodical.
Ephrata Scripture items are now scarce, and, remarkably, are not listed in O\’ Callaghan\’s meticulous, 19th-century reference book on the Bibles printed in America prior to 1860. The Ephrata imprints are described in books by Oswald Seidensticker (1889) and John Wright (1894). The Ephrata Brethren published New Testaments in 1787 and 1795, and Psalters in 1793 and 1795. The two Testaments and two Psalters are all in different versions. These were all printed in duodecimal (12 mo). The Ephrata 1787 New Testament, Das Ganz Neue Testament unsers Jesus Christi, is according to Oswald Seidensticker ‘not Luther\’s translation, but one originally made in Switzerland.’ Wright\’s Early Bibles in America (3rd edition) illustrates the title page of the 1787 Ephrata Testament, and elaborates on the book, ‘It is printed in bold, clear-faced type, and is a most admirable example of early book-making. It is greatly prized by collectors, and brings a high price.’ A note at the end of the New Testament explains that this version was ‘Formerly printed in Zurich. Basle, as well as Frankfort and Leipsic: now however, at Ephrata, at the expense of the Brethren, in the year 1787.’ Four hymns are also printed at the end of the New Testament. This fairly scarce New Testament is in collections of the University of Bern, Switzerland, the Naturalistes Parisiens (Society), and Goshen College, Indiana among others.
The 1795 Ephrata New Testament lists Salomon Mayer on the title page, as does the 1795 Ephrata Psalter. The 1795 Ephrata Psalter, Das Kleine Davidische Psalterspiel der Linder Zion\’s is the same version as Samuel Saur\’s 1791 and 1797 Psalters. Seidensticker writes of this German Psalter, ‘The American reprint became popular with some Sects, Dunkers, Mennonites, etc, as evidenced by the numerous editions of the book: 1744, 1760, 1764, 1777, 1778, 1781, 1791, 1795, 1797, 1813, 1829.’
Michael Billmeyer (1752-1837), a Lutheran, with his father-in-law Peter Liebert, a Brethren minister, acquired, in 1783, what was usable of the Saur printing eqipment. They established a printing business in Germantown. After about three years, Liebert started a new printing establishment, and Billmeyer became sole proprietor. Billmeyer was a prolific printer of German New Testaments in the Martin Luther version. The Testaments have the following publication dates: 1787, 1795, 1803, 1807, 1808, 1810,1811, 1815, 1819, 1822. These are duodecimals with brass clasps on the leather. The Billmeyer New Testaments, particularly the 19th-century editions, are easier to find than the Saur and Ephrata Scriptures.
Billmeyer also printed Psalters in 1803, 1815, and 1828. The Psalter was widely used by Lutheran churches, but also by other groups. For example, the same Lutheran Psalter printed by Billmeyer was also published in 1793 by the Ephrata Cloister of Dunker tradition. The Billmeyer Bibles, Psalters and related religious books are in library collections especially where the German heritage is significant.
In 1805 Gottlieb Jungmann in Reading, Pennsylvania printed a German Lutheran quarto. In 1813-14 Rev. Freidrich Goeb, in Somerset, Pennsylvania, printed the first Bible west of the Alleghanies, also a German Lutheran quarto. In 1819 Johann Bar in Lancaster, Pennsylvania printed a massive German folio Bible, the largest book printed in America to that time. The Bar Bible was substantial in both printing and binding.
The Aitken Bible was the first Bible published in English in America. This was shortly after the close of the Revolutionary War. During the War of Independence, Bibles from England were unobtainable, and Congress considered importing them from Holland and Scotland. In the Colonial era, England had banned the printing of the English Bible in America in order to give a monopoly to British publishers licensed by the Crown. Robert Aitken (1734-1802), a Quaker and Scottish immigrant, had been one of five printers who had made bids to Congress to print Bibles. Aitken already published the Congressional Quarterly and owned the largest bookstore in Philadelphia. His publication of the New Testament in English in 1777 had been a financial success so he published reprints of the Testaments in 1778, 1779, and 1781, including a school edition in 1779. In 1782 Aitken published 10,000 copies of the whole Bible, a small duodecimal (just over 5 by 3 inches in size) without pagination and with almost no margins. It was the only Bible ever authorized by Congress, but ruined Aitken financially. He had published the nearly 2,000 page Bible in a large edition, the Revolutionary war soon ended, and better and cheaper imported Bibles became available. Aitken never again published Bibles. In 1940 Rumball-Petre registered 71 copies, and estimated that there were less than 100 extant copies worldwide. These are in either one volume or two, and typically in poor condition. Aitken sent a presentation copy of the 1782 Bible to Oliver Hazard in London England, ‘the frist copy of the first edition.’ It was in two volumes and bound in olive green leather. This Bible is now in the British Museum. Another, almost perfect, copy in original binding, is at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, an important repository of old Bibles and canonical manuscripts.
In 1790, Mathew Carey (1760-1839), an Irish journalist and immigrant, printed, in two volumes, the first
Bible (and first quarto English Bible) in America from the 1763-64 Challoner edition of the Rheims-Douai version. This was printed in smaller numbers (about 470 copies) than any other early American Bible. This was because there were far fewer Catholics than Protestants in early America. John Carroll, the American Catholic superior who had encouraged Carey, estimated a Catholic population of 25,000 out of 3.5 million inhabitants in America in 1785. The Carey Catholic Bible is rarer than either Eliot\’s Bible or Aitken\’s Bible. In 1954 only 35 copies of the Carey Catholic Bible were located. Carey didn\’t publish another Bible for over ten years, but in the first two decades of the nineteenth century he became one of the biggest booksellers, and the most prolific publisher of King James Bibles in America. He also became one of America\’s most prominent and respected printers. He was the first president of a company organized in 1801 in New York that represented American booksellers nationwide.
Saur, Aitken and Carey the first three printers of Bibles in modern languages in America, were from Philadelphia. Another Philadelphian, William Young, printed in 1790, according to bibliographer Margaret Hill, the first American Bible (a duodecimal) that contained the Metrical Psalms of David (Scotch version).
Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) colonial printer, philanthropist and patriot, published the first folio Bible in America in Worcester and Boston in 1791, offering buyers a choice, which included fifty plates of illustrations. He had previously published A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible for children in 1788, with 500 small woodcuts. He published quarto, octavo, and duodecimal Bibles between 1791 and 1798, including the 1797 United States of Columbia Bible. Thomas was editor of the Massachussetts Spy newspaper, and founder of the American Antiquarian Society, which is still active today. He wrote The History of Printing in America in 1810, and pioneered the illustrated Bible in America. Thomas\’ son-in-law Anson Whipple printed the first New Hampshire Bible in Walpole in 1815.
In 1790 Isaac Collins, a Quaker from Trenton, printed the first Bible of New Jersey, a large quarto. Remarkably, he obtained the support not only of Quakers, but of Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Baptist bodies of the state. His family and others meticulously proof read this Bible, and were paid for any errors found in the text. Because of the accurate text, Collin\’s Bible became a standard for later Bible printers.
Hugh Gaine printed the first New Testament in New York in 1790. In 1792 Hodge and Campbell printed, by subscription, the first complete Bible in New York, a folio without pagination. It was an edition of John Brown\’s Self Interpreting Bible. George Washington was the first subscriber.
The first Septuagint translated into English was completed by an American Presbyterian, Charles Thompson, who had been Secretary of the American Congress from 1774 to 1789. The Septuagint was a very early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) done by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, Africa about 250 years before Christ. The Thompson English Septuagint was printed in four volumes by Jane Aitken, daughter of Robert Aitken. She was likely the first female publisher of a Bible.
The first Greek Testament (12mo) printed in America in 1800 was by Isaiah Thomas, Jr. A New Testament with Greek and Latin in parallel columns was published by John Watts in Philadelphia in 1806. America\’s first Hebrew Bible, based on Van der Hoog\’s 1705 Amsterdam edition, was printed by William Fry and published by Thomas Dobson in Philadelphia in 1814. The first French Testament published in America was in 1810 in Boston; the first French Bible in America was published by the New York Bible Society in 1815. The first New Testament printed in Spanish in the Western hemisphere was in 1819, a duodecimal by the American Bible Society in an edition of 2500. It is today very rare, only a few copies being found in collections. A Catholic Spanish Bible was published by A. Chandler in New York in 1824, and a Catholic Portuguese New Testament was published by the American Bible Society in 1839. The American Bible Society printed bilingual New Testaments with the texts in parallel columns in the 1850\’s: German/English (1854), French/English (1854) Dutch/English (1856), Spanish/English (1856), Hawaian/English (1857), Greek/Latin (1858).
Mathew Carey, Isaiah Thomas, and other commercial publishers could only compete with the non-profit Bible societies by going to more expensive, illustrated Bibles. The first stereotyped Bible in America was printed in 1812 by the Philadelphia Bible Society with plates imported from England. The U.S. and England were at war, but cooperated in this Bible publication effort. Stereotype printing greatly increased the availability of Bibles in America over the next decades. The American Bible Society, established in 1816 in New York, was, by the Civil War, publishing over a million Bibles a year. Its first Bible was printed in New York in 1816 by E & J White.
Noah Webster (1758-1843) published a revision of the King James Bible in 1833 in New Haven, Connecticut. He updated antiquated vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. He, unfortunately, removed words which he considered offensive. The octavo Webster Bible was not a financial success, the King James Version being popular.
Harper Brothers produced (1843-46) the most extravagant Bible ever produced in America. Harper\’s expenses amounted to over $20,000, a large amount for the nineteenth century. The Illuminated Bible was embellished with 1,600 engravings by J. A. Adams, mostly from original drawings by the American artist J. G. Chapman. The first electrotype from woodcuts had been done in in America by Adams in 1841, enabling the making of this Bible. A reprint of the Harper Bible was printed in 1859.
Isaac Leeser (1806-1868), from Prussia, was a leading Jewish Rabbi, and foremost Jewish scholar in America. In 1846, he published, in five volumes, the Pentateuch in Hebrew and English, titled The Law of God. In 1849 he published the Hebrew Bible with points (vowels). In 1853 he published The Twenty-four Books of the Holy Scriptures, an English translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Leeser spent fifteen years in preparation for this work, the only English work consulted being Bagster\’s Bible, a King James edition.
Leeser\’s Philadelphia contemporary was Francis P. Kenrick, who produced, from the Latin Vulgate, the first Catholic translation of the Bible in America. It was published in six volumes between 1849 and 1862. The four Gospels came out in 1849, the rest of the New Testament in 1851, and a complete one-volume New Testament in 1862. Kenrick published the Old Testament in four sections: The Psalms, Books of Wisdom, and Canticle of Canticles in 1857; Job and the Prophets in 1859; The Pentateuch in 1860; The Historical Books in 1860. Kenrick became the Archbishop of Baltimore. He died in 1863 before he would complete a revision of the whole Bible for publication in a single volume. The Kenrick Bible never became an official Catholic version.
The first 200 years of American Bible publication in America (1660-1860) have been explored. The importance of the early American Bibles historically is being more widely recognized. Some of these Bibles, particularly the Eliot, Saur, Aitken, and Thompson Bibles, are highlighted in exhibits around America from a collection of Bibles and manuscripts assembled by the Steve Green family, founders of Hobby Lobby. The Green Collection contains over 40,000 Bibles and manuscripts, the world\’s largest private collection. The collection is to be permanently housed in a museum in Washington, D. C.
Darlow, T. H., and H. F. Moule. Historical Catalogue of the Printed Editions of Holy Scriptures in the Library of the British and Foreign Bible Society. 4 volumes. London: British and Foreign Bible Society; New York: American Bible Society, 1903-1911.
Herbert, A. S. Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961. London: British and Foreign Bible Society; New York: American Bible Society, 1968.
Hills, Margaret T. The English Bible in America 1777-1957. New York: American Bible Society and The New York Public Library, 1961.
O\’ Callaghan, Edmund Bailey. A List of Editions of the Holy Scriptures and Parts Thereof Printed in America Previous to 1860. Albany, New York: Munsell and Rowland, 1861 (Detroit: Gail Research Company, 1966).
Rumball-Petre, Edwin A. R. America\’s First Bibles with a Census of 555 Extant Bibles. Portland, Maine: Southworth Anthoensen Press, 1940.
______________. Rare Bibles. New York: Philip Duschnes, 1963.
Seidensticker, Oswald. The First Century of German Printing in America 1728-1830. Philadelphia: Schaefer and Noradi, 1893 (New York: Krause Reprint Corporation, 1966).
Simms, P. Marion. The Bible in America. New York: Wilson-Erickson, 1936.
Thomas, Isaiah. The History of Printing in America. 2nd edition. Edited by Marcus A. McCorison. New York: Weathervane Books, 1970.
Wright, Rev. John. Early Bibles of America. New York: Thomas Whittaker, 3rd edition, 1894 (Mansfield Centre, Connecticut: Martino Publishing, 2004).
About the Author
Physician whose passion is glorifying God in living a world Christian lifestyle. Involved in mission mobilization and community health evangelism. Supports pro-life issues and opposes ongoing genocides . What does the Lord require of me but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God (paraphrasing the Bible prophet Amos).
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