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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Did the US Congress print a bible?

The story of the US Congress printing its own bible for use in schools during the early years of this countries formation has been circulating for years. The basis for the story seems to have done in this case to use a genuine resolution recommending a Bible published by a Philadelphia printer, Robert Aitkin, for its care and accuracy in printing (colonial printers were notoriously careless and inaccurate) as the basis for this lie:
Whereupon, Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an instance of the progress of arts in this country, and being satisfied of the care and accuracy in the execution of the work, they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorise him to publish this recommendation in the manner he shall think proper.

The phrase “for use in all schools” may have been suggested by these words in Robert Aitkin’s petition: “your Memorialist begs leave to inform your Honours that he hath begun and made considerable progress in a neat Edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools.”
However, it was never stated by Congress that it intended for the bible to be used in schools.

Robert Aitken, did petition the US Congress to review his bible. Here is his request (The words in {brackets} are difficult to read.): “Under this persuasion your Memorialist begs leave to inform your Honours that he {hath} begun and made considerable progress in a neat Edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools. [And] being cautious of {suffering} his copy of the Bible to {be set forth} without the Sanction of Congress Humbly prays that your Honors would take this important Matter into serious consideration & would be [illegible] to a [illegible] one Member or Members of your Honorable [illegible] to inspect his work to that the same may be published under the authority of Congress. And memorialist prays that he may be Commissioned or otherwise appointed & authorized to print and vend Editions of the Sacred Scriptures, in such manner and form as may best suit the wants and demands of the good people of these States, provided the same being in all things perfectly consonant to the Scriptures as heretofore Established and received amongst us.”

So it looks as if Robert Aitken, a printer, had visions of being the authorized bible publisher for the new nation, “appointed … to print and vend Editions of the Sacred Scriptures”; the possibility of getting the contract for supplying school bibles must have seemed especially attractive.

So, how did Congress respond to these requests? Did it recommend that Aitken’s bible be used in schools? Well, no. Did it commission Robert Aitken, printer, to print and vend editions of the Holy Scriptures? Again, no. Did it have the work published under its authority? Once again, no. What Congress did was have the chaplains check the book for accuracy, and allow Aitken to publish a statement that Congress found it to be carefully and accurately done. And that’s all Congress did. They pointedly did not authorize its use in schools, for example. In the end Congress did not even buy copies for distribution to the troops, as Aitken hoped. The edition lost money, and its poor sales are the reason it is so rare today.

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