Scripture Stories: Religious Right Claims About The ‘Aitken Bible’ Don’t Hold Up

Robert Aitken made a poor business decision. He printed a bunch of Bible and was unable to sell them – and he wanted the government to bail him out.

Tomorrow several conservative members of the U.S. House of Representatives plan to hold a public reading of the Aitken Bible on the East Front Lawn of the Capitol. Among the participants will be U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who once famously quizzed AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn about hell during a congressional hearing.

So what is the Aitken Bible, and what are people reading from it? As it turns out, this Bible has been the subject of much bad history from the Religious Right. It's important to set the record straight.

According to various Religious Right groups and several right-wing pseudo-historians (like Glenn Beck), the Aitken Bible was printed by Congress during the Revolution and inspired American troops to fight the British. It is proof, they assert, that America was founded to be a “Christian nation.”

Warren Throckmorton and Chris Rodda have done in-depth work debunking this myth. Their research is penetrating, and I recommend it to you. Here’s the short version:

Robert Aitken was a printer who decided in 1781 to produce a version of the Bible and offer it for sale. During the years when the United States was a colony of Great Britain, colonial printers weren’t permitted to print Bibles. Other American merchants suffered similar restrictions on what they could produce and sell. Remember, the British wanted a ready-made market for their imported goods and didn’t tolerate much competition from the colonists.

Aitken printed the Bible at his own expense as the war was winding down. He then began bombarding Congress with petitions and letters asking that he be made the official printer of Bibles in America.

It’s unclear why Aitken thought the newly liberated United States would have an official printer of Bibles. He may have assumed that the new country would operate along the lines of the European powers, many of which had established churches and did maintain offices that examined Bibles for doctrinal purity.

Congress had no interest in taking on that role. In September of 1782, members did pass a resolution lauding Aitken’s Bible, but they authorized no taxpayer funds for its printing. Aitken was on his own there.

The resolution includes language hailing the Bible as “an instance of the progress of arts in this country.” As Rodda points out, that Congress took pains to cite a secular reason for highlighting the printing of this Bible is significant: It showed that our new nation was able to run its own industries.

In a perfect world, Congress wouldn’t have passed this resolution. But symbolic resolutions, which don’t have the force of law, were common then and are common now. To this day, Congress passes resolutions calling for days of prayer and commemorating religious events. Those of us who advocate the separation of church and state don’t like it, but the courts haven’t been sympathetic to our view. But in this case, there is less to this resolution than has been claimed.

Undaunted, Aitken wrote to George Washington, asking him to authorize the government to purchase a batch of Bibles to give to the American troops. Eventually, Washington wrote back. His note was polite, but he made it clear that wouldn’t be happening.

Rodda points out that Washington had other things on his mind. He faced a near mutiny among some of his troops, many of whom hadn’t been paid in months. Money was scarce, and any funds Washington could lay his hands on went to pay the soldiers, not purchase Bibles.

One gets the impression that Aitken had made a poor business decision. He printed a bunch of Bible and was unable to sell them – and he wanted the government to bail him out. Thus, he repeatedly petitioned government officials to adopt his Bible as an “official” version. They declined.

(As an aside, one wonders why, if everyone in colonial America was as pious and thirsty for the scriptures as the Religious Right would have us believe, Aitken’s Bible flopped – but that’s speculation for another day.)

Time passed. Copies of Aitken’s Bible became rare and valuable. Antiquarian booksellers, to add to the tome’s lineage, told tales about Aitken’s version being the Bible of the Revolution and claimed that U.S. soldiers carried it into battle when they fought the dastardly British. Of course, this wasn’t true – the war was nearly over when the Bible was printed, but these romantic claims helped sell books.

In addition, the Bible was reprinted over the years. Later editions often included grandiose claims about the Aitken Bible being the “official” Bible of Congress and whatnot.

Just to be clear: The Aitken Bible is of genuine historical interest. Despite its inability to sell, it is an example, as Congress noted, of the rise of a printing industry in an America independent of Great Britain. Plus, it’s an old and rare volume. Like a first edition of a Charles Dickens novel or a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, it’s worthy of preservation.

That alone is enough reason to commemorate the Aitken Bible. False stories about it being printed by Congress as “the official Bible of America” don’t add to its luster.