Teach Our History
American History
shadow shadow

The First Congress and the First Bible 

In 1777, about a year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the American colonies were suffering under the embargoes imposed by the British. Among the important commodities that were in short supply were Bibles. This shortage of Bibles at such a critical time prompted a request to be placed before Congress to print or import more. A committee was appointed to study the situation, and then reported to Congress that:

"... the use of the Bible is so universal, and its importance so great... 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 of the Union."

Congress agreed with the committee's recommendation and ordered the Bibles to be imported.

As the Revolution continued, the shortage of Bibles remained a problem. In an effort to resolve the problem, in 1781, Robert Aitken, the publisher of The Pennsylvania Magazine, petitioned Congress for permission to print the Bibles on his presses here in America rather than import them. His request stated that his Bibles would be an "edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools." Congress approved his request, and appointed a committee to oversee the project.

As work to begin printing Bible neared completion, the chairman of the Congressional committee reported to Congress:

"He [Robert Aitken] undertook this expensive work at a time when from the circumstances of the war an English edition of the Bible could not be imported, nor any opinion formed how long the obstruction might continue. On this account particularly he deserves applause and encouragement."

In 1782, the full Congress approved the Bible, and printing began. This Bible became the first English Bible ever printed in America, and in the front of that Bible was the Congressional endorsement:

"Whereupon, Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled... recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States."

Later, this act of Congress prompted an American historian write:

"Who, in view of this fact, will call in question the assertion that this is a Bible nation? Who will charge the government with indifference to religion when the first Congress of the States assumed all the rights and performed all the duties of a Bible Society long before such an institution had an existence in the world!"

horizontal bar