29 March 2017

Dubious Documents: The Case of the “Bible of the Revolution” [2007]

[Original version posted 29 March 2007]
ne of the many unfinished projects I lost a few years back along with a large part of my library (collected over many years) was something I had tentatively titled Dubious Documents. The chain of links between the creation and reception of a text is fraught with peril, and errors in transmission, translation, and interpretation can render a document toxic. The idea was to examine a number of documents that aren't what they’re cracked up to be, and to see what exactly went wrong in each case. One of the texts I was considering is the (so-called) Bible of the Revolution, the 1782 Bible printed by Robert Aitken.
Now my files are lost, I have no office, and my notes are irretrievably gone, but in this case, however, I really lucked out. Somehow or other I stumbled onto an account of the “Bible of the Revolution” by Chris Rodda, the author of Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History.
What Chris Rodda has done is extremely neat, and I hope more authors in the future follow up on this approach. She put her footnotes on line. I can't emphasize this enough—she has given us her sources, and not just simple citations, but actual images of pages or documents so that the readers can examine her evidence directly for themselves. This practice alone, if followed by others (I’m looking at you, David Barton), would eliminate much bogus scholarship—cargo-cult scholarship I called it once in connection with those who support the so-called Byzantine Majority Text of the New Testament.
So in this case I want to emphasize that whatever research I may have done in the past on this subject, for this piece I acknowledge that I started by simply taking Chris Rodda's research as the basis for my account. (Not of course that she’s in any way responsible for my take on the issues involved.)
Okay, so what's the story on the Bible of the Revolution? What is the shadow that hangs over it? This version comes from William Federer’s America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations:
Robert Aitken (1734-1802), on January 21, 1781, as publisher of The Pennsylvania Magazine, petitioned Congress for permission to print Bibles, since there was a shortage of Bibles in America due to the Revolutionary War interrupting trade with England. The Continental Congress, September 10, 1782, in response to the shortage of Bibles, approved and recommended to the people that The Holy Bible be printed by Robert Aitken of Philadelphia. This first American Bible was to be “a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools”.
The story has been around for awhile. It got a boost in 1930 when two guys had one of these rare bibles dismembered and the pages individually bound along with an account of this story and facsimiles of related documents. Chris Rodda cites one account (W. P. Strickland, History of the American Bible Society from its Organization to the Present Time) from 1849:
In 1781, when, from the existence of the war, an English Bible could not be imported, and no opinion could be formed how long the obstruction might continue, the subject of printing the Bible was again presented to Congress, and it was, on motion, referred to a committee of three.
The committee, after giving the subject a careful investigation, recommended to Congress an edition printed by Robert Aitken, of Philadelphia; whereupon it was “Resolved, That the United States, in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interests of religion; and being satisfied of the care and accuracy of the execution of the work, recommend this edition to the inhabitants of the United States.”
What is particularly interesting is that this account gives the text of a key document in the story, the actual resolution by Congress. The document is a bit puzzling, however, in that Congress merely approves Aitken’s undertaking, and recommends his volume. What practical effect this might have is unclear. Also the document as printed doesn’t have that line in it about it being a neat edition for use in schools given in the later account.
Now fortunately—and this isn't always the case with historical documents, far from it—the original archives still survive. So in this case we can check the text of this version against the original, and when we do, we find that the text of this document has been unaccountably garbled in transmission. The resolution actually read:
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. [passages omitted by Strickland in bold]
The first thing that jumps out—and this is a low end version of what is called redaction criticism—is that the Strickland version omits two key passages—the first giving a secular reason for Congress’s action (“an instance of the progress of arts in this country”), and the second giving a practical consequence of the resolution (Aitken is authorized to publish the recommendation of Congress based on the care and accuracy taken in the work). The editing of the text appears to have been done to give the impression that Congress was more intimately involved with the project than it was—to make it look, in fact, as though Congress was sponsoring Aitken’s bible. The surrounding text shows that is exactly what Strickland wants us to understand, and his conclusion is especially striking:
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!
The changes, in other words, help make the document support Strickland’s position. Whether he is the perpetrator of this new version of the Congressional resolution, or merely a victim of some other editor, is immaterial. The key point is that the text was altered, and that the alteration was made in the interest of religious politics.
Which, in turn, casts some doubt on the rest of the story. Fortunately, we don’t have to leave it there. The documents exist and give us that story. Remember that phrase about the Aitken Bible being a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures intended for schools? That wasn’t in the resolution. Where did it come from? It came from a record of Congress, says one source, which is technically true (though extremely misleading). It came, in fact, from a memorial of Robert Aitken of the city of Philadelphia, printer, to the Congress of the United States. He started by noting
That in every well regulated Government in Christendom The Sacred Books of the Old and New Testament, Commonly called the Holy Bible, Are printed and published under the Authority of the Sovereign Powers, in order to prevent the fatal confusion that would arise, and the alarming Injuries the Christian Faith might Suffer from the spurious and erroneous Editions of Divine Revelation.
Aitken, in other words, was thinking of the United States as functioning somewhat in the manner of England, which had an officially established church, and in which publishing the authorized version of the bible was a prerogative of the Crown. He then goes on
That your Memorialist has no doubt but this w[ould] be an Object worthy the attention of the Congress of the United States of America, who will not Neglect spiritual security, while they are virtuously contending for temporal Blessings. 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, but being cautious of suffering his copy of the Bible to Issue forth without the sanction of Congress, Humbly prays that your Honours would take this important Matter into serious consideration & would be pleased to appoint one Member or Members of your Honourable Body to inspect his work so that the same may be published under the authority of Congress. And further your Memorialist prays, that he may be Commissioned or other wise appointed & authorised 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 be in all things perfectly consonant to the Scriptures as heretofore Established and received amongst us, And as in Duty bound your Memorialist shall ever pray
So it looks as if Robert Aitken, 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. He seems to have been traditional enough not to want anything to do with an edition that was not “perfectly consonant to the Scriptures as heretofore Established”. I find this proviso interesting. Did he imagine that Congress might come up with its own version of the Holy Scriptures? It seems to speak of a certain lack of confidence in the soundness of their religion, anyway.
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.
Documents become corrupt for a variety of reasons. This example at least shows how religious politics can distort the text of one document, cloud the origins of another, and at least imply an authority for a third that it never possessed. In point of fact the “Bible of the Revolution” is simply a failed speculation on the part of an obscure printer in the late eighteenth century.

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