In prior posts, I have provided primary source documentation that Congress did not initiate or print the first English Bible in the U.S. (the Aitken Bible). David Barton claims that Congress printed the Aitken Bible for use in schools (see the prior posts) which is not true.
Barton’s narrative derives from several aspects of the story which he weaves together to paint a misleading picture. One of those aspects is the petition to Congress made by Robert Aitken when he was nearing the completion of printing his Bible. Barton takes a sentence from that petition (“a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools”) and presents it as if Congress printed the Bible for that use. As anyone who is willing to read the primary sources will see, Congress did not say this. Aitken wanted his Bible used in schools but no Congressional action endorsed it for that purpose.
Another facet of this story has rarely been examined. To fully understand the implications of what Congress did with the Aitken Bible, it is important to understand what they did not do. Aitken’s request to Congress was couched in a particular view of how the government should relate to Christianity in general and the Bible in particular. Let’s look again at his request to Congress to catch the context:
To the Honourable The Congress of the United States of America
The Memorial of Robert Aitken of the City of Philadelphia Printer
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. That your Memorialist has no doubt but this work is 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 both 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 Honors 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 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 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 prayRobt. Aitken Philadelphia. 21, Jany. 1781.
Aitken’s assumption was that the government had an interest in making sure the Bible was available to citizens and that it was accurate in order to prevent heresies from springing up. In order to pursue what Aitken considered to be a public policy objective, he asserted that Bibles needed to printed under the authority of the government. If Aitken’s request had been granted in the manner he asked it, Congress would have published an authorized version of the Bible.
Aitken’s view of government was closer to those who wanted Christianity or some version of it as the state religion. Since the nation was Christian, Aitken reasoned, it made sense that the central government would have an official Bible and an official Bible printer. In the last paragraph, it is clear that Aitken was angling for this job (i.e., “your Memorialist prays, that he may be commissioned or otherwise appointed & Authorized to print and vend Editions of the Sacred Scriptures”).
In short, Aitken wanted Congress to inspect his Bible, then publish it under government authority and he wanted to be the official Bible printer of the United States. As we know, a committee of Congress referred the accuracy inspection to the chaplains. They gave a glowing recommendation. Then Congress commented on the work as important for religion and art and recommended the Bible to the citizens and authorized Aitken to print their recommendation.
Look at what Congress did not do. They did not designate Aitken’s Bible (or any Bible) as an authorized United States version of the Scriptures as Aitken had requested. Congress was silent about the need to protect Christianity from “fatal confusion” via the publication of an authorized governmental Bible. There was no specific recommendation for the use of the Bible (e.g., schools). And Congress did not designate Aitken (or anyone else) as the official Bible vendor for the new nation. It is what Congress did not do, as much as what they did, that helps us understand the significance of this set of events.
Aitken’s view was that a Christian nation had duties to promote and privilege Christianity. The response of Congress indicates a different perspective. Congress was not hostile to the request but they did not gratify all of Aitken’s wishes. There was no official Bible, no declaration that well-regulated governments prevent “fatal confusion” in Christianity by printing an official text of the Bible. Finally, Congress did not see any need to appoint someone to print Bible under governmental authority.
I am glad that Congress did not establish an official Bible printer and an official version of the Bible. I think Christianity and religion in general do best in an environment low in government regulation. Can you imagine the protests today if the government took over Bible printing and declared an official state Bible?
In any case, full context is necessary, which in this case means understanding what Congress did as well as what Congress did not do.