Aitken Bible Marker
The Providence Forum believes memorials, monuments, and symbols are an important part of teaching and retaining our American history and heritage. Recognizing the importance of the Bible to our founders, Providence Forum worked to memorialize the location of the printing of the first English Bible printed in America.
The First Printer of the English Bible in North America
The Providence Forum had the honor to work with the State of Pennsylvania to create a historical marker for Robert Aitken, the first printer of the English Bible in North America. This event is significant because prior to the revolutionary war the printing of the Bible in English, by order of the king, was only permitted in England or Scotland. While America had seen translations of the Bible printed for both Indian tribes and other ethnic groups such as Germans, an English version had not yet been printed in the New World.
With the non-importation agreement among the colonists, nothing could be brought in from the United Kingdom. This meant that America began to run out of Bibles. It was in this context that Robert Aitken, born in 1734 (1802 deceased), decided to take up the task to create the first fully printed English Bible. His printing shop was in Philadelphia very close to Front Street on Market Street. He was from the Quaker tradition.
Breaking the Law
When Aitken’s Bible appeared in Philadelphia in 1782, the Revolutionary War was still ongoing so that technically, from the perspective of British law, Aitken’s edition of the Bible was illegal. Nevertheless Aitken’s Bible and his enormous achievement were celebrated. Upon completion of his Bible, it was presented to the Continental Congress and reviewed by a committee. One of those who reviewed it was the Reverend John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. The Bible received the endorsement of Congress and has ever since been known as Congress’ Bible.
However, the war soon came to an end and America received an influx of imported English Bibles. The 10,000 Bibles Robert Aitken had printed were more expensive than the imported Bibles and as a result, Aitken nearly went bankrupt for his efforts. Ironically, The Aitken Bibles have nearly disappeared over time and now are collectors’ items and sell for as much as $100,000 each.
A Historical Celebration
The Robert Aitken historical marker was unveiled in 2011. Following the unveiling a small celebration of its unveiling occurred at nearby Christ Episcopal Church’s neighborhood building with local government officials, students from local schools as well as Pennsylvania State government representatives.
Local businesses such as America’s oldest candy company, Shane’s Candy Company, and the nearby Franklin Fountain participated in the celebration.
Now when The Providence Forum leads a tour of historic Philadelphia, we like to point to the marker and tell the story of the Robert Aitken’s first Bible printed in America and its endorsement by Congress and share our role in preserving this important piece of our city and state’s Judeo-Christian heritage.