Barton Revises History to Promote the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools
After citing a few irrelevant 17th century laws from the then theocratic colonies of New England, Barton continued with the following:
Now by the time you get to the founding fathers -- I mean we'd had education going then for 140...50...60 years and yes the Bible was definitely in schools, and they took steps to make sure that it stayed in schools. One of the things that we have in the WallBuilders library is one of the rarest books in the world. It is a Bible. It's called the Bible of the Revolution. When it was printed in 1782 they printed 20,000 and there's 26 left in the world today, and -- so we have one - the Library of Congress, etc. -- but what's really cool about that Bible is it was printed by the U.S. Congress and the records of Congress say that this is quote "a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of our schools" end quote. So, there you have the founding fathers - we just win the Revolution, we just whip the British at Yorktown - and they say let's get a Bible -- by the way let's print one in Congress -- by the way let's make sure we use it in our schools -- and that Bible actually has a Congressional endorsement in the front, which makes it pretty clear where the founding fathers stood on the Bible in schools.
Needless to say, none of this is true.
Barton mixes two different lies here, combining a distortion of the Northwest Ordinance with his lie about the 1782 Aitken Bible, but I'm going to confine this article to the Bible story, a lie that has been used for over 150 years to promote Bible reading in schools. For those who want to read about Barton's erroneous claim that the Northwest Ordinance required that religion be taught in public schools, the chapter from my book on that subject is available as a free download on my website.
There are many versions of the Aitken Bible story in the religious right American history books, all worded to mislead that Congress either requested the printing of the Bibles, granted Aitken permission to print them, contracted him to print them, paid for the printing, or had the Bibles printed for the use of schools. Congress did none of these things. All they did was grant one of several requests made by Aitken by having their chaplains examine his work, and allowing him to publish their resolution stating that, based on the chaplains' report, they were satisfied that his edition was accurate. The words "a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools" are taken from a letter written by Aitken,(1) not the resolution of Congress.
According to Barton, in his book Original Intent:
" Robert Aitken, publisher of The Pennsylvania Magazine, petitioned Congress on January 21, 1781, for permission to print the Bibles on his presses here in America rather than import them." and "On September 12, 1782, the full Congress approved that Bible, which soon began rolling off the presses."
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'"
Elsewhere in the same book, Federer presents a second version of the story, in which Aitken was "contracted" by Congress to print his Bibles:
"Congress of the Confederation September 10, 1782, in response to the need for Bibles which again arose, granted approval to print 'a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use of schools.' The printing was contracted to Robert Aitken of Philadelphia, a bookseller and publisher of The Pennsylvania Magazine, who had previously petitioned Congress on January 21, 1781."
The actual resolution of Congress is edited in various ways, the purpose of which is to omit that Congress also had a secular reason for recommending Aitken's Bible, and, in most cases, to make it appear that the resolution was a recommendation of the Bible itself, rather than a recommendation of the accuracy of Aitken's work.
The following is a typical edited version of the resolution, from James T. Hutson's Religion and the Founding of the American Republic exhibit on the Library of Congress website:
"Congress 'highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion...in this country, and...they recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States.'"
This was the entire resolution:
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 from the above report, of his 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.(2)
The secular benefit of this resolution, omitted by Hutson and others, was that it acknowledged "an instance of the progress of arts in this country." Publicizing the accuracy of Aitken's Bible was a great way to promote the American printing industry. Few American printers at this time were printing books. Most limited their businesses to broadsides, pamphlets, and newspapers. The books that were printed in America were not only more expensive than those imported from England, but had a reputation for being full of errors. Congress knew that as soon as the war was over and books could once again be imported, any progress that the book shortage had caused in the printing industry would end. The war had created an opportunity for American printers to prove themselves, and Robert Aitken had done that. Printing an accurate edition of a book as large as the Bible was a monumental task for any printer, and Congress wanted it known that an American printer had accomplished it.
Robert Aitken actually asked Congress for quite a bit more than they gave him. In addition to his work being examined by the chaplains, Aitken requested that his Bible "be published under the Authority of Congress,"(3) and that he "be commissioned or otherwise appointed & Authorized to print and vend Editions of the Sacred Scriptures."(4) He also asked Congress to purchase some of his Bibles and distribute them to the states. None of these other requests were granted. The only help Aitken ever got from Congress was the resolution endorsing the accuracy of his work.
David Barton called this Bible The Bible of the Revolution, as do many Christian American history websites, and a handful of books. According to Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell, in their book America's Providential History:
"In 1782, Congress acted the role of a Bible society by officially approving the printing and distribution of the 'Bible of the Revolution,' an American translation prepared by Robert Aitken."
The Aitken Bible was dubbed The Bible of the Revolution in 1930, when Robert Dearden and Douglas Watson, who were trying to sell over five hundred Aitken Bible leaves, had single leaves, along with facsimilies of various documents related to this Bible, made into books. The books were sold as An Original Leaf from the Bible of the Revolution, and an Essay Concerning It By Robert R. Dearden, Jr. and Douglas S. Watson. The essay written for this book by Dearden and Watson contains many of the same lies about Congress and the Bible used by today's religious right.
A number of myths about the Aitken Bible have been perpetuated by antique book dealers selling these Dearden and Watson leaves, who describe the Bible as small enough to fit in the coat pocket of the soldiers, implying that this was the reason for its size. Some of these book dealers also list the other documents printed in the book, including what is often described as "the text of George Washington's letter commending Robert Aitken for helping to meet the American soldiers' need for Bibles."
Washington did write a letter regarding the Bibles, but it was not a letter to commend Robert Aitken for helping to meet the American soldiers' need for Bibles. These Bibles never even ended up in the hands of the soldiers. Washington's letter was a reply to a letter from Aitken's friend Dr. John Rodgers, a Presbyterian minister who was trying to help Aitken sell his Bibles to Congress.
By the time Aitken finished his Bible, the war was winding down. He knew that if peace was declared, and trade with England resumed, he would be stuck with thousands of Bibles that he would never be able to sell. On September 9, 1782, three days before Congress passed their resolution, Aitken wrote the following to John Hanson, the President of Congress, requesting that Congress buy some of the Bibles.
It need not be suggested to the Wisdom of that Honourable Body that the Monarchs of Europe have hitherto deemed the Sacred Scriptures peculiarly worthy of the Royal Patronage, nor that a Work of such magnitude must nearly crush an individual unless assisted by exterior Aid in supporting so great a weight; nor will I presume to prescribe the Mode in which Such Aid may be afforded; but I beg leave to intimate, that as I apprehend my greatest risque arises from the Near Approach of Peace, my utmost wishes would be accomplished if Congress will purchase a proportion of the edition on Acct of the United States. One Fourth of it will not Amount to 200 Bibles for each State; And as I am anxious merely to secure the sale of the Books, it will not be inconsistent with my views to allow a Moderate Credit.(5)
As already mentioned, this request was denied. Eight months later, despite his anticipation of a great demand for Bibles in America, the resolution of Congress, and no competition from imports, Aitken hadn't sold many Bibles. In April 1783, Congress officially declared the end of hostilities, and the army was beginning to disband. In May 1783, Aitken tried again to get Congress to buy his Bibles - this time to give as gifts to the soldiers being discharged. Aitken knew that Congress would deny the request if he made it himself, so he had Rodgers write to George Washington, suggesting not only that Congress buy the Bibles for the soldiers, but that Washington propose the idea as if it was his own. Congress, of course, would be extremely unlikely to deny a request that came from George Washington.
The following is from Dr. Rodgers's letter:
There is another Subject I beg Leave to mention to your Excellency, & that is the case of a worthy citizen of these states, Mr. Robert Aitkin, who has published an Edition of the Bible in our Language; and which was undertaken at a Time when that sacred book was very scarce & the Inhabitants of these States in great Want of it--but the peculiar difficulty & expence attending a Work of such Magnitude in the then State of our Country delayed it's Completion till the Approach of Peace; and British Bibles being imported much cheaper than he can afford to sell His, He is like to be ruined by His generous Effort in behalf of our Divine Religion--Painful Thought, and not very honorable is this rising Empire, that the first Man who undertook to print the holy Scriptures in our language in America, Should be beggared by it.
The following was Washington's reply:
Your proposition concerning Mr. Aikin's Bibles would have been particularly noted by me, had it been suggested in season, but the late Resolution of Congress for discharging part of the Army, taking off near two thirds of our numbers, it is now too late to make the attempt. It would have pleased me well, if Congress had been pleased to make such an important present to the brave fellows, who have done so much for the security of their Country's rights and establishment.(7)
This letter was nothing more than a polite reply to Dr. Rodgers. It is highly unlikely that Washington would have asked Congress to buy the Bibles, even if the idea had been proposed earlier. Most of the soldiers being discharged were owed months, or even years, of back pay and Congress was deeply in debt. Dissent among the officers, who feared that Congress wouldn't have the money to pay their promised pensions, was so bad that a group of politicians was able to instigate the Newburgh Conspiracy. With the goal of raising money to pay the country's debts, these politicians hatched a plot to scare the American people into allowing Congress to impose taxes on them, a power that it didn't have under the Articles of Confederation. A few anonymous addresses was all it took to get some of Washington's officers to cook up what would look like a threat of an armed takeover of the government by the disgruntled army. Washington had just managed to put a stop to this a few months before receiving Dr. Rodgers's letter. In another incident not long after this, a mob of armed soldiers marched into Philadelphia demanding their pay, surrounding the State House and forcing the Congress to move to Princeton. It's a pretty safe bet that Washington would have been far more concerned with paying the soldiers than giving them Bibles.
Robert Aitken ended up losing over £3,000 on the 10,000 Bibles he printed. (Barton's number of 20,000 is incorrect.) Religious right history authors don't like to mention that the Aitken Bible sold poorly, and those who do blame it solely on the competition of cheaper British Bibles. The problem with this, however, is that although Aitken was clearly concerned when he completed his Bible in September 1782 that the end of the war would hinder its sales, he did end up having quite a bit of time with no competition. His Bible was completed seven months before the end of hostilities was declared by Congress, and over a year before the peace treaty with Great Britain was ratified. According to the treaty, American ports would not be open to British ships until all British troops were removed, which was clearly going to take a while, so the possibility of a supply of imported Bibles was still uncertain even at this point.
In 1777, Rev. Francis Alison, in a memorial to Congress regarding his idea to alleviate the Bible shortage by printing an edition in Philadelphia, speculated that the "number of purchasers is so great, that we doubt not but a large impression would soon be sold."(8) Obviously, Rev. Alison greatly overestimated the demand for Bibles because, in 1782, after five more years without a supply, Robert Aitken couldn't sell his. In what was his only factual statement about the Aitken Bible, David Barton called it one of the rarest books in the world. Even well over a century ago, fewer than fifty copies were thought to exist. The presumable explanation for its rarity? Hardly any of the 10,000 Bibles printed were ever sold, and the piles of unsold copies were eventually thrown out.
1. Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives Microfilm Publication M247, r48, i41, v1, p63.
2. Gaillard Hunt, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 23, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1914), 574.
3. Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives Microfilm Publication M247, r48, i41, v1, p63.
5. ibid., M247, r90, i78, v1, p421.
6. John Rodgers to George Washington, May 30, 1783, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4, General Correspondence.
7. George Washington to John Rodgers, June 11, 1783, ibid.
8. Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives Microfilm Publication M247, r53, i42, v1, p35
Previous articles in this series on Historical Revisionism from the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools:
More Historical Revisionism from the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools - 3/18/ 2007
Barton Revises History to Promote the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools | 6 comments (6 topical, 0 hidden)
Barton Revises History to Promote the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools | 6 comments (6 topical, 0 hidden)