Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Since it’s that time of year where TV shows are all in reruns, I’ve decided to rerun this year’s episodes of my “No, Mr. Beck” series here, an episode a day for the rest of the week. (Several exciting new episodes are in the works for “season 2,” which I’ll be working on after the holidays.)

The background for those who don’t already know: Earlier this year, pseudo-historian David Barton hooked up with Fox News crazy person Glenn Beck, becoming a recurring guest “historian” on Beck’s TV show and appearing at a number of Beck’s events, gaining a whole new, and much larger, audience for his historical hogwash. So, back in June, I began doing a video series on the Huffington Post, debunking the lies told by Barton on Beck’s show. Most of these videos are accompanied by a text version (either something I’ve already written on the particular lie in the video, or a transcript of what I said in the video.) This one has the excerpt from my book addressing the Aitken Bible lie.

One of the items in Barton’s bag of historical tricks is a rare Bible printed in 1782 by Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken. This Bible has been a mainstay of Barton’s presentations for years, and was, as expected, one of the featured pieces of Christian nation “evidence” whipped out on Beck’s show. Barton’s bogus claim about this Bible? It was printed by Congress for the use of schools — proof that the founders never intended a separation between church and state. Needless to say, Beck and his audience are just eating this stuff up. Barton’s appearances on Beck’s show have propelled his 15-year-old book of historical hogwash, Original Intent, to bestseller status, reaching as high as #6 on Amazon. At the time that I made this video, Barton’s masterpiece of historical revisionism was ludicrously, and alarmingly, holding the #1 spot in the category of “Constitutional Law.”

A quick note before getting into the book excerpt below: Because I went in chronological order, the chapter begins with the myth that the Continental Congress imported Bibles in 1777. This other story, about an earlier unfulfilled request to Congress to import Bibles during the war, made by a Rev. Alison, is referenced a few times in the story of the 1782 Aitken Bible. This is because some of the revisionists, including Barton, attempt to connect these two stories, even though there is absolutely no connection between them. All you really need to know for the purposes of understanding these references in this excerpt is that the Continental Congress did not import any Bibles in 1777, but if you do want to read the whole 1777 Bible story, the entire “Congress and the Bible” chapter is available as a sample chapter PDF on my website. (And for any history geeks or skeptics who want to verify my sources, you can also view images of all the documents cited in my footnotes in my footnote archive. I’ve left the footnote numbers here as they are numbered in the book so they correspond with the numbers in the archive.)

Now, on to the story:

The second of the top three myths about Congress and the Bible involves the edition of the Bible begun by Robert Aitken in 1780, and completed in 1782.

According to William Federer, in his book America’s God and Country: “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':

Whereupon, Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled … recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States, and hereby authorize [Robert Aitken] to publish this recommendation in any manner he shall think proper.”

Elsewhere in the same book, Federer includes a second version of the story, in which Aitken was “contracted” by Congress to print his Bibles.

According to Federer: “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.”

There are many versions of this story floating around, 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 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,(8) not the resolution of Congress.

The actual resolution is edited in various ways. The purpose of this editing is to omit that Congress also had a secular reason for recommending Aitken’s Bible, and, in most cases, to turn the resolution into a recommendation of the Bible itself, rather than a recommendation of the accuracy of Aitken’s work.

This is the typical, and often copied, version of the resolution that appears on James H. Hutson’s religion 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.'”

The following is 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.(9)

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,”(10) and that he “be commissioned or otherwise appointed & Authorized to print and vend Editions of the Sacred Scriptures.”(11) He also asked Congress to purchase some of his Bibles and distribute them to the states. Congress did not grant any of these other requests. The only help Aitken ever got from Congress was the resolution endorsing the accuracy of his work.

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 this Bible was a great way for Congress 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. But, by omitting the part of the resolution acknowledging this “instance of the progress of arts,” it is easily made to appear that Congress passed this resolution for the sole purpose of promoting religion.

In 1968, the American Bible Society published a reprint of the Aitken Bible. Appearing in the center of the title page of this reprint, in very large type, are the words “As Printed by Robert Aitken and Approved & Recommended by the Congress of the United States of America in 1782.” Although this page was added by the American Bible Society, it is quoted on many websites as the title page of the original. The first few pages of Aitken’s Bible contained the resolution of Congress, the letter from the committee to the chaplains requesting that they examine the edition for accuracy, and the report of the chaplains.

The following is the committee’s letter to the chaplains, as it appears in the Journals of the Continental Congress.

“Rev. Gentlemen, Our knowledge of your piety and public spirit leads us without apology to recommend to your particular attention the edition of the holy scriptures publishing by Mr. Aitken. He 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. We therefore wish you, reverend gentlemen, to examine the execution of the work, and if approved, to give it the sanction of your judgment, and the weight of your recommendation. We are with very great respect, your most obedient humble servants.”(12)

The chaplains, Rev. Dr. White and Rev. Mr. Duffield, reported back to the committee:

“Gentlemen, Agreeably to your desire, we have paid attention to Mr. Robert Aitken’s impression of the holy scriptures, of the old and new testament. Having selected and examined a variety of passages throughout the work, we are of opinion, that it is executed with great accuracy as to the sense, and with as few grammatical and typographical errors as could be expected in an undertaking of such magnitude. Being ourselves witnesses of the demand for this invaluable book, we rejoice in the present prospect of a supply, hoping that it will prove as advantageous as it is honorable to the gentleman, who has exerted himself to furnish it at the evident risk of private fortune. We are, gentlemen, your very respectful and humble servants.”(13)

On many Christian American history websites, and in a handful of books, the Aitken Bible is called “The Bible of the Revolution,” implying that this was what the Bible was called at the time it was published. In reality, however, this title was invented much later, when individual Aitken Bible leaves were packaged for sale.

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 first dubbed “The Bible of the Revolution” by Robert Dearden and Douglas Watson in 1930. Dearden and Watson, who were trying to sell over five hundred Aitken Bible leaves, had the leaves, along with facsimiles of various documents related to the 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 by Dearden and Watson for this book is one source of the versions of the lies used by today’s religious right for both their 1777 and 1782 Bible stories.

Myths about the Aitken Bible have also been perpetuated by the antique book dealers now selling these Dearden and Watson leaves, or those from another copy dismembered in 1998 to create a similar collectible item, who describe Aitken’s 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 Dearden and Watson 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.”(14)

As already mentioned, this request was denied. Eight months later, despite his anticipation of a great demand for Bibles in America, the recommendation 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 a minister friend, Dr. John 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.

“What I would take the Liberty to suggest to your Excellency, is the presenting each Soldier, & Non Commissioned Officer in the American Army, with a Copy of this Bible, by Congress, on their being disbanded. This would serve not only to save a deserving Citizen from Ruin who highly Merits Attention; but would serve to furnish those brave Men to whom America is so greatly indebted for their Liberties, in the Hand of Heaven with a sure Guide to eternal Life, if they will but take heed to it.

“Such are the Obligations that your Country, & Congress as their grand representation, are under to your Excellency, and such is just Sense they have of these obligations, that a Line from your Excellency to Congress on the Subject, and I would wish it as a *** Motion of your own, would probably have the desired Effect — I take a Liberty — to suggest the Thought, and your Excellency will make such Use of it as your Prudence shall dictate.”(15)

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.”(16)

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. There was dissent among the officers who knew that Congress didn’t have the money to pay their promised pensions. This problem 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 go along and 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 to be paid. These soldiers surrounded the State House, 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.

Aitken ended up losing over 3,000 on the 10,000 Bibles he printed. Few stories about the Aitken Bible mention that it sold poorly, and those that do blame it on the competition of cheaper British Bibles. The problem with this theory is that Aitken completed his Bible 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. Alison had written to Congress that the “number of purchasers is so great, that we doubt not but a large impression would soon be sold.” 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 1790, Aitken wrote to George Washington, using his losses from printing his Bibles as one of the reasons that Washington should help him get the job of Printer and Stationer to Congress. In this letter, Aitken not only exaggerated the involvement of Congress in his 1782 printing, but hinted that he was still looking for government help to print Bibles. Aitken claimed in this letter that “the scarcity of that valuable book was such, as to claim the attention of Congress, and excite their solicitude for a supply” and “that the Book was undertaken in a great measure at the instance, and under the Patronage of Congress.” Congress never solicited a supply of Bibles, nor did Aitken undertake his printing in any way at their instance. The Papers and Journals of the Continental Congress clearly show this was all initiated by Aitken himself.

The following is from Aitken’s 1790 letter to George Washington. Washington, who did not know Aitken personally, did not answer this letter personally. He had his secretary, Tobias Lear, inform Aitken that he should apply to Congress if he wanted to be the printer to Congress.

“I doubt not Your Excellency recollects, that I printed an Edition of the Bible, at a time when the scarcity of that valuable book was such, as to claim the attention of Congress, and excite their solicitude for a supply; It was done under the inspection of a Committee of that Honorable Body, though at my sole expence, and the work was highly approved and recommended to the inhabitants of the United States — ‘by the Act of Congress of September 12th 1782.’ The peace which took place soon after, removed the obstructions to importation, and so glutted the market with Bibles that I was obliged to sell mine much below prime cost; and in the End, I actually sunk above 3000 by the impression. These two circumstances render my losses exceedingly heavy, and indeed, almost unsupportable: But, Sir, I flatter myself I may hope for some compensation, in a small share of Public Favour; especially when it is considered, that the Book was undertaken in a great measure at the instance, and under the Patronage of Congress — Under this impression, together with the perfect conviction of Your Excellency’s benevolence; and your sympathy with all the virtuous feelings of Human Nature; I humbly trust that you will be pleased to have me appointed Printer & Stationer to Congress; or in any other way in which I might be of Public Service, in the line of my business. I had it in Contemplation, to Petition your Excellency for an exclusive right, for a term of Years, to print the Bible within the United States, conceiving that my Sufferings, in consequence of my former Undertaking would entitle me to a preference: But a faithful execution of this Work would require, in Order to carry it on with propriety and good effect, such large sums of money, as I am utterly incapable of commanding; and therefore, however pleasing an employment it would be to me, while I live, I am constrained to relinquish former intentions in this respect, for want of the Means to carry them into effect.”(17)

In his book America’s Christian History: The Untold Story, Gary DeMar uses another popular approach to the 1777 and 1782 Bible stories. He manufactures a connection between the failure of Congress to import Bibles in 1777 and the printing of the Aitken Bible, making it appear that Aitken’s Bible was somehow printed in place of the Bibles that weren’t imported five years earlier.

In a section of his book titled “The Congressional Bible,” DeMar begins the 1777 story with the typical lie, claiming that “Congress issued an official resolution instructing the Committee on Commerce to import 20,000 copies of the Bible,” but truthfully states that the Bibles were never actually imported. He then explains the failure to import Bibles by implying that Congress, as a substitute for the Bibles that weren’t imported, had something to do with the printing of Aitken’s New Testaments, the first of which was published in 1777.

According to DeMar: “Even though the resolution passed, action was never taken to import the Bibles. Instead, Congress began to put emphasis on the printing of Bibles within the United States. In 1777 Robert Aitken of Philadelphia published a New Testament. Three additional editions were published in 1789, 1779, and 1781. The edition of 1779 was used in schools. Aitken’s efforts proved so popular that he announced his desire to publish the whole Bible; he then petitioned Congress for support. Congress adopted the following resolution in 1782…”

Aitken did not print his 1777 edition of New Testament because Congress “put emphasis on the printing of Bibles within the United States.” There is no connection whatsoever between Congress not importing Bibles in 1777 and any edition of the Bible printed by Aitken.

In his book Original Intent, David Barton also tries to connect the two stories, but since Barton claims that Congress did import Bibles in 1777, his version is a little different. According to Barton, Congress was having Robert Aitken print Bibles so that they wouldn’t have to continue to import them. As already mentioned, Barton ends his version of the 1777 story with the statement “Congress agreed and ordered the Bibles imported.” A few pages later, he begins his version of the Aitken Bible story.

According to Barton: “As the war prolonged, the shortage of Bibles remained a problem. Consequently, 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.”

Barton goes on to claim: “On September 12, 1782, the full Congress approved that Bible, which soon began rolling off the presses.”

Obviously, Congress didn’t do anything “rather than” importing Bibles, because they weren’t importing any Bibles to begin with. Barton’s claim that Aitken asked for permission to print his Bible is, of course, untrue because he was already printing it when he petitioned Congress in January 1781, and it was nearly completed when the September 12, 1782 resolution was passed.

Barton ends his story with the following quote from what he refers to as “an early historian.”

“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 quote is accurate. For this one, Barton misquotes the title of the book that the quote comes from. In his endnotes, he lists the book as History of the American Society from its Organization to the Present Time. The actual title is History of the American Bible Society from its Organization to the Present Time. Barton’s “early historian” is W.P. Strickland. That would be Reverend W.P. Strickland, a nineteenth century Liar for Jesus.

The following is a longer excerpt from Rev. Strickland’s book, which contains the 1849 versions of the 1777 and 1782 Bible stories.

“The Congress of 1777 answered a memorial on the subject of Bible destitution in this country by appointing a committee to advise as to the printing an edition of thirty thousand Bibles. The population of the country then was only about three millions, and all the Bibles in the entire world at that period did not exceed four millions. Thus it will be seen that its circulation in this and all other countries at that time was exceedingly limited.

“The report of the committee appointed by Congress forms one of the brightest epochs in the history of our country, and sheds a clear and steady light over every subsequent eventful period. The public recognition of God in that act was of infinitely greater importance in giving stability to the times, and securing the permanency of our institutions, than all the imposing and formidable array of legal enactments ever made for the establishment of religion.

“The committee, finding it difficult to procure the necessary material, such as paper and types, recommended Congress ‘the use of the Bible being so universal, and its importance so great — to direct the Committee on Commerce to import, at the expense of Congress, twenty thousand English Bibles from Holland, Scotland, or elsewhere, into the different ports of the States of the Union.’ The report was adopted, and the importation ordered.

“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.’

How interesting is such a history of the early circulation of the Bible in this country! What moral sublimity in the fact, as it stands imperishably recorded and filed in the national archives! 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! What a standing, withering rebuke this to ecclesiastico-political demagogues, who, imitating the example of a late minister of instruction for France, would expel the Bible from the schools of our land!”(18)

8. Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives Microfilm Publication M247, r48, i41, v1, p63.
9. Gaillard Hunt, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 23, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1914), 574.
10. Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives Microfilm Publication M247, r48, i41, v1, p63.
11. ibid.
12. Gaillard Hunt, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 23, (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1914), 573.
13. ibid.
14. Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives Microfilm Publication M247, r90, i78, v1, p421.
15. John Rodgers to George Washington, May 30, 1783, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4, General Correspondence.
16. George Washington to John Rodgers, June 11, 1783, ibid.
17. Robert Aitken to George Washington, June 9, 1790, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4, General Correspondence.
18. W.P. Strickland, History of the American Bible Society from its Organization to the Present Time, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1849), 19-21.