University of Virginia Library

William H. Gaines, Jr.

The early summer of the third year of the Revolutionary War was a period of crisis for the struggling colonials. One British army under General Burgoyne had launched an invasion of New York State from Canada and, having conquered Ticonderoga, was moving down the Hudson towards Albany. Another, commanded by General Sir William Howe, was being herded aboard the troopships that were to take them from New York to the Head of Elk in Maryland, from which they were to march overland to the rebel capital at


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Philadelphia. In that city, the Continental Congress was busy with the varied complex of problems, military, diplomatic, and financial, that were all crying for attention and action.

There, on the seventh of July, 1777, a petition from a group of Presbyterian clergymen was received, which called on the Congress to underwrite the printing of an edition of the Bible for the use of patriot families. This petition was sponsored by the Reverend Francis Allison, assistant pastor of the first Presbyterian church of Philadelphia; John Ewing, provost of the University of Pennsylvania; and William Marshall. These gentlemen were much concerned over the lack of Bibles in the colonies and the difficulty of importing them from abroad, and they apparently felt that a war for liberty could not be won by bullets alone. The petition[1] was immediately referred to a committee consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Daniel Roberdeau and Jonathan Bayard Smith of Philadelphia.[2]

The petition, the original manuscript of which appears in the Papers of the Continental Congress, is printed here below for the first time:

  • 1. As the Price of Bibles for the Use of Families and Schools is greatly advanced beyond what was formerly given for them, thro their Scarcity and Difficulty in importing them from Europe, it is highly expedient for Congress to order a common Bible to be printed under their Inspection for the Use of ye united States of America.
  • 2. That as there are about 500,000 families in the united States, each standing in Need of one or more Bibles, many Thousand Copies of the holy Scriptures are immediately wanted and ought to be furnished at a moderate Price.
  • 3. That as there are not Types in America to answer this Purpose, there should be a compleat Font, sufficient for setting the whole Bible at once, imported by Congress at the Public Expence, to be refunded in a stipulated Time by the Printer.
  • 4. That in Order to prevent the Paper Makers from demanding an extravagant Price for the Paper, and retarding the Work by Breach of Contract or otherwise there should also be imported with the Types a few Reams of Paper, not exceeding a thousand, at the Beginning of the Work, to be paid for by the Printer in ye same Manner as ye Types are to be paid for.
  • 5. That a Printer be employed, who shall undertake the Work at his own Risque & Expence, giving a Mortgage on ye Font & Printing Materials, with sufficient Personal Securities for his Fidelity, until the first Cost of ye Font, ye Paper, & such Sums of Money as the Congress may think proper to advance to him for Dispatch of the Work, be refunded to the Public.

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  • 6. That in Order to render the Price of Binding as low as possible, the Congress order their Commissary General for Hides etc to deliver to the Printer at a moderate Price all the Sheep Skins furnished at ye Camp, to be tanned for this Purpose.
  • 7. That the Printer be bound under sufficient Penalties to furnish Bibles to ye Public at a limited Price, not exceeding ten Shillings each, & to prevent any Retailer, under him in the united States from asking an higher price on any Pretence whatsoever.
  • 8. That, as the greatest Precaution is necessary to preserve the sacred Text uncorrupted & free from Errors, an accurate & skillful Corrector of the Press be employed at a proper Salary, to superintend the Impression, untill the whole Bible be composed: and then that the Frames be carefully locked up in proper Places prepared for ye Purpose, to guard against an accidental or designed Alteration of them, and to have them ready for constant Use to supply the Public Demand.
  • 9. That the Printer on no Pretence whatsoever presume to strike off any Sheet of the Bible, untill the Corrector has examined a sufficient Number of Proofs & judged it to be sufficiently accurate & corrected: and that this Precaution be taken as often as any Frame is used after having been locked up for some Time past.
  • 10. That ye most correct Copy of the Bible that can be found be delivered by ye Congress to the Printer, who shall be bound by solemn Oath not to vary from it knowingly in his Edition, even in a single Iota, without first laying the proposed Alteration before Congress & obtaining their Approbation.
  • 11. That the Corrector be bound by a similar Oath, to correct the Sheets according to that Copy.
  • 12. That instead of the old Dedication to King James, a new Dedication to the Congress be drawn up & prefixed to the Bible.
  • 13. That instead of the Words, newly translated out of the original Tongues, & By his Majesty's special Command, in the Title Page of our Bibles, it be said, translated from the original Tongues, and, Printed by Order of Congress.
  • 14. That the Printer employed in the Work devote himself to this Business alone; & that no other Printer in the united States be suffered to interfere with him in the Printing of that Form or Kind of a Bible, which he has undertaken.
  • 15. That after the Bible is published, no more Bibles of that Kind be imported into the American States by any Person whatsoever.

This was no ordinary printing job which Mr. Allison had proposed and of which Congress was expected to dispose. Up to 1777, there had been no complete English Bible printed in the colonies, and the English-speaking inhabitants depended on British presses for their copies of the Scriptures. There had been Bibles printed in the colonies, but these had been in non-English tongues and


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had been produced in relatively small numbers. Thus, as early as 1663, Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson of Cambridge, Massachusetts, had issued one such printed in the Maumee tongue, the lingua franca of the New England Indians. This was the famous and rare Eliot Bible, prepared by the Reverend John Eliot for the use of Congregationalist missionaries to the red heathens of Massachusetts. Then, in 1743, Christopher Saur, a Rhenish German printer settled in Germantown, Pa., issued a Bible in German, the first to be published in a European tongue in North America. Even Saur had had to use imported paper and type. However, another edition of the German Bible, which appeared in 1763, was the first to use American-made paper. Then, in 1776, Saur's son, also Christopher, published the first Bible to be printed from American-cast types. However, these were all limited editions, the Saur or German Bible, running only to 1200 copies, while the third or 1777 edition to only 3000.[3] The project now before Congress, on the other hand, called for 20,000 English Bibles to be run off by an American printer at a time when every resource was at least theoretically devoted to war production. However, the committee to which Mr. Allison's petition had been referred began studying the most practicable way of solving the problem, and before arriving at a solution turned to the printers of Philadelphia, inviting them to submit estimates and to give their advice on the best way to print 20,000 Bibles. This was quite natural, since at that time many of the competent printshops in the Confederation were located in that city. Of the other two colonial printing centers, New York was in the hands of the enemy, while Boston was many days' hard travel from the capital of the Confederation. At least five printers, all of them Pennsylvanians, submitted estimates in which every phase of the work, the cost of every piece of equipment and every material was quoted.

One of those submitting bids was Robert Aitken[4] (1734-1806), a Quaker of Scotch birth, who was already established in his profession by his work as publisher of the Pennsylvania Magazine and of an edition of the New Testament. Figuring 24 pages to each sheet and the weight[5] of type necessary to print one sheet at 144 (6 per page), he estimated a total of 34 sheets (or 4896 wt) for the entire job, then added 600 additional weight of type to reach an estimated font of 5496 weight of type for the whole. Allowing a cost of 5 shillings per sheet or per 144 weight of type, Aitken set the cost of type alone at 1374 pounds. Although the specifications called for the use of nonpareil type, Aitken, feeling that this type would wear out sooner than brevier "being of smaller face," maintained that 200,000[6] Bibles could be run off from the latter, and submitted


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a sample sheet of the Bible printed in this type. The types, he thought, should be purchased at the foundry of Dr. Wilson in Glasgow, for these produced "the best metal and the neatest letter in Europe." Aitken made no suggestions, however, as to how the embattled colonies were to obtain this superior metal while Glasgow remained loyal to the Crown and while the British fleet maintained its blockade.

As for paper, Aitken based his estimates on a total of 200,000 Bibles and called for 146,000 reams, 73 reams sufficing to print a thousand. Since the domestic product seemed adequate neither in quality nor quantity, he advised that this commodity be imported from Germany or France and allowed a cost of 15 shillings per ream or a total cost of 10,950 pounds. (At this rate, 20,000 would have cost 1095 pounds.) By way of fixed equipment, he felt 13 presses, one of which was to be used for running proofs, would be necessary. These like "penny pies" could be obtained for 10 pounds each in Glasgow, but for not less than 42 pounds in Pennsylvania. It is significant that he used the lower figure in totalling up his estimates. Chases, 84 of which were necessary, were obtainable for 3 pounds each in the colonies but could be had for only 15 shillings each in that paradise for impecunious printers, the loyal city of Glasgow. A labor force of 6 compositors and 24 printers (2 to a press) could complete the work, Aitken felt, in 20 months. Calculating from the price of leather then prevailing, he estimated the binding cost per volume at 4 shillings. Arriving at a total cost for the job of 33,281 pounds, 5 shillings and 4 pence (after allowing for a difference of 66-2/3 in the exchange price of all material imported from abroad), Aitken showed that the actual cost per Bible was only 3 shillings 4 pence apiece.

Another printer who submitted a bid on the job was Thomas Bradford (1745-1838), son of "the patriot printer," William Bradford, and co-publisher with him of the Pennsylvania Journal.[7] He submitted two sets of estimates, one for printing 20,000 Bibles and one for 30,000. For the former number, he estimated that 1100 reams of paper would be sufficient, whereas 2000 reams would be necessary for an edition of 30,000 copies. Bradford, like the other printers, was acutely aware of the paper shortages within the colonies and advised that that commodity be imported from either France or Holland, where it was obtainable for 6 to 8 shillings the ream, and expressed a preference for the Dutch product. His type estimates, which he based on a Bible of 45 sheets, each taking a font of 200, allowed for imperfections and deterioration, for he called for a font of 10,000 weight. He estimated that 8 hands could complete the job in 6 months, and he fixed the expenses of composition at 14 pounds per sheet and press costs at 20 pounds. Apart from his estimates and possibly looking to his


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own interests in the event that the Congress should award him the contract, Bradford recommended that no Bibles be imported, once the Congressional edition was completed, for ten to fifteen years. He was the only one of the five printers to make this suggestion specifically.

The founder of the Pennsylvania Packet and the man who had printed the Declaration of Independence, John Dunlap, also entered the competition on July 10, 1777.[8] Dunlap estimated that 300 pounds of type would be necessary to set one sheet, but pointed out that it would be desirable to obtain a total of 8000 weight to set all sheets at once, since the types were so small and delicate that they would be worn out "if frequently worked." Paper, which might formerly have been purchased from Great Britain at 10 shillings per ream, posed a problem. Dunlap hoped that if enough could be imported to begin the job, he would be able to get the remaining stock made in Pennsylvania. The cost of paper and type was estimated by him at 4000 pounds sterling, and he allowed $500 for labor. Binding would cost 4 shillings per volume.

Another printer who submitted estimates on the Congressional Bible was Henry Miller (1702-1782), native of Waldeck, Germany, and publisher of the Wochentliche Philadelphische Staatsbote.[9] Allowing a font of 156 weight for each sheet and figuring that 35 sheets would be necessary for the work, Miller stipulated a total type weight of 5460, but allowed an additional 1360 to allow for errors. He estimated that the type alone would cost 1687 pounds 10 shillings, and pointed out that types of good metal and having the proper depth would be sufficient for two impressions of 10,000 copies each. While making no estimate of the quantity or cost of paper needed, the German felt that it should be made by master workmen in that craft, "which will hardly be possible in this Country at this present time." Pointing out that the number of printers and compositors would have to be fixed "and their attendance assured" before an estimate could be made on the time to finish the job, he guessed that it could not be done in much less than a year. As leather was not to be had, he refrained from making any estimate of binding costs.

The last of the Philadelphia group submitting bids was William Sellers (1725?-1804), who had served his apprenticeship in London before he set up his shop in Philadelphia in 1764 and who with David Hall had published the Pennsylvania Gazette.[10] Sellers figured on a total font of 6000 weight, which would cost about 1500 pounds sterling. If these were cut "clear and deep," he felt that they would suffice for two impressions of 10,000 copies each, but a third impression from the same type could not be expected to be as satisfactory. Calling for approximately 1500 reams of paper, he found no satisfactory supply


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existing in the United States, and thereby implied the need for importation. As to the time element, Sellers thought that two compositors might set the whole in nine months, and that two presses could run off 10,000 copies in the same length of time.

The committee considered these propositions for a little better than two months before it reported to the Congress. In that interval, the military developments had been sufficiently disastrous to the American cause that all but the most urgent business was delayed. By the 25th of August, "Blue Billy" Howe's expeditionary force had established a beachhead at the Head of Elk in Maryland and was deploying for a strike at Philadelphia itself. By the tenth of September, that army had defeated Washington's at the Battle of the Brandywine, and only the Schuylkill river stood between the invaders and the capital of the Confederation. In the north, the news was not so bad, but it was bad enough. Burgoyne had advanced almost to the junction of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and though both his right and left wings had been defeated, he was still in a position to capture Albany and to seize the Hudson Valley for the Crown. Benedict Arnold and Daniel Morgan were to annihilate this threat at the battle of Bemis's Heights in late September, but at the time it seemed very likely that Gentleman Johnny's reckless stroke would succeed.

Thus, on the eleventh of September, Mr. Adams, Mr. Roberdeau, and Mr. Smith submitted their report on Mr. Allison's petition to a Congress that undoubtedly was more concerned with the military situation, particularly the one on its own doorstep. The committee, tacitly considering the advice of the Philadelphia printers, but also, it must seem, influenced by the nearness of Blue Billy's veterans, reported unfavorably on the project. Noting that "the proper types . . . are not to be had in this country" and that "the paper cannot be procured but with such difficulties and subject to such casualties as render any dependance on it altogether improper," the committee's report dwelt on "the risque of importing them" and on the uncertainty of any calculations of expenses "in the present state of affairs." Thus, they recommended that no attempt be made to import these materials. Recognizing, however, that "the use of the Bible is so universal and its importance so great," they recommended also that the Committee of Commerce be ordered to import the 20,000 Bibles from Holland, Scotland "or elsewhere." A motion to this effect was approved with all four New England states, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Georgia supporting the measure, while New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and both Carolinas opposed it. The resolution being read a second time, final action was put off until the nineteenth.[11]


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Before that date, however, the body was concerned almost exclusively in finding enough reenforcements to stop Howe and save Philadelphia. On the eighteenth, the emperilled legislators discreetly resolved to adjourn their deliberations to the more restful atmosphere of Lancaster. Two days later, General Charles Grey surprised the usually vigilant Anthony Wayne in his bivouac at Paoli; Howe slipped across the Schuylkill with his main body; and on Friday, the twenty-sixth of September, the British marched into the erstwhile Continental capital. The government in exile at Lancaster returned to Philadelphia the following summer, but it did not resume the Bible project until 1782. In that year, the Quaker printer, Robert Aitken, working under Congressional auspices, produced the first complete Bible printed in English in the New World.[12] But by then, Philadelphia had been four years restored to American rule, France had recognized the independence of the revolted colonies, and Yorktown had been fought and won. The new nation, though far from being out of the political or financial woods, no longer had a well-armed hostile army on the outskirts of its capital. A printing project, which the exigencies of war and invasion had made impractical and relatively unimportant, became attainable within a year after Cornwallis' surrender.



Papers of the Continental Congress, v. 42, folios 163-164. Division of Manuscripts, Library of Congress.


Journals of the Continental Congress, edited by Worthington C. Ford and others (1904-37), VIII, 536.


Edwin A. Rumball-Petre, America's First Bibles (1940), pp. 8, 14-21.


Robert Aitken's estimate, n.d., Papers of the Continental Congress, v. 42, folio 155-56. The estimates of Aitken and other printers are all new materials and have not been previously used.


The term "weight" is used in most of the estimates rather than "pound" to designate type measurements.


All of Aitken's estimates are based on the mistaken assumption that there was to be a total final output of 200,000 Bibles, although the original project called for only 20,000 copies.


Bradford's estimate, Papers of the Cont. Congr., v. 42, folios 167-69.


Dunlap's estimate, July 10, 1777, Papers of the Cont. Congr., loc. cit., folio 157.


Miller's estimate, n.d., Papers of the Cont. Congr., v. 42, folios 171-72.


Sellers' estimate, Papers of the Cont. Congr., v. 42, folio 175.


Journal of the Continental Congress, VIII, 733-34. It is recorded here that Francis Lightfoot Lee was the only member of the Virginia delegation who voted in favor of the bill, while Joseph Jones and Benjamin Harrison opposed it. John Harvie, Richard Henry Lee. Thomas Nelson, Jr., and George Wythe were absent.


Rumball-Petre, p. 82.