“America’s First Bibles”

~By Randolph C. Adams

(Reprinted from The Colophon–New Series, Volume I, Number 1, Summer, 1935)

WHENEVER the expression “America’s First Bible” is used, the reader has a right to enquire, “What do you mean by ‘America’? What do you mean by ‘first’? What do you mean by ‘Bible’?” Does “America” mean the southern, as well as the northern continent, or does it refer only to the United States? Does “first mean a copy of the earliest printing, or merely a copy of the earliest printing of which a copy survives and has been identified? Does “Bible mean both Old and New Testaments, or a part of either and must it, strictly, include the non-canonical books? The Library of Congress catalogue card assigns to the Bay Psalm Book (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1640) the main entry of “Bible”, because it is a part of the Scriptures.

Let us arbitrarily assume that by the term “America” we mean both continents of the western hemisphere; that by the expression “first” we mean a copy of the earliest printed edition; that by the word “Bible” we mean the canonical books of the two Testaments.

Although printing in Mexico had a century’s start on the practice of that art in the British colonies, one searches in vain through the volumes of Medina’s bibliographies for any Bible printed earlier than the remarkable product of Samuel Green and Marmaduke Johnson which has come down to us as John Eliot’s “Indian Bible” (Cambridge, 1663). This, perhaps we may say, is America’s first Bible. But Eliot’s text rather defies the modern reader. There is a library which has a standing offer of ten dollars to any visitor who will read one page of the text of Eliot’s Indian Bible, and thus far–no takers.

The first American Bible in any European language may also be identified with some confidence. It is that bulky volume which cataloguers delight in calling Biblia, Das ist. –Martin Luther’s translation into German, which was printed by Christopher Sauer in Germantown, 1743.

But when we seek the first Bible printed in America in the English language, the fun begins. It is clear that as early as 1688 William Bradford, the Philadelphia printer, issued a prospectus proposing thereby to print a “large Bible” (Evans, 441) But nothing came of the plan. Again in 1770, John Fleeming, the Boston printer, issued a prospectus for his production of “The first Bible ever printed in America,” in which he states with emphasis that it “is the first undertaking of the kind EVER attempted in AMERICA.” (John Wright, Early Bibles of America, 1894, p. 52.)

We come next to Robert Aitken’s edition of a translation of the Bible into English, which was actually published about September 25, 1782 (Freeman’s Journal, September 25, 1782 et seq.) and of which many copies survive in libraries and in the hands of private collectors today. The book was widely advertised as the first English Bible printed in America, and was recommended as such both by the Continental Congress and by George Washington. The British Museum’s copy of the Aitken Bible bears Aitken’s autograph memorandum, “this first copy of the first edition of the Bible ever printed in America in the English language. . . . ” Such was the state of knowledge on the subject from 1782 until 1810, when Isaiah Thomas published his classic, A History of Printing in America. Here we must review the well known story in Thomas’ own words.

In writing the history of successive firms of Boston printers, he says,

“The booksellers of this time [mid-eighteenth century] were enterprising. Kneeland and Green printed, principally for Daniel Henchman; an edition of the Bible in small 4to. This was the first Bible printed, in the English language, in America. It was carried through the press as privately as possible, and had the London imprint of the copy from which it was reprinted, viz. ‘London: Printed by Mark Baskett, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,’ in order to prevent a prosecution from those, in England and Scotland, who published the Bible by a patent from the crown…. When I was an apprentice, I often heard those who had assisted at the case and press in printing this Bible, make mention of the fact…. As it has a London imprint, at this day it can be distinguished from an English edition, of the same date, only by those who are acquainted with the niceties of typography. This Bible issued from the press about the time that the partnership of Kneeland and Green expired (1752). The edition was not large; I have been informed that it did not exceed seven or eight hundred copies.” (Thomas, History of Printing. . . Worcester, 1810, I, p.305.)

No one will deny that Thomas believed a Bible had been printed in Boston long before the Aitken Bible of Philadelphia. But Thomas’ statement came out nearly sixty years after the alleged event, and neither Thomas nor anyone since has ever been able to put before us an actual copy of the Boston Baskett Bible.

Yet periodically the story should be restated, to summarize accretions of knowledge, and to keep bibliographers ever on the alert for a quarto Bible, bearing the imprint of either Mark or Thomas Baskett, London, dated sometime about 1752, and bearing evidence of the undoubted typography of Kneeland and Green of Boston.

Since an American Bible had to be printed surreptitiously, Isaiah Thomas warns us, we should look for the fictitious imprint of London, and the official printer Mark Baskett. Commentators are agreed that Thomas made a slip here. He should have said Thomas Baskett, who printed Bibles both at London and at Oxford, 1742-1761. Mark Baskett did not print any Bible until 1761, in London.

In any case, only one serious claimant has ever appeared for the honor of being the first recognized copy of the alleged Boston Bible. Bookmen will remember the opening chapter of Dr. Rosenbach’s Books and Bidders, wherein Moses Polock and George Philes are engaged in a heated literary discussion on the merits of Edgar Allan Poe. The Dictionary of American Biography gives us a good sketch of Moses Polock. ‘Tis a pity the editors decided to omit Philes, because sometime in the 1890’s George Phile obtained, we know not where, a Bible which seemed to fit the requirements of Isaiah Thomas’ prescription for the alleged Boston Bible. It bore the London imprint of Mark Baskett, and the date 1752. We are ignorant of the claims made for the book when it was sold to Thomas Jefferson McKee. In fact, until the description of the book appears in the catalogue of the McKee Sale in 1902, it is not on the records. The auctioneer of the McKee Sale was the distinguished John Anderson, Jr., who, if we may infer from the description in the McKee catalogue, certainly was sure that Mr. McKee had the real thing. At the McKee Sale the book was bought by George C. Thomas of Philadelphia, and it next appears at his sale in 1907, but with Anderson’s confident description somewhat abridged. Bought by George H. Richmond, the book reappears in Richmond’s catalogue No. 120 (1910) with Anderson’s positive description reprinted in full. The book was then purchased by Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, and appears in his catalogues No. 17 (1913) and No. 19 (1917)–but with much of Mr. Anderson’s fine original polemic description omitted. The end of the book’s career may be found recorded in the Bulletin of the New York Public Library (XXXVI, p. 308, 1932), which states that, “After holding it for some time, Dr. Rosenbach came to agree with other scholars in questioning the accuracy of the imprint, and rather than offer it for sale with this doubt attached he gave it to the (New York Public) Library as an addition to its collection of Bibles in English.”

Now since the Philes-McKee-Thomas-Richmond-Rosenbach copy of the Bible is the only claimant which has called for serious consideration, there should have been bibliographic rejoicing in Boston, and at the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, which was founded by Isaiah Thomas and is the trustee of his collections and his memory. The existence of the McKee copy was a vindication of Thomas’ statement and forced Robert Aitken’s Philadelphia Bible into second place. But the American Antiquarian Society did something quite the contrary. Its president, the late learned Dr. Charles L. Nichols, examined the book with great care when it was in George H. Richmond’s possession. Then he wrote two articles, one in 1919 (Transactions of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, XXI, p.285) and the other in 1927 (Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, XXXVII, p. 24) in which he completely blasted the book’s reputation, and proved that it was a volume actually printed in London, probably in 1763, with the date altered to read 1752. The title page of the New Testament was conveniently lacking. One has only to consult Dr. Nichols’ articles and to reflect on his collations and study of typographical minutiae to be convinced that the McKee Bible, whatever else it may be, is certainly not a specimen of the first American Bible printed in English.

Briefly summarizing Dr. Nichols’ findings, we may say that he collated the suspected “1752” volume with several copies of known London Baskett Bibles. By a process of elimination he fixed upon the admitted Mark Baskett Bible printed in London in 1763 for intensive study. The title page in both the suspect and the genuine copies shows two specimens of a wrong-font capital S, and a broken capital D, identical and similarly placed in both titles. Moreover the first S has, in both cases, a broken hair-line near the lower serif. In the Old Testament he found in both books an identical fallen letter in Genesis iv, an identical misspelling in Exodus xiv, and identical-missing letters in Leviticus v, Psalm xxi, and Psalm xxxiii. The New Testament clinched the matter by revealing in the short space of two inches of type-face in Matthew xvii three examples of letters hopelessly out of alignment in identical fashion in both the suspect and genuine volumes. These errors are of such a nature as to make accidental duplication a practically impossible explanation. The books are the same, and the suspect has a probably deliberately forged date.

Since Dr. Nichols’ time, Mr. R. W. C. Vail has examined Isaiah Thomas’ note-books and manuscripts to ascertain whether Thomas recorded his findings about the alleged Boston Bible. He found largely negative results. There are in the Antiquarian Society’s Library three lists, in Thomas’ handwriting, of books printed in Boston before 1775. In one under the date “174-” is the notation “Bible containing the Old and New Testament.” In the second the same memorandum appears. In the third is the statement “1749 Bible containing the Old and New Testament (this had a London imprint about 1749 or 1750).” This, of course, is little more than appears in the statement in his History of Printing. It is extremely doubtful whether Thomas ever saw the book. In fact, he implies he never did. Now if there had been a book in Massachusetts which the scholarly Thomas wanted to see, yet which he never did see, may not one raise one’ Bibliographic eyebrows when told that such a book actually existed? Add to this the fact that in the one-hundred and twenty-five years since Thomas gave his hearsay evidence, American bibliographic scholarship has made remarkable strides–and been generously subsidized. A book as important as the first Bible printed in English in America challenges every bibliographer, whatever his specialty, yet the whole question is precisely where Thomas left it a century and a quarter ago.

One other bit of negative evidence has been somewhat neglected by investigators. If Boston printers in general knew of this surreptitious edition of the Boston Bible (Thomas implies that several booksellers were in the deal) how does it happen that John Fleeming, himself a prominent Boston printer and newspaper man, and contemporary of Thomas, had never heard the story, as evidenced by his prospectus of 1770, mentioned above?

Let us also consider Aitken himself. Thomas says of him, “Aitken was a man of truth and irreproachable character.” The publicity attached to his Bible and its claim as a “first” was certainly widely spread at the time. It is strange that Thomas did not deny the priority of the Aitken Bible in 1782 or 1783. By waiting until 1810, Thomas thereby waited until Aitken had been dead eight years. Yet Thomas was equally a “man of truth.”

Is it too much to ask that all libraries, collectors and places of manuscript deposit overhaul their collections and seek a letter written by Thomas to Aitken, just after the appearance of the advertisements of the Aitken Bible, in which Thomas calls Aitken’s attention to Aitken’s error and tells us what we really want to know about the alleged Boston Bible? Until this letter is found, the much-maligned George Bancroft may still be quoted: “Till a copy of the pretended American edition is produced, no credit can be given to the second hand story, which is moreover at variance with the statement of Dr. Chauncy, minister of the first church of Boston at the time of the pretended publication.” (History of the United States, 1861, V, p. 267n, 1877, III, 464) Equally emphatic is Charles Evans. “The supposed American printed Bible of 1752 is a myth.”

If by his reference to Dr. Charles Chauncy Mr. Bancroft meant the passage in Chauncy’s “A Letter to a friend” (Boston, 1767, p. 22n) it ought to be pointed out that the latter’s statement is a little ambiguous. “This Indian Bible is the only one that was ever printed in this hemisphere of the Universe….” Did Chauncy mean that no other Bible had been printed, or no other Indian Bible? Chauncy’s book containing this statement was printed by the same Kneeland who is supposed to have printed the Boston Bible about 1752.

To locate a copy of each edition of the Bible printed in English between 1749 and 1752, to collate each with the type specimens of Kneeland and Green–are these not the next steps for the investigator?