Bibles in the American Colonies

Beginning in 1589, the publication of English-language Bibles was restricted to printers who were given a royal license. London printer Christopher Barker was the first to receive an exclusive patent for publishing Bibles, issued by Elizabeth I. His son, Robert Barker, inherited this monopoly and was the printer of the first edition of the King James Version in 1611. Royal charters for Bible printing were also granted in the 1620’s to the royal printer in Edinburgh and to the university printers of Oxford and Cambridge. Though abolished during the Commonwealth period, the royal privilege for printing the King James Bible was reinstated by Charles II in 1660 when the monarchy was restored.

The English colonists on the American continent had to import Bibles published by these royally-licensed printers, since the royal privilege was never granted to a colonial printer. However, portions of biblical text were printed in the colonies. In fact, the first book printed in English North America contained a translation of the Psalms. Known as the Bay Psalm Book, this book was printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1640, about 20 years after arrival of Puritan colonists. It contained verse translations of the Psalms for singing in worship services, although it did not include the music like a hymnbook of today.

John Eliot, a Puritan clergyman who acted as one of first editors of the Bay Psalm Book, was also responsible for the first full Bible printed in America. This version is known as the Eliot Indian Bible, a translation of the Bible into the Natick dialect of Algonquin. Eliot, who evangelized the Algonquin natives in Massachusetts, was the first person to translate the Bible from English into a foreign language. His Algonquin Bible was printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1663.

After the colonies declared their independence from Britain, American printers felt they were no longer bound by restrictions of royal privilege on publishing the Bible in English. Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken was the first to publish an edition of the English Bible, a New Testament, late in 1777, with subsequent reprintings through 1781. Aitken issued a complete King James Bible in 1782, known today as “the Bible of the American Revolution.”

Selected resources at L. Tom Perry Special Collections

A Testament of Faith: A Leaf from a Copy of the First American Bible. (Boston: Charles E. Godspeed, 1979)

Eliot thumbnail

A specimen leaf from a disbound copy of the Eliot Indian Bible of 1663, with commentary by John Eliot Alden.

Call number: Rare Book Collection Z 232 .St56 1979 no. 3

An original leaf from the Bible of the revolution, and an essay concerning it . (San Francisco: E. & R. Grabhorn for J. Howell, 1930)

Aitken thumbnail

A specimen leaf from a disbound copy of Robert Aitken’s 1782 Bible, with commentary by Robert R. Dearden, Jr. and Douglas S. Watson.

Call number: History of Printing Collection – Grabhorn Press Collection 1930 no. 1

The Psalms of David, in metre. (Philadelphia, 1790)

Psalms thumbnail

The earliest example of biblical text printed in North America housed in L. Tom Perry Special Collections is a Psalm book of the Church of Scotland, printed in Philadelphia in 1790, less than 10 years after the colonies won their independence from Britain.

Call number: Rare Book Collection BS 1440 .H46 1790

Selected online resources

Images of the Bay Psalm Book at the Library of Congress