The Aitken Bible is one of the most celebrated American Bibles, considered to be the first complete English Bible printed in America. Before the War for Independence, British law gave a monopoly for printing the King James Version of the Bible to the Royal Printer; thus compelling the colonies to buy their Bibles from England. Therefore, when the Revolution began, the supplies of British Bibles were cut off creating a shortage. With the victory at the Battle of Yorktown, America became free from British policies, including the longstanding one against printing a Bible in English in America.
Robert Aitken, a Philadelphia printer, was the first to publish the first American edition of the K.J.V. New Testament in 1781 and the K.J.V. Old Testament in 1782, omitting the Apocrypha. On completion, he petitioned and received from the Congress of the Confederation, an official endorsement that Aitken added to the binding of his Bibles, to assure colonists that they were buying a non-royalist edition: “Resolved, that the United States in Congress assembled… recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States and hereby authorize him to publish this recommendation.” As a result, the Aitken Bible is often referred to as “The Bible of the Revolution.”
The Aitken edition of the Bible turned into a financial loss, despite Dr. John Rodgers’, of the First Presbyterian Church of New York, suggestion to General George Washington to give a copy of the Aitken’s Bible to every discharged soldier. It was 1783, and Congress had already ordered the discharge of two-thirds of the army, bringing the war to a close. Rogers’ suggestion remained unfulfilled. In the meantime, two other American printers duplicated Aitken’s effort, and released their own editions.
The first Bible printed in the British colonies in America was the famous Eliot Indian Bible, in the Algonquin language, issued in Cambridge in 1661-63 and reprinted in 1680-85. Before Aitken completed his well-known edition, The 18th-century saw the printing of Bibles in German and the importation of Bibles from Britain and Holland, until 1782. Only six American printings of the New Testament alone prior to Aitken’s are extant. The first two were published in 1777 and 1779, while the other four were all produced in 1780. Only one copy of each of these New Testaments is in existence today, most of them in less than perfect condition.
While any one of these Bibles is very difficult to find in any condition, the price usually varies significantly, primarily depending on the condition. This highspot amongst printed Americana can vary in price from mid five figures to well over six figures depending primarily on condition and provenance secondarily. Sotheby’s provided a nice comparable on back-to-back year sales of two copies of the Aitken Bible in their “Fine Books & Manuscripts, including Americana” auction event. One sold for $93,750 in December of 2013, while in June of 2014 another copy, (with the extra flaws of having the Congressional Resolution leaf bound to the end of the Old Testament, lacking two extra leaves and being shaved at the bottom with loss of quire mark), sold for $37,500 (including the buyer premium).
American editions of scripture in general, have long been the subject of exhaustive efforts by collectors and institutions. From the earliest Bay Psalm Book, to the American Bibles with historical importance, the discovery of any unaccounted for editions is quite a rare event. A late discovery of a previously unrecorded 1780 Boston printing of the New Testament, two years before the Aitken’s Bible, which was included in the Jay T. Snider collection of historical Americana, sold for $138,000 at a Christie’s auction in 2005! As such rarities get picked up by institutions the occurrence of transactions such as these become less common even for the most common book ever to be printed.