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First American Translation of the Bible

October 23, 2011

I am thinking of the first translation of the Bible specifically into the English language made in America. The first translation of the Bible in America was into an Algonquian language in 1663 by John Eliot. But the first translation of the Bible into English made in America was from the Greek text of the Hebrew Bible and this makes it the first English translation ever of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. The full text is now online here and, scrolling down the page, also in facsimile as a pdf.This Bible is also significant in the history of Bible translation as it was referred to by scholars working on the English Revised Version of 1881 in England.

Thomson OT Vol 3 Title1 1808The translator, Charles Thompson, had been the secretary of US Congress from 1774 until 1789, when he retired to work on his translation of the Bible. When it was complete, he chose Jane Aitken as the printer. She is the first, and perhaps only woman in America, to have printed an English Bible.

Jane Aitken’s father, Robert Aitken, had been the printer responsible for the first printing of an English Bible in America in 1782. This was the King James Version. Up until this time Royal License had restricted the printing of the King James Bible to the Oxford and Cambridge Presses in England. After the American Revolution, the US Congress authorized the printing of the Bible by Robert Aitken, the printer for the Journal of Congress.

When Robert Aitken died, his daughter Jane, who had remained unmarried, took over his business.  Here is a description of Jane Aitken and her skill as a printer and book-binder.

Jane Aitken (1764-1732) was a longtime citizen, bookbinder, and printer of Philadelphia, the eldest daughter of Robert and Janet (Skeoch). She was born on July 11, 1764, in Paisley, Scotland, where her father ran a stationer’s store and circulating library until 1771 when he moved his wife Janet, Jane, and second daughter Margaret, to Philadelphia. She is known for her extraordinary skill as a printer and a bookbinder, the only great woman bookbinder of the early American republic. Her greatest printing achievement was the Thomson Bible of 1808.

Her father Robert Aitken was a talented printer and bookbinder. Within one month of his arrival in Philadelphia, he had established a large and successful bookstore. In 1773, he published Aitken’s General American Register, and the Gentleman’s and Tradesman’s Complete Annual Account Book, and Calendar…for the Year of Our Lord, 1773 which proved his proficiency in the book arts. Based on her own proficiency and the similarity and continuity of bookbinding and printing styles sustained long after her father’s death, Aitken must have learned the bookbinding and printing trades at an early age.

Despite Robert Aitken’s hard work and established reputation he died leaving to his daughter Jane an enormous amount of debt of $3,000. Aitken’s debts, as revealed in the Aitken-Vaughan papers, were largely those incurred by Jane’s late brother-in-law Charles Campbell, a clock and watchmaker, for whom Robert Aitken had signed a number of notes. The debts did not, as was long believed, result from the printing of the Aitken Bible of 1782—the first English language Bible printed in America.

Aitken was thirty-eight years old, when she inherited the family printing and bookbinding business. Like her father, Jane Aitken was an extremely talented and prolific printer and bookbinder. She was responsible for printing a number of publications after she took over her father’s business, including contracts from the American Philosophical Society, the Philadelphia Female Association, and the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, to name just a few. At least sixty of her published works are known from the period 1802 to 1812. Her most important work, according to the contemporary historian of printing Isaiah Thomas, was the four-volume Thomson Bible of 1808, which firmly established Jane’s Aitken’s reputation. This Bible was a new translation prepared by Charles Thomson, former secretary of the Continental Congress, the first English translation from the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament). It is also likely that it was the only Bible ever printed by a woman in America. The typeface Aitkens used for the Thomson Bible was an attractive and utilitarian type developed in 1796 by two Scotsmen named Binney and Ronaldson at their Philadelphia type foundry. It is a Transitional typeface, between Old Style and Modern.

Jane Aitken never married. Although her youngest sister Mary Ann managed to get married and have children, Jane’s single status might have had more to do with her independent and ambitious nature than a lack of opportunity. A lack of marriage prospects also might have resulted from the family’s financial instability. Also, as the oldest and the second most experienced printer in the Aitken family Jane might have decided to remain unmarried in order to better assist her father with the printing business. At any rate, Jane spent the entirety of her adult life struggling to contend with her father’s legacy: a solid reputation for printing, enormous debt, and the responsibility of two younger sisters, one recently widowed with three children. It is unknown whether Jane’s mother, Janet, was still alive at her father’s death in 1802. Jane also had an older brother Robert Aitken Jr., a printer, whom her father had disinherited some time before his death in 1802. Considered only a minor talent, Robert Aitken Jr. was apparently incapable of providing assistance to his overburdened sister.

One person who did provide assistance for many years after her father’s death was her friend the American Philosophical Society’s Librarian John Vaughan (1756-1841, APS 1784). Nevertheless, the relationship between him and Aitken is ambiguous. Although he is described as a tireless supporter of Aitken, Vaughan couldn’t – or wouldn’t — prevent her printing equipment from being seized and sold at a Sheriff’s sale in 1813. Afterward, he bought most of her equipment and leased it back to her, albeit on advantageous terms. In spite of continuous printing work, Jane was sometimes forced to rely on bookbinding for her livelihood. The extant bound editions of her work include some four hundred volumes for the American Philosophical Society, a number of author’s presentation copies of her imprints and the first receipt ledger for the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. The bindings of these volumes reveal extraordinary skill and taste. Also, the similarity of these bindings to those issued from her father’s shop from the 1780’s to 1802 raises the possibility that she was responsible for much of the bindery output, in design, if not production. The quality of the examples of her bindings qualifies Aitken as a distinguished practitioner in the history of American bookbinding; in fact, the only woman bookbinder with such skill known from this period.

Aitken’s great skill, hard work, and even Vaughan’s generosity as a benefactor were not enough to overcome the burden of her inherited debts, because in 1814 Jane served time for her debts in a Norristown, Pennsylvania, prison. While it is uncertain exactly how long the prison term lasted, Aitken is recorded as doing binding work in 1815. After 1815 the record of her activities becomes very sparse. The 1819 city directory lists her as “late printer,” and she died on September 5, 1832 at the age of sixty-nine. It is difficult to determine exactly when and why Aitken finally retired from printing and bookbinding; but this appears to have been shortly after 1815 for the health-related reasons given in her obituary. It reported that she died after a “long and painful illness.”

This post is for Alanna Simenson, bookbinder extraordinaire, who I met today at the Alcuin Society Wayzgoose.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2011 9:38 am

    Suzanne, did you see my recent post about Eliot, and his house in England?

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    October 23, 2011 4:26 pm

    Hi Peter,

    yes, I saw that post at the time but forgot about it. Thanks for posting the link here. Some of this history was new to me. I had thought that the Geneva Bible was still popular, but in all the discussion of Bibles during the American Revolution, only the KJV was mentioned. In fact, only the KJV was under royal license so perhaps the Geneva Bible could have been printed in America but other factors, such as lack of paper may also have played a role.

    In addition, Thompson’s Bible is not often mentioned in a list of English Bible translations, becaue the OT was from the Greek. However, it does demand a place in the history of Bible translation, and was respected as a scholarly undertaking at the time. I had not seen a copy online before.

    In addition, Jane’s circumstances are especially poignant since the family debts seem to be due to either her brother or her brother-in-law, and she was not able to fully pay them off.

  3. October 23, 2011 6:06 pm

    Hello,

    I am a Bible collector (the image you have of Thomson Bible is from my colelction) and I can assure you that Charles Thomson has not been forgotten among serious Bible collectors – his work is very sought after. I also mention Jane Aitken’s role in producing this landmark translation when discussing Thomson’s translation. Thanks for the information on the Aitken family.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    October 23, 2011 7:08 pm

    Stephen,

    Thank you so much for dropping by and linking back to your website. Its quite fantastic! I hope others will follow up on your link – there is such a wealth of information. Your collection is amazing. Coming from the history of interpretation, I am still new to the world of serious collectors and am learning more as people drop in on our posts.

  5. October 26, 2011 5:51 pm

    I enjoyed your article, especially the information about Jane Aitken and her accomplishments. Thanks.

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  1. Bible, literature, translation, and art in museum catalogue: women’s work for the freedom of slaves, for the rights of all, and for the arts « BLT

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