Bibles for a Growing Nation

During the first part of the nineteenth century, a growing number of commentaries as well as specialized Bible translations were printed in America.  Bible Societies were established, and new printing techniques made the Bible readily accessible to all.  The Bible was at the center of much of the nation's education and culture, as well as its religious life. 

The campaign poster during Abraham Lincoln's first campaign for President, in 1860, shows the U.S. Laws and the Holy Bible as the two foundations of the American Republic. (Library of Congress LC-USZ62-3980)
Cruden’s Concordance, 1806
First American edition of Cruden’s famous work, which has had a world-wide use and is still in print. Alexander Cruden (1701-1770) first completed his famous Bible concordance in 1737. It was to be a "Dictionary and Alphabetical Index to the Bible; Very Useful to all Christians who seriously read and study the Inspired Writings." Though an extremely learned gentleman, Cruden had bouts with insanity, which first began when he was disappointed in love, shortly after receiving his master of arts degree. At times he was confined in an asylum; at other times he functioned in society in spite of his eccentricities, which were usually humorous rather than harmful. He adopted the title of "Alexander the Corrector" and assumed the office of correcting the morals of the nation. He carried about a sponge with which he could remove all inscriptions or graffiti he thought contrary to good morals.
John Gill’s Exposition of the New Testament - 1811
John Gill (1697-1771) was a Baptist pastor in England noted for his learning. He was fluent in Latin and Greek and taught himself Hebrew. Since the Bible was written by Jews, he realized the writers, though inspired, would have used many Hebrew idioms and alluded to rites and ceremonies peculiar to their time. His New Testament exposition was thus "Illustrated with Notes taken from the most Ancient Jewish Writings." Gill’s expositions are still profitably studied; they are still in print and can be read on several Internet sites.

Thomas Scott's Commentary of the Bible - 1816
Thomas Scott was an English clergyman who succeeded John Newton (author of "Amazing Grace") in the Olney Parish when Newton moved to London. Scott had been a Unitarian but came to accept Jesus as Redeemer and Lord largely through Newton’s influence. Scott wrote of his conversion in The Force of Truth, a testimony of God’s grace still in print today. Scott’s 6-volume Commentary on the Bible, first published in America in 1804, was extremely popular and went through numerous American editions in the 19th century. R. A. Torrey heavily relied on Scott’s Commentaries when writing his Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge.

Read excerpts:
First American Stereotyped Bible, 1812
"This is the first stereotyped Bible to be printed in the United States. The plates were imported from England by the Philadelphia Bible Society. The British and Foreign Bible Society donated 500 pounds toward the cost and the United State government admitted the plates free of duty. They were received in October of 1812 and immediately turned over to the printer, William Fry of Philadelphia." (M. Hill. The English Bible in America) At a time when the United States and Britain were at war and all trade between the countries had been cut off, the Christians of both countries cooperated to spread the Scriptures. The U.S. government permitted the free receipt of the British Bible plates, in spite of an official embargo on all British imports.
Stereotype printing greatly increased the availability of Bibles. Printing was no longer done from moveable type, but the type was used to create a mold from which a copy was formed, and the printing was done off the copy. This meant that later printings did not require the re-setting of type.

Improved Version - 1809
This is the first and only American edition of a very controversial work. First published in London in 1808, this New Testament was prepared by a group of London scholars headed by the Unitarian Thomas Belsham. Every Scripture that might be used to teach the deity of Jesus Christ was done away with in some manner. The translation and notes to John 1, displayed here, are an example. The translation provoked a storm of protest. Many considered the translation dishonest, duplicitous, and unfair.

Mettez Epistles and Gospels - 1812
This is the first printing of any portion of the Bible in any language west of the Allegheny mountains and the first printing of any portion of the Bible in the U.S. with any specific intent to export it to Canada. The work was printed in French and English on opposing pages at the mission press of Father Gabriel Richard of Detroit. A native of France, Father Richard had established the second press in that city in 1809, under the patronage of Bishop Carroll of Baltimore.

American Bible Society
The American Bible Society, one of the first religious non-profit organizations in the United States, was founded in 1816. It was an outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening, the spiritual revival that transformed much of American society in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Many notable Americans were part of the Society’s early years, including Francis Scott Key, Benjamin Rush, and John Q. Adams. Elias Boudinot, who had been baptized by evangelist George Whitefield and had been President of the Continental Congress and director of the U.S. mint, was the Society’s first President. With all of his important positions in government, Boudinot believed the presidency of the American Bible Society was the "greatest honor conferred on me this side of the grave." The Society’s second President was John Jay, the first chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The Society’s goal was to ensure there was a Bible in every American home and to spread the Scriptures throughout the world. The Society issued Bibles translated into the various American Indian languages as well as helped finance William Carey’s translation work in India. It published the first Bibles for the visually impaired, and when the U.S. went to war with Mexico in the 1840’s, the ABS supplied over 7000 Bibles for the soldiers. During the Civil War the Society supplied Bibles for both North and South. During World Wars I and II, a total of 7,420,910 Bibles were distributed to soldiers. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the ABS made a commitment of $23.5 million to provide Bibles to the former communist countries. The various ABS Bibles include one from 1824 with larger type for those "whose sight has become impaired."
Leeser’s Jewish Bible - 1853
Isaac Leeser (1806-1868) played a formative role in American Judaism. Leeser wanted to strengthen the Jewish community in its traditions so it would not be assimilated by Protestant America. Many Jews of that day did not read Hebrew and were reading the King James Bible. Leeser believed Jews should have their own translation of the Scriptures, free from Christian interpretation. He spent fifteen years, in the midst of many other projects, preparing his Bible translation "after the best Jewish authorities." Bertram Korn summarized Leeser’s accomplishments for American Judaism: "Practically every form of Jewish activity which supports American Jewish life today was either established or envisaged by this one man. Almost every kind of publication which is essential to Jewish survival was written, translated, or fostered by him."

Kenrick’s Catholic Translation - 1860
Francis Kenrick, Bishop of Philadelphia and later Archbishop of Baltimore, published his revision of the Douay version in six volumes between 1849 and 1862. Though based on the Latin Vulgate, Kenrick did consult important Greek texts and translations in his revision. As Bishop of Philadelphia, Kenrick became involved in the uprisings surrounding the "Bible law" in the 1840’s. This law required Pennsylvania public schools to provide for the moral training of the students by having daily Bible lessons from the King James Bible. Bishop Kenrick wrote a letter to Philadelphia’s school board requesting that Catholic students be allowed to use their own Bibles and be excused from Protestant devotional lessons. Descendants of the early settlers believed that the numerous Catholic immigrants were threatening the social, economic, political, and religious institutions of the United States. The Catholics thought the Protestants were trying to Americanize their children and change their religion so they would become disconnected from their immigrant origins. It was the "Culture Wars" of the 1840’s, and sometimes sparked violence in the cities.

Bible, 1876, Julia Evelina Smith, translator
The first Bible translated by a woman was begun in 1843.  Julia Evelina Smith studied the Bible in the original Greek to determine the authority for William Miller's prediction of the end of the world.  She concluded that the King James translation was not literal enough.  She taught herself Hebrew and translated both Old and New Testaments word for word.  Published at her own expense, its awkward English hurt sales; however, scholars did recognize the accuracy of her work.

After reading her Bible translation, Amos Andrew Parker sought her acquaintance and married her in 1879.  They were both 87.  Julia died at the age of 94; her husband lived to be 102.

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