Most Christian and Jewish Americans, reading about Christ’s resurrection or the Jewish exodus from Egypt during the upcoming Easter and Passover holidays, will not consider the Bible to be an American book. And yet, the Bible was our first American book; its earliest printings, translations, and interpretations reflected the experiences of the first Europeans to reach our shores and the Natives they encountered here.
The first American Bible, printed in Massachusetts in 1661, is a story of European American audacity. A 1,200-page translation of the Old and New Testaments, it is written in Natick, a dialect of the indigenous Algonquian language, spoken by Massachusetts Natives who predated European settlements by many years. The man behind it, John Eliot, known as the “Apostle to the Indians,” was a missionary from England. The text is the Geneva Bible, the preference of Puritans, and its purpose was evangelical: to assist in converting the Natives to Christianity. However, the Algonquian language is entirely oral, with no written alphabet. As a pastor, Eliot began learning the language in order to preach, and in the eight years it took to create his Bible, he had the help of at least three Natives in setting type and transcribing Natick into English.
At once evidence of the linguistic, cultural, and religious differences that have characterized America’s inhabitants for the past 400 years and the attitudes that motivated Eliot’s zeal, this first American Bible presages a nation as diverse in its peoples as in its points of view.
In the centuries that followed, American Bibles reflected our most “American” stories, among them immigration, social and religious tolerance, new technologies, and the evolution of women’s work. The first American Bible printed in a European language, by Christoph Saur in Germantown in 1743, is a case in point. By the 1740s, the Philadelphia area had seen 60 years of steady German immigration. Many of these settlers were poor and thus indentured to pay for the cost of their passage. Saur believed that domestically-made Bibles could be sold cheaper or given out for free to the diverse German Protestant sects living across tolerantly Quaker Pennsylvania. Saur himself was an immigrant who felt that his printing press should work for “the glory of God [and] eternal welfare of my fellow men.” Accordingly, he printed his Bible entirely in German.
The first Catholic Bible printed in America was also the work of an immigrant. Matthew Carey fled Ireland for printing material considered offensive to British and Irish authorities and settled in Philadelphia. Quickly becoming a major publisher, he undertook to print the Douay-Rheims Bible used by the Catholic Church. He advertised it to “liberal-minded Protestants who glory in the influence of the benign sun of toleration,” and who were “superior to [the] wretched… bigots of every generation.”
In the 19th century, Isaac Leeser was the first translator of the Hebrew Bible into English by a Jew for a Jewish readership. His objective was for students to read sacred writ without the interpolations of missionary societies or Christian scholars. The translation took him 15 years to achieve and was published in 1853.
The first woman to print a Bible in America was Jane Aitken. She took over her father’s press upon his death in 1802 and published The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Covenant in 1808. She went on to produce at least 60 known books through 1812.
Julia Smith was the first woman to translate the Bible, in 1876. She knew Latin and taught herself Greek and Hebrew, and so, was able to translate both Testaments word-for-word into English. Her talents were unique for a woman then; erudition was the province of men. As the women’s suffrage movement coalesced, Smith and her sister protested paying taxes on their farm when they hadn’t the right to vote. This became a fraught court battle and a cause célèbre in the national press. They decided to self-publish the Bible, to show that “a woman could do more than any man has ever done.”
These early Bibles printed in America—the first American books—revealed to the world the colonies’ eagerness and audacity to create great things. For those Americans reading the Bible during the upcoming holidays, there is good reason to consider it part of our country’s history.
By Louise Mirrer, president & CEO of the New-York Historical Society. Its new exhibition, In God We Trust: Early Bible Printings from the David M. Rubenstein Americana Collection, opening April 17, features 18 examples of first American Bibles, most never before seen by the public.