The First Two American Bibles: Case Studies in Puritanism and Radical Pietism -- By: Dale R. Stoffer

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 43:0 (NA 2011)
Article: The First Two American Bibles: Case Studies in Puritanism and Radical Pietism
Author: Dale R. Stoffer

The First Two American Bibles: Case Studies in Puritanism and Radical Pietism

Dale R. Stoffer*


It is ironic that the first two Bibles printed in America were not in English; even more ironic is that the first Bible printed in America was not even in a European language, but in a Native American language. The first Bible was the work of the Puritan, John Eliot, who translated the New Testament first into the Algonquin language in 1661, and, with the completion of the Old Testament, the entire Bible in 1663. The second Bible printed in America was the German Bible printed by Christopher Sauer in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1743. What is fascinating about these Bibles is that an investigation of their backgrounds provides intriguing case studies into important features of Puritanism and Radical Pietism as these movements were taking root in America. The backdrop of Eliot’s work, for example, opens the door to the fascinating world of Puritan apocalyptic prognostication; it also introduces us to issues that will become even more prominent as the American consciousness and conscience develop over the next three-and-a-half centuries: American exceptionalism and the ambivalent attitude toward Native Americans. Sauer, the most prominent German printer during the colonial period, provides us with glimpses into Radical Pietist themes that shaped the religious perspectives of many German settlers; his experiences further highlight the bias that German colonists faced from the English-speaking colonial establishment, both civil and ecclesiastical.

Notes about Bibles in English

Before proceeding I need to explain why there were no Bibles in English printed in America prior to 1782. In England the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford had received exclusive rights, through letters patent issued by the British Crown, to print the Bible, specifically the King James Version, in English. This right pertained to all English territories, including the American colonies; no English Bibles were permitted to be printed by any presses other than those at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. This legal restriction had the dual purpose of maintaining an accurate text and of producing revenue for the British crown.

Not until relations were severed with England during the Revolutionary War did this situation change. Now the colonies were freed from the Crown’s restrictions on printing the Bible in English, but they also faced a growing need for Bibles in English. To remedy this situation Robert Aitken of Philadelphia began a venture to produce an American version of the King James Bible. He proposed to the Continental Congress in 1781 that his Bible “be published under the Authority o...

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