KJV American Style


    One problem with studying the past is that we subconsciously put our own experiences onto people and lifestyles from the past.  This makes it harder to understand why people did what they did in the past.  One example is in studying the Middle Ages.  As I teach Church History classes, I find that many people try to understand the kings and kingdoms of that time from a twenty-first century democratic every-one-deserves-freedom perspective and so judge what the kings did and didn’t do based on that.  But you have to get yourself in the mindset of the time period in order to really understand what happened. 

    Another case in point is the English translation of the Bible.  So many different translations are available that we assume that it has always been that way.  Not so, for each translation had a year of first publication, and many weren’t that long ago:  the Living Bible and the New American Standard Bible came out in 1971, and the New International Version in 1978.   

    But that was not the case in colonial America (1600s and early and middle 1700s).  At that time only one version was available for purchase in the colonies, the King James Version.  But even then it was not readily available.  The colonies had many publishers, the most famous of whom was Benjamin Franklin, so the problem was not a lack of publishers.  No, the problem was that it was illegal to print Bibles in the colonies because England owned the colonies and the King of England “owned” the right to publish the only official version of the Bible, the KJV. 

    This meant that all the Bibles in the colonies had to be published in England because it was the only “Authorized Version.”  That means nothing to us today, but in those days it meant that no other English version of the Bible was legal in the colonies and the KJV could only be printed in England.  Other versions did exist, but they were few and far between and were not in English (one was in German and another translated into a Native American language).

    Then something happened which shut off the flow of KJV Bibles and caused the colonists not to care if England got mad if they printed KJV Bibles:  the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  Because of the war which followed, England stopped sending KJV Bibles to the colonies.

    In 1777 a group of Presbyterian clergymen wrote a petition requesting that the new government print copies of the Bible and sent it to the Continental Congress.  A committee was appointed by the Continental Congress to investigate the matter.  They sent out a request for bids for an unauthorized KJV Bible and at least five publishers responded.  The committee eventually suggested that Bibles be found in other countries since the young country was in a time of war and the materials needed would be difficult to locate.

    Nevertheless, one printer by name of Robert Aitken in Philadelphia believed he could accomplish the task.  He ended up printing 10,000 copies of the KJV but in a very small size, only about six inches by four inches, in the year 1782.  He submitted his KJV to Congress for approval; it was reviewed and approved by the Chaplains of the Congress and Congress itself.  This makes it the only version approved by the Congress.

    Unfortunately his copies were not purchased by the Congress.  Aitken corresponded with Washington about giving one copy to every soldier once the War was over.  Washington wrote that it would please him but was not possible.  The new country was, after all, in financial straits. 

    Aitken was never able to sell all the Bibles, and went to his deathbed noting that the cost of the 10,000 Bibles almost ruined him.  Today only about 40 of the complete Aitken Bibles exist, each worth around $30,000. 


Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.