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Bibles in Early America

In early America, the practical and symbolic value of Bibles was different for different people.

Title page, Eyes and No Eyes; or, Eyes that See Not: How to Read the Bible Aright, American Sunday School Union, 1827. Images courtesy The American Antiquarian Society.

Bibles came to the Western Hemisphere with the first European colonizers. In early America, the practical and symbolic value of those books was different for different people.

What were Bibles like in early America?

Until the late eighteenth century, nearly all books that we would call Bibles were imported to the Western Hemisphere. They were carried by missionaries and colonists and imported for sale by booksellers. The first full Bible printed in the Western Hemisphere appeared in 1663 and was written in Wampanoag, an indigenous language. The text was translated by John Eliot, a Puritan missionary, and two Native American scholars, Job Nesuton and James Printer.

English-language Bible printing in what would become the United States was slow to start. However, private printers financed numerous Bibles in the years after the Revolution. Matthew Carey, a Roman Catholic printer in Philadelphia, published a Douay-Rheims Bible in 1790. (The Douay-Rheims is a translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate into English for the Roman Catholic church.) However, most Bibles printed in the United States until the late nineteenth century were the King James translation, the one favored by Protestants.

Many of those books were large “pulpit” or “family” Bibles that contained both the biblical text and numerous aids to reading: essays explaining ideas about the Bible’s origins, cross-references, commentaries, and illustrations. Other Bibles were smaller, designed to be carried to church or read privately. They typically contained the entire Christian Bible and often the Apocrypha, though stand-alone New Testaments were also common. The Jewish population in early America relied on Hebrew Bibles imported from Europe until well into the nineteenth century. Though there was some printing in Hebrew in early America, it was intended for Christians who wanted to have access to the original language of the Old Testament.

Bible printing in the United States changed with the founding of the American Bible Society (ABS) in 1816. The ABS took donations to finance Bible printing and sold Bibles cheaply. In 1829, the ABS announced their “First General Supply,” an effort to put a Bible in every home. Using new technologies of book production, the ABS printed and distributed tens of millions of Bibles of various types during the nineteenth century.

What did Bibles mean to people in early America?

Bibles had both practical and symbolic meaning in early America. Protestants in America generally insisted that everyone should read the Bible. The Wampanoag Bible was motivated by this impulse. That Bible and others also served as fundraising tools: Eliot sent copies to his mission’s sponsors in England as evidence of what he was doing with their money (and as an encouragement to send more). The ABS raised money and printed Bibles as a way of insisting that the Bible should be central to American life. Americans purchased large, often expensive “parlor Bibles” to display in their homes as symbols of both their piety and their social standing.

Other nineteenth-century Americans wondered whether Bibles could or even should be read by everyone, as the ABS dreamed. The Bible was important to many delegates at the Continental Congress; however, they rejected a petition to sponsor Bible publishing during the American Revolution. In the 1840s, as public education developed in America, Roman Catholics objected to many Protestants’ assumption that King James Bibles should be read in schools, insisting that families should make decisions about their children’s Bible reading. More drastically, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass mocked philanthropic efforts to send Bibles to the enslaved, observing that it would take more than books to free African Americans. “Are the men engaged in this movement sane?” Douglass asked in 1847. “Do they seriously believe that the American Slave can receive the Bible?” (“Bibles for Slaves”).

In spite of these objections, Bibles remained an important element in early American life, having both practical value and symbolic meaning with respect to politics and culture as well as religion.

  • Seth Perry is Associate Professor of Religion in America at Princeton University. His first book, Bible Culture and Authority in the Early United States (Princeton University Press, 2018) explores the performative, rhetorical, and material aspects of Bible-based authority in early-national America.